KNOXVILLE -- The University of Tennessee's secondary entered the season with an exciting mix of new and old players improving the talent and depth from last season.
That time now seems ages ago.
The dismissal of safety Janzen Jackson in August combined with the struggles this season caused by youth or simply poor play have forced the coaches to continually mix and match their personnel in the defensive backfield.
"When you've got so many new guys and young who just don't have a lot of snaps, you kind of thought it's going to go on a few games," defensive backs coach Terry Joseph said. "It probably went on a few more games than we would have liked, but this is the point we're at.
"The cards are in our hands, so we're going to play with them, and we'll go from there. But eventually, somebody will rep up to the front and he the leader, and we can go on from there."
The Volunteers likely will use their fifth different starting secondary Saturday night when they visit second-ranked Alabama. Prentiss Waggner, who's started every game at free safety this season, has worked this week at cornerback in Marsalis Teague's place with freshman Brian Randolph taking the free safety position. Izauea Lanier will start his fourth consecutive game at the other corner spot, and Teague will play as well.
Freshman Justin Coleman and senior Art Evans also have started games at cornerback, and head coach Derek Dooley has made it no secret the Vols need better play at the position, especially as they have focused on stopping the running games of Georgia, LSU and Alabama.
"We're going to keep trying," Dooley said. "We need better corner play in some third-down situations especially. Prentiss was there in the beginning; that's kind of what we wanted to do back in fall camp. We weren't able to do that when we lost a safety, but Brian Randolph has been playing better.
"We'll keep tinkering with it. We'll keep shuffling it around to find something that works."
Jackson's dismissal was more costly than UT simply losing its best defender. Waggner was forced to play somewhere besides his best position, though he's been productive and had a career-high 11 tackles in the loss to Georgia.
Strong safety Brent Brewer has been affected by Jackson's absence as well. The sturdy sophomore had 30 tackles in the last seven games of last season, but he's been relatively quiet with just 18 stops in six games this fall.
"The last game [against LSU], I thought he played well," Joseph said. "He had a tackle for loss, got excited about it. I thought his confidence -- you really saw him play a little bit faster, and that's what we've been wanting from him."
The Vols have liked Randolph's ability since they signed him in February, but they have been trying to bring along the 2010 Georgia high school Gatorade player of the year at a reasonable pace. The 6-foot, 190-pounder played most of the second half against LSU with Waggner at corner and made nine tackles.
"I think he's more of a physical-type safety, which, in the games we're about to play here in the next few weeks, is probably going to help us a ton," Joseph said. "I think you saw against LSU, the kid wants to stick his head in there no matter which size the backs are, so I think he's going to get in there this week, start and do a good job for us."
That's what the Vols are looking for regardless of which personnel they're playing, which might mean the lineup tinkering is far from done.
"As far as settling, we're going to play the best guys, so they've still got to compete and they've got to produce," Joseph said. "It's one thing to do it in practice, but eventually you've got to do it on Saturday afternoon or Saturday night."
Dropping the Ball
Quarterback Matt Simms completed just six passes against LSU, but his receivers didn't help him. Both Da'Rick Rogers and Zach Rogers dropped passes they should have caught. Da'Rick, in particular, struggled with visibly limiting his frustration against Georgia and LSU, but the sophomore has performed well in the open periods of practice this week. Receivers coach Charlie Baggett said the Vols keep track of catches and drops in the meeting room as motivation.
"That's a confidence deal," offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said. "They've got to believe in themselves, and they've got to believe that Matt's going to deliver the ball to them. We've worked on that all week. We've talked a lot about confidence with our kids and being able to go out there and make the play when you're called upon to make the play."
Temperatures dropped into the low 40s and the chilling winds whipped up in Knoxville on Thursday morning, but that didn't force the Vols to move their practice indoors. Dooley took his team to Neyland Stadium to prepare for a chilly night in Tuscaloosa, where Saturday night's forecasted low is 36 degrees. The Vols also blared Alabama's band music over the speakers and piped in crowd noise for the second consecutive day.