KNOXVILLE -- Justin Coleman will have to forget what happened the last two times he started a football game for Tennessee.
After he was burned for long pass plays in this season's first two games, the freshman cornerback likely will return to the starting lineup when the Volunteers host Middle Tennessee State for homecoming Saturday night.
"I think this week will be a good indicator," coach Derek Dooley said. "He's going to play a little bit more this week. Last week we kind of moved him up, but Prentiss [Waggner] was still at corner. We're going to see how much he's progressed, but he's doing some good things at practice."
The season-ending injury to strong safety Brent Brewer has forced some more shuffling in the secondary. Freshman Brian Randolph moves from free safety to Brewer's spot, and Waggner goes from his natural position at corner to free safety. That left a starting corner spot open, and Coleman spent most of the week working with the first-team defense during the open portions of practice.
The 5-foot-10, 183-pound Brunswick, Ga., resident broke up a pass in the loss at Alabama, and he's remained on special teams during his absence in the secondary.
"I see him doing some good things on punt coverage as a gunner, and he's run down on kickoff a little bit better," Dooley said. "Then we saw him in the game a couple weeks ago, and let's hope he continues that track and plays a good game this week. We need him to."
The Vols are likely to spend most of Saturday night's game with five defensive backs on the field, and if Coleman does indeed start, it would mean that all but one of the players in the secondary came from the class UT signed in February. In addition to freshmen Randolph and Coleman, Izauea Lanier and Byron Moore, both junior college transfers, have starting spots at corner and nickel back, respectively.
Moore, who played at Southern Cal before electing to transfer, came in with the most expectations, but the 6-1, 205-pounder was also the slowest starter of the group. He's locked down the nickel position since the Alabama game after he had to shed more than 10 pounds.
"I think we've shown since we've been here that the best guys are going to play, and he's worked his way into the top five and the top five will play," defensive backs coach Terry Joseph said. "I think he's in better shape, he's showing more production, he has a better feel and you can see he's playing with a lot more confidence out there. That's just a tribute to the kid's makeup cause he's hung in there after being on the shelf for about five or six weeks.
"He's kept working, never complained one bit. You have a highly touted recruit who comes in and doesn't get the immediate success, a lot of times that's a problem, but for him, he's been great about it."
In addition to Lanier and Moore, junior college transfer Maurice Couch has come on strong the past three games. Couch has 13 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss in that stretch against three highly ranked teams. The 305-pounder had just half a tackle for loss in the season's first five games.
All three players a redshirt sophomores with two years of eligibility, which is different from most junior-college players that come in as juniors.
"There's a few that can do it right away but most of them, it takes at least a half of a season," Dooley said. "One of the reasons we were so excited about Mo and Izauea and Byron was they're here three years. After this, they've still got two more. That was one of the reasons we went after them so hard."
The Vols have one juco player, defensive tackle Damien Jacobs, committed for the 2012 class and three more targets: defensive end Denico Autry, Jacobs' teammate at East Mississippi Community College; defensive lineman Darrington Sentimore, a former Alabama player; and receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, the nation's top junior college recruit according to Rivals.com.
MTSU's Blue Raiders are 2-5 this season with three-point losses to Purdue, Troy and Western Kentucky. Middle's lone wins were against two-win Memphis and winless Florida Atlantic. The Blue Raiders run a high-paced spread offense, and the Vols worked heavily on dealing with it from a standpoint of substituting and receiving play calls during Thursday morning's practice.
"I know this, they're good enough to beat us -- every bit -- [especially] if we don't figure out a way to score some points," Dooley said. "All these guys, they want to come prove it and it's a great opportunity.
"Look, I think it's great for the state, I do. I'm for these games. What's the risk? Yeah, they can go out there and pluck you and it doesn't look good, but it's good for the state. It keeps a lot of money in the state. It's a great opportunity for those guys to come up and come take advantage of how we're playing. We better strap it on."
Former Vol Preston Bailey is MTSU's starting right guard, offensive line coach Jimmy Ray Stephens coached the offensive line at UT for four seasons and starting defensive end Jiajuan Fennell was a Mr. Football finalist out of South Pittsburg in 2009.