Competition fierce for UTC defensive backs

UTC defensive backs Kareem Orr (2) and Cameron Turner (16) look on while waiting their turns in preseason practice. Orr and Turner are transfers in the secondary, from Arizona State and Nevada, respectively.
photo UTC defensive backs C.J. Fritz, left, and Kareem Orr run a drill during the first day of fall practice at Scrappy Moore Field on Monday, July 24, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

After Saturday's practice at Scrappy Moore Field, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga defensive backs gathered around defensive coordinator Tom Kaufman and position coach Jonathan Cooley and started chanting, "Baaad Boys, Baaad Boys," reminiscent of the Detroit Pistons' song back in the late 1980s.

The coaching staff believes the UTC secondary could be that intimidating.

The fight for playing time in that group has been one the stories of the first week of preseason camp. The three returning starters - cornerbacks C.J. Fritz and Trevor Wright and three-time first-team all-conference safety Lucas Webb - have done well. And beyond them it's been a free-for-all trying to be impressive.

Kareem Orr, a former Freshman All-American at Arizona State, transferred to his hometown team and has had most of the first-team repetitions as the safety opposite Webb. Cameron Turner transferred from Nevada after playing in nine games as a freshman and is getting second-team reps at corner, while freshmen Brandon Dowdell and D.J. Jackson are getting on the field in their first preseason with the program.

Redshirt freshman Rashun Freeman is in the rotation as well and made an interception during Saturday's practice, as did Orr, Wright and Jackson. Junior Tavon Lawson and redshirt freshman Jerrell Lawson have made plays at the safety positions.

Kaufman called the ceiling for the group "limitless," and that's before junior safety Markell Boston, an Auburn transfer who just enrolled at UTC, has had a chance to get on the field. He's currently in the NCAA-mandated acclimation process and will start practice this week.

"There's a lot of talent in that room," Kaufman said after Saturday's practice. "We have to make sure we're doing a great job of evaluating, finding the right mix of guys. We have a lot of guys that, if they continue what they're doing, they're going to deserve playing time, but the potential is certainly there.

"It's very exciting."

Head coach Tom Arth and his staff wanted to create as much competition on the practice field as possible, giving cream an opportunity to rise to the top. Players are being pushed to maximize their talent, because if they don't they won't play, and at no position has that been more evident than in the back four.

"I love the competitiveness among that group," Arth said. "They're very confident; they love competing against the offense, they love competing against each other, and I think that you have a lot of different body types, a lot of different types of players in that group. That's what we're looking for when we're building the defense - some guys that have different types of skill sets but are versatile and can do a lot of things, so it's a unique group of players that we're looking for, and I think we're finding that in these guys."

The coaches have started personnel meetings, trying to figure out where to slot all the different, versatile pieces of the defense. With so many players playing well at this point, a lot could change before the season opener against Jacksonville State.

Wright said the competition level has been raised "for sure" this season in the secondary. With so many bodies at the cornerback and safety positions, it's quite obvious that some good players aren't going to play.

But after Saturday's practice, the defensive backs were on one end of the field celebrating with each other while the receivers group was doing extra conditioning.

"It goes back and forth," said Wright, the second-most experienced Moc with 32 career starts. "You want to put more good days in a row together.

"Once we do that, the sky's the limit."

Or as Kaufman said, there may be no limit.

Contact Gene Henley at Follow him on Twitter @genehenleytfp.