KNOXVILLE - For the past two seasons, Eric Gordon would come on the field when Tennessee decided it needed its nickel package with an extra defensive back.
That spot is now up for grabs.
And though JaRon Toney, a four-game starter in 2012 who registered a pair of double-digit tackle games, is the only player on the Volunteers' roster with experience playing the specialized nickelback position, the former walk-on hardly assumes it's his to lose.
"I feel a little comfortable, but like I said, it's always somebody right behind you trying to take your spot," Toney said after a preseason practice last week. "We've got new people in [who] are real talented. They're always ready to hit and they never shy down from contact. As a nickel you've got to be physical, and every day I'm watching my spot."
Tennessee's coaches are hoping to find a reliable option at that spot. The 5-foot-10, 184-pound Toney, a former tailback, is one of three players working there. Redshirt sophomore Geraldo Orta, who's played safety and special teams, and freshman walk-on Devaun Swaufford, the former teammate of freshman cornerback Malik Foreman at Kingsport's Dobyns-Bennett High School, are the other two.
Defensive coordinator John Jancek has given some one-on-one attention with that trio during individual periods in practice this preseason.
"The nickel's got to be a guy who's got a great blitzing ability, good man [coverage] skills, zone skills, but also, he's like the safeties where they've got to communicate really well," secondary coach Willie Martinez said. "He's got to have savvy to him. He's got to have the experience.
"He's closer to the ball, so it's very important. A lot of great receivers are playing the slot position, where they try to find mismatches with linebackers. That guy is a guy who's got to be very skillful and very athletic and very smart."
Gordon started seven games last season where the Vols began in their nickel package, and the schedule again includes a handful of teams that run spread offenses or use multiple-receiver formations.
Austin Peay, Oregon, South Alabama, Missouri and Auburn all fit that mold, and Kentucky is debuting the pass-happy "Air-Raid" offense under new coordinator Neal Brown, who orchestrated prolific offenses at Troy and Texas Tech. Florida and South Carolina will use some zone-read principles with dual-threat quarterbacks. Tennessee started games against Georgia, Alabama and Vanderbilt last season with five defensive backs on the field.
"You have to have sub packages and you have to have situational packages where you've got to adjust to what the offense is doing in regards to personnel," Jancek said. "In college football it's really unique. You could go from playing a team like Oregon, which is going to be really fast and up-tempo, to a team like Florida, which is very multiple with a lot of unbalanced sets, and then a team like Alabama where they're using two to three tight ends, and then you go to Georgia and they're using a fullback.
"It runs the gamut, and you've got to really be flexible."
In Brian Randolph, LaDarrell McNeil and Byron Moore, Tennessee has three solid options at safety, but none of that trio has the proper skill set to handle the position. Martinez said he'll have a better handle on his options at nickel when the clouded situation at corner becomes clearer. Jancek said the Vols have no plans to move either Foreman or Cam Sutton to nickel because the coaches "don't want to mess" with either of the promising freshmen corners.
Swaufford has shown some nice glimpses early in camp, but Tennessee needs whoever it plugs in at nickel to step up.
"JaRon needs to become more consistent," Jancek said. "He's got to make some plays. That's the bottom line: making some plays."
Toney scored 50 rushing touchdowns as a senior and won a state championship every year at Alcoa High School, so he has some playmaking in his background.
"I feel like I'm tough," he said. "I don't shy down from nobody, and I've just got a little fight in me. I've always been that way, I guess. [Being a walk-on] has a lot to do with it. I feel like once you've been a walk-on, you can't let that go. You get comfortable, and you're right back riding the pine."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.