KNOXVILLE -- University of Tennessee quarterbacks are learning to pick on Prentiss Waggner at their own peril.
Any safety who plays alongside All-American Eric Berry is likely to get tested, and Waggner has gotten plenty of opportunities to make plays in preseason camp.
The lanky redshirt freshman from Louisiana has converted much more often than not. He's been a dreadlocked dynamo early in camp, corralling loose footballs at an impressive rate.
"He's making too many plays out here," junior wide receiver Gerald Jones joked. "He needs to cool it."
A 6-foot-2, 177-pound converted cornerback, Waggner has occasionally caught more balls as a defender than his team's reserve wide receivers.
Waggner made an astonishing 16 interceptions in his junior season at Clinton (La.) High School. He added nine as a senior despite far fewer opportunities, thanks to his reputation as a pass-picker spreading like spilled hot sauce over the Baton Rouge area.
"I think it's my knowledge of the game -- my film study and things like that -- and my closing ability," said Waggner, whose accent oozes with Cajun twang. "I've always had great closing ability, but I also diagnose plays before they happen."
Spending several hours every day with Berry has only sharpened those skills, Waggner added.
"It's really fun to play with Eric," Waggner said. "He's a coach on the field. You can ask Eric what the D-tackles are doing or what the linebackers are doing or what the corners are doing. He knows the whole defense on every play. He knows what's wrong with this play or that play."
Berry's mere presence gets Waggner more attention, too.
"Most of the teams out here probably aren't going to throw Eric's way," he said. "They're probably going to try to pick on me a lot ... even if I get like 100 interceptions."
Waggner displayed his ability at times on the practice field shortly after arriving on campus last summer, but he redshirted once Berry and Demetrice Morley proved impossible to knock down the depth chart. Even Morley's second dismissal from the program couldn't completely alleviate the secondary logjam this yeara.
Sophomore Stephaun Raines, a former Dalton (Ga.) High star, split first-team duties with Waggner for much of spring practice, and two-year starting cornerback Dennis Rogan has worked more at safety this preseason. Prized freshmen Janzen Jackson and Darren Myles Jr. have further complicated a safety scenario that also includes walk-on senior Derrick Furlow and redshirt freshman Rod Wilks.
"A problem? That doesn't sound like a problem to me," secondary coach Willie Mack Garza said with a big smile.
Head coach Lane Kiffin said the secondary is "probably the deepest area of our team," so coaches can afford to be pickier in that area.
Vols defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin is fond of saying "nothing beats speed" on a football field, but Waggner still would do well to continue showing a desire to help in run support. UT could potentially start three linebackers who weigh 220 pounds or less, so even a hard-hitting safety such as Berry could use capable help to combat the ground game.
"We need consistency there, because we're going to do so many things with Eric," Lane Kiffin said.
One whiff on a tackle can be problematic in a one-gap defense like Monte Kiffin's, and Waggner admitted he's heard concerns about his ability to be physical.
"Ever since I first got here, there's been speculation," Waggner said. "I came in as a corner, but they moved me to safety when I first got here. I've learned that corner/safety mentality, where I can come up in run support like a safety and cover like a corner.
"I've shown that I'm capable of doing that. Every time I see a running back coming, I've tried to tackle him. I've made a pretty good name for myself as an open-field tackler."
No timetable for naming starters has been announced to players or reporters.
"The coaches have basically just still said every position is open, and we need to keep competing and keep the competition going in the secondary, because we have a lot of depth," Waggner said. "I don't know when they're going to name a starter, so all we're worrying about is just competing every day."
Berry wanted no part of publicly listing his preference. He raved about Jackson's and Myles' potential but admitted the veterans have been better with pre-snap calls and reads.
Waggner has looked like a nice blend of potential and immediate production, Berry added.
"He's a great athlete who's making all these plays, and he's a smart guy who sometimes sees stuff out there on the field that I don't see," Berry said. "That's a nice combo, I'd say."