Justin Coleman plugged in at nickel for Tennessee Vols

Justin Coleman plugged in at nickel for Tennessee Vols

March 21st, 2014 by Patrick Brown in Sports - College

UT's Justin Coleman plays in the Orange and White game at Neyland Stadium in this file photo.

Photo by Angela Lewis/Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE - It appears to be more than an experiment for Tennessee defensive back Justin Coleman.

The two-year starter at cornerback is playing nickel back for the Volunteers this spring, and at least for the forseeable future the rising senior will line up as Tennessee's fifth defensive back.

And the Vols' coaching staff prefers it that way.

"It's home for him right now, and then we're moving him around," defensive coordinator John Jancek said last week. "We're going to make sure that we can plug him in at a variety of spots. Obviously corner, he's completely comfortable with having played it for a full year for us, so the nickel spot is home right now, but we're going to continue to move him around."

Through just one week of spring practice, Coleman has stayed primarily at the nickel spot, where Tennessee struggled mightily last season when it rotated between former walk-on tailback JaRon Toney and freshman walk-on Devaun Swafford.

Coleman started four games at corner as a freshman, nine in 2012 as a sophomore and all 12 games last season, and he finished fifth on the team in tackles and second in pass breakups behind All-SEC freshman Cam Sutton.

Tennessee's staff flirted with the idea of moving Coleman to nickel last season as the Vols were being carved up over the middle of the field in the passing game, but early on they wanted Sutton and fellow freshman Malik Foreman to stick at corner, where there was not a lot of depth.

So the veteran is using this spring to adjust to a new position.

"It's a little bit more responsibility," he said following Tennessee's scrimmage last Friday. "You've really got to know the safety, you've got to know the linebackers and you've got to know what the corners are doing. You're getting the whole package: You're going to blitz; you're going to cover; you're going to do everything."

Of course, it was the other nickel -- freshman D'Andre Payne -- who had the sack on an edge blitz in the scrimmage.

"I'm not upset," Coleman said with a laugh. "I'm proud of D'Andre. D'Andre and me have been working hard the whole spring, and I'm really excited to see what he's going to do this year."

It's Tennessee's other freshman, though, who ultimately may determine if Coleman's move is permanent.

Emmanuel Moseley has gotten some first-team work opposite Sutton this spring, and the former three-star recruit, who performed well in a couple of high school all-star games in December and January after leading his Greensboro (N.C.) Dudley High School team to a state title as a quarterback, has made an early impression with his speed.

His acceleration and burst are evident in practice, but Moseley, who's added nearly 20 pounds since arriving on campus in January, still has some work to do in the weight room to fill out his No. 12 jersey. He was beaten deep for a touchdown by Marquez North in the scrimmage, but he appears to be slightly ahead of Foreman at this very early stage.

If either of those two players can show enough to hold down a starting spot, Coleman can settle fully into his new role.

"He's got improved size," Jancek said. "I like the way that he can run and cover number-two receivers. When he gets his hands on guys, he's able to move them out of the stem of the route and all that. Those things are really positive.

"He's going through a learning curve again right now, obviously, moving from corner, from an outside guy, to now a nickel and inside guy. He's got good knowledge. He's picking up on it pretty quickly."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com