'Lockdown' chain fuels Vols' secondary competition

Tennessee defensive back Malik Foreman (22) bobbles a pass during spring practice at Haslam Field on March 26, 2015, in Knoxville.

KNOXVILLE -- Malik Foreman strode onto the football field inside the Neyland-Thompson Sports Complex on Thursday proudly sporting a new fashion accessory as he went to complete his post-practice routine of stretching and recovery.

The rising sophomore cornerback wore around his neck a large metal chain with an orange and white lock featuring Tennessee's "Power T" logo.

Awarded to the "lockdown" defensive back for each practice in spring and during training camp, the creation of position coach Willie Martinez has become an important prize to the players in the Volunteers' secondary.

"We compete for it every day," corner Cam Sutton explained after Tennessee's scrimmage at Neyland Stadium on Saturday. "We talk about having an impact on the game, an impact on the program. What are you doing on the field to impact the game and help us win?

"From a defensive standpoint, it's swarm points, causing fumbles, forced fumbles, interceptions, tackles, tackles for loss. Whatever it is that's going to help us win, at the end of the day, we're trying to get that done."

With the Vols mixing a blend of experienced veterans and some talented underclassmen in Martinez's group, the competition for the chain has risen to a pretty high level. Foreman winning was a good sign for a player looking to take advantage of his first-team opportunity this spring while returning starter Emmanuel Moseley sits out with mono.

"That was the first time he's ever won that, which is really good, because it has to do with production," Martinez said.

Moseley's absence left Tennessee with three healthy scholarship corners -- Sutton, Foreman and rising sophomore Rashaan Gaulden -- and meant Foreman knew he faced a big chance to make an impression.

The 5-foot-10, 190-pound product of Kingsport's Dobyns-Bennett High School primarily was a special-teams player and defensive reserve during his first two seasons at Tennessee, but he realized his opportunity a few weeks ago and said he planned to "run with it."

So far, he appears to be running pretty well.

"I haven't really had a role on defense since I've been here, really," Foreman said Saturday, "and I feel like this year's my year to step up and help the defense and help this team win, and I feel like taking all that into account is helping me push myself each and every day."

Foreman is playing with more confidence, and his teammates have noticed it.

"He's showing it each and every day," Sutton said. "He's competing and going up for balls, making tackles, doing things right and being coachable. He's a high-energy, high-motor guy, and that's what we need from him."

While fairly thin at corner, the Vols appear to have four solid options at safety, with rising sophomores Todd Kelly and Evan Berry making plays this spring while veteran starters Brian Randolph and LaDarrell McNeil see their repetitions limited.

In praising Kelly for his performance Saturday, head coach Butch Jones credited Berry's recent surge as the impetus.

"We definitely have the competition going at safety, where I'm able to limit some reps for the starters in LaDarrell and Brian and give these other guys more reps," Martinez said last week. "And they've taken advantage of them.

"That's what we wanted to see. We've created a competition, a very healthy competition of competing. Guys want to play, and they've shown it. That's really good, because that only makes you better as a team.

"We don't have it quite as much at corner. Losing Emmanuel for a couple of weeks has done that, plus the numbers are down there. We've got the three guys that are coming in in the summertime. We don't have the luxury of holding guys back, and we don't have quite the competition that we would like to have."

Tennessee's secondary appears to be a pretty tight-knit group, and Sutton said the bond among those players, who often hang out with each other away from football, is a much more natural one that it was when he was a freshman.

The competition's level has increased, too.

"There's just a lot of talent in the back end. Another thing, too, is getting more knowledge and experience," Sutton said. "Guys are going into their second, third and fourth years in the back end.

"Then it's not hard for us to teach the young guys like (freshman safety) Stephen Griffin or the guys coming this summer, Justin Martin and those guys. It's not going to be hard for us to communicate and get those guys right on the same page.

"We're talking a lot on the field," he added, "and just that mindset that we know we have each others' backs, it just takes us a long way."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.