Malik Foreman 'more comfortable' and making plays for Vols

Tennessee defensive back Malik Foreman (13) forces a fumble by South Carolina tight end Jerell Adams (89) to clinch Tennessee's 27-24 win at an NCAA college football game in Knoxville, Tenn. on Saturday, Nov. 7, 2015. (Adam Lau/Knoxville News Sentinel via AP)

KNOXVILLE - It was only a couple of weeks ago that Malik Foreman's starting job with Tennessee's defense appeared to be in jeopardy.

After he was pulled in favor of freshman Micah Abernathy in the second half of the win at Kentucky, Foreman's coaches spoke openly about the competition the following week at the nickel cornerback position.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Foreman since has played two of the best games of his junior season, and he'll try to make it three when Tennessee plays at Missouri on Saturday night.

"For Malik, when we first moved him, he was practicing outside," defensive coordinator John Jancek said this week. "He wasn't practicing at any of the nickel positions, so I think there was a little bit of a transition there for him. I think he's made a couple of plays, and now he's becoming more comfortable and playing with a lot of confidence right now."

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One memorable play was at the end of the South Carolina game, when Foreman punched the football out of Jerell Adams's hands and the Vols recovered with 32 seconds left in the 27-24 win. Otherwise the Gamecocks would have been throwing into the end zone for the win.

That clutch play rounded off a solid performance against Pharoh Cooper in that game. South Carolina's star receiver torched Tennessee last season and lined up nearly exclusively in the slot, but he had just four catches for 47 yards this time. His touchdown came against Emmanuel Moseley.

Foreman broke up a third-down pass intended for Cooper on South Carolina's penultimate series.

"He was very excited. We were very excited for him," cornerback Cameron Sutton said last week. "Malik's a playmaker as well, so we expect those things. We practice those things throughout the course of the week of practice, and we have moments in the game where it's time for you to make those plays.

"He was able to do that, which was very key for us and obviously one of the reasons why we won that game."

Foreman followed that game with another productive performance against North Texas when he made four tackles, including his third tackle for loss in the last two games, and broke up two passes, which give him a team-high nine in 2015.

"He's looked really good," linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin said. "I actually just got done watching some of the North Texas game, and he was just showing up like a flash on a couple of big-time plays. Just seeing his development through the year, he had some struggles at the beginning, but he's been playing really big these last couple of weeks.

"He's going to keep going up. He's not going to go backwards. I look forward to him making some more plays for us."

Three plays into the season, when Bowling Green completed a 45-yard pass against him, those struggles began for Foreman, one of Tennessee's fastest players who played primarily special teams his first two seasons. He was on the wrong end of an iffy pass-interference penalty in the end zone on the drive that ended in Oklahoma's tying touchdown in the final minute of that game, which Tennessee eventually lost in overtime.

If Foreman had taken three steps to his right on that fourth-and-14 at Florida, Antonio Callaway's game-winning 63-yard catch-and-run touchdown probably would not have happened.

Against Georgia, Foreman dropped an interception that hit him in the hands, and the Bulldogs scored on that drive.

The 5-foot-10, 178-pounder out of Kingsport's Dobyns-Bennett High School never played the nickel spot prior to Rashaan Gaulden going down for the season with a foot injury in August, so there's likely some truth to it taking him some time to get comfortable there.

"There's a lot (that's different)," Jancek said. "The route combinations you're going to get, the splits, how you're going to leverage the splits of wideouts (and) where your help is. It's really a different position.

"You can get put in some tough situations based off your leverage and based off the coverage versus certain route combinations. It's a position that's very valuable to a defense."

And now Foreman is making more valuable contributions for the Vols.

"He's making plays," Jancek said. "He's in position. He's getting guys on the ground on the perimeter. He's making some open-field tackles. Obviously punching the ball out in the South Carolina game was a huge play for him.

"He's around the ball, but now he's making plays that he should be making and that we expect him to make."

Contact Patrick Brown at [email protected]