KNOXVILLE -- Brent Brewer's return to safety is for his own safety, though the rising junior still sees it as an opportunity to prove he can play at two levels of Tennessee's new 3-4 defense.
Coming off an anterior cruciate ligament injury suffered in UT's loss to South Carolina late last October, Brewer is now working with the safeties after beginning spring practice as an outside linebacker.
"I was doing good at linebacker," Brewer said after Monday morning's practice, the Volunteers' fifth of the spring. "They just felt we had more depth at linebacker than safety.
"I can do more. I don't have to go against the offensive linemen and get tangled up with them. I can do a lot more just running around in open space."
The 6-foot-1, 220-pounder began his sophomore season as UT's strong safety, though the former minor-league baseball player struggled to produce. Brewer made 30 tackles in the last seven games of his freshman year, but he had just 23 in eight games before his injury last season. He's better playing near the line of scrimmage than in coverage, which prompted his move to strongside (Sam) linebacker.
His knee, though, has kicked him back to safety for the time being.
"It's hard to really work him in a lot of contact at Sam," UT coach Derek Dooley said. "There's no sense in sitting there for 15 practices and he can't do much at Sam 'backer, so we put him back at safety. I said when we started him at Sam, it didn't mean he was going to be there permanently.
"This allows him to get a lot of reps and pattern-match. He's still going to probably play 'Money,' which is kind of a sub linebacker when they go nickel. It just allows us to work him a little bit more, that's all."
Brewer said he thought his flexibility could help him and the overall defense. He admitted he's still regaining his conditioning following his injury, though he believes he's ahead of schedule coming off the injury. Learning two positions in a complex defense might be the bigger challenge.
"It's difficult," he said. "I'm in my playbook all day every day. I've got to learn both, and there's a lot of checks and stuff."
Dooley halted practice in the first half hour Monday and gathered the team on the large "T" logo on the 50-yard line of the indoor practice facility in the Neyland-Thompson Sports Center. He proceeded to rip into the players about the team's overall attitude and effort. He talked to them after practice about standards.
"Every day it's going to get challenged to see if you are really committed to it, and you have to exercise a level of grit, an ability to persist in the face of difficulty," Dooley said. "You also need some leadership around you to affect others in a positive way. We've got to keep working on those things.
"We're still getting affected when we're nicked, when it's hot, 'I'm tired' and we start seeing a little bit of dragging. That's just something we've got to keep harping on over and over and over and over. Once we get that standard and we don't compromise it, we're going to be OK."
Dooley called it the "Monday morning blues," or the usual weekend hangover, as the root of the sluggishness.
"You can't have Monday and you wait till Tuesday to get going," he said. "You've got to go now. We had to remind them of that a little bit."
Midterm enrollee Nathan Peterman continues to draw rave reviews. The 6-2, 220-pound quarterback from Jacksonville brought the mix of arm strength, accuracy and mobility that made him attractive as a recruit to UT. Also a cerebral player, Peterman is battling for backup quarterback spot with Justin Worley, who started three games last season when Tyler Bray was hurt.
"He's got a lot of promise," Dooley said. "We have three really good players at that position, which is rare for any program, and they're young. I'm excited about what we've got there.
"I think all three of them are good for each other because they're all capable. Nathan just doesn't have any experience. I think Justin, him having played last year, it's going to help."
UT announced Monday that admission to the Orange & White Game on April 21 will be free this season. The game, which will conclude the Vols' spring practice, is scheduled to start at 2:30 p.m. The one-hour autograph session with Dooley, assistant coaches and Vol players will be held at the stadium at 12:15 p.m.
"A significant part of what makes Tennessee such a special place is the outstanding support of our passionate and loyal fans," UT athletic director Dave Hart said in the university's release. "We wanted to express our appreciation to our fan base in a tangible and visible manner."
Two teams of UT lettermen will play a flag football game during halftime of the game.
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrowntfp.