Tennessee Vols' young secondary aiming for 'complete game'

Tennessee Vols' young secondary aiming for 'complete game'

September 28th, 2013 by Patrick Brown in Sports - College

Devaun Swafford, left, is one of two freshmen playing in Tennessee's secondary when it includes five players.

Photo by C. B. Schmelter/Times Free Press.

SOUTH ALABAMA (2-1) AT TENNESSEE (2-2)

12:21 p.m. * Neyland Stadium, Knoxville, Tenn. * WDSI/106.5 FM

The matchup

A week after facing a Heisman Trophy candidate in Oregon's Marcus Mariota, Tennessee was thrown a quarterback curveball last week when Tyler Murphy replaced the injured Jeff Driskel for Florida.

The Vols face a screwball pitcher this week in South Alabama, which employs a two quarterbacks in Ross Matheny and Brandon Bridge.

Matheny is the starter, Bridge is the 6-foot-5, 220-pound changeup and both can run. Matheny threw for 290 yards, ran for 75 and accounted for four touchdowns when the Jaguars won at Tulane. Bridge is averaging nearly 7 yards per carry and 34 rushing yards per game.

The duo combined to go 16-of-26 passing for 270 yards and ran for 64 yards when South Alabama beat Western Kentucky 31-24 in its last game two weeks ago.

"I remember my friend told me [about that score], and I was just thinking to myself that we're going to have another tough game," Tennessee safety Brian Randolph said. "We've just got to come ready to play."

One to watch

At this point for Tennessee, the who is less important than the what.

The Vols' search for big plays is ongoing, and whether it comes from a tailback, wide receiver or tight end, such long gains by anyone in orange would be a welcome sight . Tennessee has 12 plays of 20 or more yards through four games, meaning the Vols are on pace for 36 this season. They had 66 in 2012.

"It's hard being an offense without any momentum, period," right guard Zach Fulton said. "We have to get some momentum going. We know we're going to need explosive plays to get that momentum going and get everybody riled up and get the offense moving along."

In the end

Which one of Riley Ferguson or Josh Dobbs will make their debut today? Will the Vols even have the chance to play one of their freshman quarterbacks? What will the crowd look like for an early kick against a program in its first season as a full-fledged FBS member that lost its opener to Southern Utah?

Tennessee should take care of business while it tries to take advantage of one final chance to fine-tune a handful of things ahead of Georgia's visit next Saturday.

Prediction: Tennessee 37, South Alabama 21

KNOXVILLE - Willie Martinez is hoping for some good and expecting some bad.

Such is life for a position coach whose unit starts two true freshmen and a sophomore.

When Tennessee spends most of today's game against South Alabama's spread offense with five defensive backs on the field, the Volunteers will be relying on two players, cornerback Cam Sutton and nickelback Devaun Swafford, who were playing in high school this time a year ago.

Asked if he's ever coached a unit so young, Martinez, whose coaching career began when he was a graduate assistant at Miami in 1985, replied "probably not."

The mix of made plays and mistakes, though, has been about what he expected.

"The inexperience shows up at times, and they've made some plays, too," Martinez said. "We're just trying to get them to be more consistent, whether you're talking eye discipline or whether you're talking about not missed tackles. We've just got to do a better job as a group, not just talking about one guy.

"When there's five guys out there, five guys have to play well on defense. It's not like any other position. One guy messes up back there, it's really everybody suffers. We've just got to do a better job of playing together and having a complete game, because I think at times on Saturday [at Florida last week] we weren't that far away."

Through four games this season, Tennessee is allowing 248 passing yards per game, which is good for only 82nd nationally and 10th in the SEC. Yet it's a rather marked improvement from last season, when Tennessee allowed 282.5 yards per game and finished 114th out of 124 FBS teams against the pass, particularly considering Oregon's Marcus Mariota torched Tennessee for a career-high 456 yards passing two weeks ago.

A group that's neither the fastest nor the best in coverage still has to face Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray, the dual-threat Connor Shaw of South Carolina, Alabama's AJ McCarron and a Missouri passing attack that's third in the SEC will need to continue improving.

"They're learning under fire," first-year Vols coach Butch Jones said. "We don't have anyone else, so they have to go. I think Willie Martinez has done a great job of really trying to force-feed them in the fundamentals and the small details that it takes to play defensive back at a high level.

"I think what you see is a group that's continuing to get better. They'll be challenged each and every week, and some individuals are progressing at a more rapid pace than some of the other ones, but as a group I think they're continuing to get better."

Sutton, Swafford and cornerback Justin Coleman, the junior who's a grizzled veteran compared to everyone else Tennessee has at the position, all have interception-return touchdowns this season. The three scores from the Vols' secondary is just one less than the four touchdown catches by their receiving corps.

Tennessee's new coaching staff basically stumbled across Swafford while watching video of Malik Foreman, his Kingsport Dobyns-Bennett High School teammate who was committed to Vanderbilt at the time.

Once considered a candidate to grayshirt -- meaning he wouldn't have joined the Vols until January -- Swafford is now Tennessee's starting nickelback as a walk-on.

Though some players in such positions have extra motivation for being overlooked and under-recruited, Martinez said that's Swafford's typical demeanor.

"He's a very high-energy kind of individual himself," he added, "so I think that's the way his makeup is, regardless if you're a scholarship player or not a scholarship player. He's a high-energy kid, he's always smiling, he's always moving -- I think that's a strength of his that he has."

The future appears bright for the 6-foot-1, 180-pound Sutton, who broke up a pass, made a nice third-down tackle and recovered a fumble against Florida

"He's got a ways to go," Martinez said. "The great thing about Cam is he understands that. He gets that. He knows that he's a work in progress, so to speak, but he has improved each and every week, and there are things that Cam does in games that don't get talked about.

"Early on in the ballgame on Saturday, he made a couple of plays from the knowledge of our scheme that actually helped us succeed on those plays, but doesn't get talked about because it wasn't a tackle, it wasn't a pass breakup."

Despite some of the positives, Martinez knows his secondary will continue to have growing pains.

"We've got to coach better," he said, "we've got to practice better and we've got to make plays when those opportunities present themselves.

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.