KNOXVILLE -- Four freshmen have started for Tennessee's defense through three games, and there have been ups and downs for the first-year players.
Curt Maggitt has been a mainstay at outside linebacker. A.J. Johnson and Brian Randolph bounce in and out of the lineup at outside linebacker and free safety, respectively, depending on if the Volunteers are in their base defense or their nickel package.
Justin Coleman started the first two games at cornerback, but he lost that job after allowing a couple of big plays against Montana and Cincinnati and played sparingly against Florida.
"The decision not to play him against Florida was just a decision to calm him down a little bit," defensive backs coach Terry Joseph said, "because I thought that he was a little shook and his confidence was a little shaky. As a coaching staff, we feel good about him. He's learned, and the tough thing for him is because of our situation -- the guys we've lost -- he had to have on-the-job training. Cornerback's probably not a position you want to do that with, and I think he's responded well."
Randolph quietly performed well in preseason training camp, and Janzen Jackson's dismissal and the Vols' preference to use starting free safety Prentiss Waggner at nickel back have helped Georgia's 2010 Gatorade Player of the Year see the field quickly.
"We're just trying to be careful not to overload him with too much stuff right now," Joseph said. "He knows the nickel safety, and piece by piece he's getting better with the base package. But the thing that he really brings to you is that he's a sure tackler. That's the exciting thing about him, so hopefully, as the season goes on, he gets more and more comfortable and we can throw more at him."
Johnson had a breakout game against Florida with a team-high seven tackles. He also forced a turnover by ripping the ball away from Gators tailback Jeff Demps.
"We've put a lot on him. We've pushed him and haven't treated him like a freshman," defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said. "Whether that's fair or not, that's the way it is. A.J. is a big, physical guy, he loves to play and it hasn't been too big for him. He's made mistakes. Things get going fast and he sees something for the first time and it wasn't quite right, but he plays hard, he plays physical and that's what we need."
'Working ... grinding'
Tight ends coach Eric Russell used the words "working and grinding" to describe what freshmen Brendan Downs and Cameron Clear are doing, though the learning curve of UT's complex tight end position and the adjustment to new schemes every week has been difficult for both.
"Like I've told them, you want to play more, give me the confidence Monday through Thursday that you deserve some more on Saturday," Russell said. "I've got to know when Brendan or Cam come in that we're going to be all right and not going to be the disasters. I know there's sometimes there's going to be physical mismatches and something they hadn't seen yet, but what they've got to do is continue to clean up fundamentally the tools of their position.
"That's where they struggle with right now -- is just the fundamentals and giving themselves the chance to be successful."
Downs caught two passes against Cincinnati, and his presence for UT's spring practice gives him a bit of an advantage on the 6-foot-6, 265-pound Clear. Russell said both got more snaps than normal during the Vols' off week and could get more playing time Saturday.
Head coach Derek Dooley said after Wednesday's practice that tailbacks Tauren Poole, Marlin Lane and Tom Smith have had good weeks as UT looks to improve its 112th-ranked run game. ... The Vols got their 17th commitment for their 2012 class Thursday when Trent Taylor, a 6-3, 245-pound defensive end from Lake Gibson High School in Lakeland, Fla., switched his pledge from Miami. ... Linebacker Raiques Crump, who's second on the team with four special-teams tackles, was boxing on the side during Thursday morning's practice, and his status for Saturday is uncertain.