KNOXVILLE - Tennessee may be less than 10 days away from its football season opener, but the Volunteers continue to wait for things to shake out in their secondary.
One cornerback spot and one safety position remain unsettled after Tennessee returned to practice at Haslam Field on a scorching Thursday afternoon following a two-day break for the start of fall-semester classes.
Though those two spots are still up for grabs, secondary coach Willie Martinez is welcoming the competition that the Vols didn't have at defensive back heading into last season.
"I feel that Cam [Sutton] and Justin Coleman and Brian Randolph have solidified it," the former Georgia defensive coordinator said after practice. "Those three guys have been very consistent productivity wise, and more consistent. Safety is being battled between [Devaun] Swafford and Todd Kelly Jr. and LaDarrell McNeil. It's really good, healthy competition.
"Evan Berry had a really good day today. That was really good to see today, along with Cortez McDowell. You've got all those other corners that are competing, too, and it's really good. It's really good for us. We feel really good as far as the competition, having that -- we didn't have that last year. We have a lot of guys competing for reps at all the positions."
Freshman Emmanuel Moseley appeared entrenched as the starter at the corner opposite of Sutton, a Freshman All-SEC selection in 2013, until recently when Michael Williams began to take some first-team work away from him.
At safety, Swafford, a former walk-on awarded a scholarship this offseason following a surprisingly productive freshman season at nickelback, has managed to hold off a strong push from Kelly, one of the most prized recruits from Tennessee's touted 2014 recruiting class.
"We're never settled," defensive coordinator John Jancek said. "There's always going to be competition. Whoever gets hot, whoever starts making plays is the guy that's going to get the playing time. We're never really settled.
"We'll go in with an initial group to start the game, but after that we're going to be able to hopefully roll some guys in there and play whoever's performing well."
Freshmen Berry, Gaulden and McDowell were all in blue scout-team jerseys Thursday as the Vols began preparations for Utah State, but they could become bigger factors as the season progresses.
Martinez singled out Gaulden, who missed a big chunk of the first half of preseason camp this month with an ankle injury, for "making strides," and the physical, 6-foot-1, 173-pound cornerback from the Nashville area made some plays Thursday after standing out in Tennessee's open practice at Neyland Stadium last weekend.
For now, though, the two battles are worth monitoring.
Jancek said Williams and Moseley "go back and forth every day" for the corner spot. A redshirt sophomore walk-on track athlete from Maryland, the 5-11, 177-pound Williams was pushing for a role last season when a preseason shoulder injury knocked him off track. He ran the 400-meter race for Tennessee's track team this spring.
"Mike's a guy that comes to work every day, kind of a lunch-pail guy," Martinez said. "It's important to him, and he plays with high energy. He's very consistent when it comes to effort and doing it our way, the Tennessee way. He believes in that 'one' philosophy: just one rep at a time, and not get ahead of himself.
"He's been the most consistent out of all the corners except for Cam and Justin. That's where he's been the third guy right now, and that's why he's playing more."
Kelly's push to be an immediate starter is less of a surprise, though Swafford has performed well enough to keep the Knoxville resident from breaking into the first-team spot at safety. Head coach Butch Jones has been consistent in praising Kelly, the son of a former Tennessee defensive end and a former consensus four-star recruit.
"Cam did it last year," Martinez said. "It's important to him. He's a smart player, he's athletic, and he's very consistent in the classroom, and when he comes out to the field he pretty much knows what to do. Now he doesn't do it in the speed that we want him to, which is understandable, and he's working on that.
"He's still trying to process things and gaining that confidence of, 'I really do know this,' and then letting himself go. Again, today he made a couple of really good plays, and you could see his confidence building. The consistency part is nice to see from a freshman."
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