KNOXVILLE - Byron Moore quickly noticed there was something different about Cam Sutton.
So when the freshman cornerback assumed a spot with the first-team defense within the first week of Tennessee's preseason practice, it hardly surprised the senior safety.
It's what Moore came to expect from Sutton, who's slated to start the Volunteers' season opener against Austin Peay a week from tonight.
"[It's] just his work ethic," Moore said earlier this month. "He comes in every day willing to learn, willing to put in work, and he's got a real mature sense about himself. I knew early on in the summer, I kind of had a feeling about him, the way he was approaching the summer workouts.
"I could see it was going to be good things coming from him, and now he's pretty much living up to them thoughts that I had about him back in the summer."
Given the situation at corner, the Vols were going to be forced to play a newcomer -- most likely junior college transfer Riyahd Jones or freshmen Sutton or Malik Foreman -- right from the start. Jones seemingly had a starting spot locked down during spring practice, but Sutton passed him even before he was sidelined with a long-term calf injury.
In Tennessee's 2013 signing class, Sutton flew under the radar. A three-star prospect who excelled in football, basketball and baseball for Jonesboro High School south of Atlanta, the 6-foot-1, 180-pounder committed to Tennessee's previous coaching staff last August. He had scholarship offers from seven SEC programs, including Auburn, Florida and South Carolina, in addition to Clemson, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech.
Sutton impressed the Vols' new coaching staff almost immediately, particularly with his poise and how consistently he stays calm at a position that can be frustrating.
"He's smart, he's athletic, he picked up our defense really fast and the guys like him," said secondary coach Willie Martinez, who estimated he's started a freshman corner in an opener "about three or four times" in his 26-year coaching career.
"Even through the storm when things don't go right, he keeps on plugging away. He's a lot more mature than a normal freshman."
And Sutton will need that maturity as a freshman corner. It's a tough spot to play, especially if one is seemingly alone on an island for the entire game against the likes of, say, Alabama's Amari Cooper or Vanderbilt's Jordan Matthews. A corner may do his job perfectly nearly all of the time, but he'll be noticed mainly when he gets beat on a play.
Tennessee last started a freshman at corner to start a season just two years ago when Justin Coleman, now the only experienced corner on the roster, started the first two games of the season against Montana and Cincinnati. Like Sutton a three-star recruit from Georgia, he struggled enough in those two games that the Vols moved him out of the lineup heading into the season's third game.
Last season, Daniel Gray got his first start against Troy and struggled mightily.
"They're going to be challenged -- we all know that -- right off the get-go," Martinez said.
"If you're a player, you'll thrive in the moment."
Head coach Butch Jones and his staff continually refer to what they call a "snap-and-clear mentality," and it's a necessity for a corner, particularly for a freshman.
"A play might not go your way, or even if a play does go your way, just clear your mind and get ready for the next play because you've got to do it again for 60 minutes," Moore said.
"I feel like even when he does mess up in practice, he just keeps going and keeps sawing at the wood. I feel like you've definitely got to have that type of mentality at corner. It's going to happen: You're going to get beat at that position. I feel like he's mature enough to let it go and get back to the next play and correct it later on."
Defensive coordinator John Jancek has been realistic about the Vols' cornerback situation throughout the preseason. Early in training camp, he said the reality for Tennessee was that either Sutton or Foreman would play and play plenty. As Sutton has nailed down his spot, Jancek said he expects the rooke to take his lumps.
There's a reason, though, why Jancek and other coaches were encouraged by Sutton's ability at an early stage.
"I have full confidence in Cam," safety Brian Randolph said. "He's very competitive. He's a baller and he does well under pressure, so I don't even worry about him."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.