KNOXVILLE -- As the secondary's newest eldest statesmen, cornerback Art Evans was supposed to take charge of Tennessee's back four this spring.

Instead, the Volunteers' top cover man is watching a collection of freshmen and sophomores find their own way on the field.

A surgically repaired shoulder has kept the rising junior previously known mostly for being Eric Berry's best friend from replacing the leadership vacated by the early NFL entries of Berry and Dennis Rogan.

"I feel like I could go right now, but it's a process," Evans said. "Whenever my trainers say I can go, I'll be out there that second. Until then ... you just do what they're telling you to do to get yourself ready for that time."

Evans, a 6-foot, 185-pounder from Lakeland, Fla., earned the starting spot opposite Rogan last season and played pretty well, especially considering the circumstances. His shoulder could have been operated on well before the season ended, but he played in all but one game and finished seventh on the team with 39 tackles. He didn't intercept a pass but broke up three and forced a fumble.

His role has never been more important than it will be this season, though.

"As far as me personally, I feel like (Berry and Rogan leaving) changed my role," Evans said. "When I wasn't playing, I was looking up to the guys like Eric and Jonathan Hefney and Marsalous Johnson when they were starting. It's a lot different for me now.

"It's not just a role, though. I have to back it up, so they can see, 'OK, I see what he's talking about, and I would like to follow a guy a like that,' like I did with Eric and people like that."

Evans and others should get chances to display that leadership with big plays, if their assessments of first-year coordinator Justin Wilcox's defense are correct. Evans agreed with young safety Janzen Jackson's belief that Wilcox will let his defensive backs take more chances than predecessor Monte Kiffin, whose secondary scheme obviously centered around Berry.

"We actually get the chance to make a lot more plays at corner," Evans said. "That's going to be the biggest thing, and it's going to be fun, but I've just got to wait for my chance.

"It's very frustrating watching my defense go through this. You feel like you've accomplished something when you actually go through it, so I would love to be out there with them and competing. But I've just got to keep telling myself it will come."

First-year head coach Derek Dooley added Evans to the long list of players "we wish were out here this spring."

"But it doesn't always work out the way you'd like it to. That's life," Dooley added. "We'll just take this opportunity to work with what we've got, and we'll see what some of these younger guys can do."

The team's younger cornerbacks have had their moments -- Eric Gordon, the younger brother of former Mississippi State basketball star Jamont Gordon, has made some big plays -- but Dooley said they've "still got a long way to go."

"We have no experience there," the coach continued. "They go through a lot of the same things that the offensive guys do. You've got new coverages in, then you have to defend all the new patterns, so you're matching patterns so if you're not playing fast and quick you're going to get beat. But it's the same deal, just like we evaluate quarterbacks. What can the corner do? What techniques does he do well? What causes struggles with him? And then we shape the game for them.

"Eric has done a great job. He brings a lot of physical toughness. He has a lot of spunk about him, competitive spirit, which that's a start. So I've been pleased with his progress. He's got his things he needs to work on, but you like the competitive spirit. That's where it starts."

But it will probably finish with Evans back in the mix, assuming he gets back on the field and earns back his spot.

"It's easy to sit down and say you've learned the defense by watching, but it's different to go out there and actually go through it," Evans said. "I can't wait to actually go through it."

After practicing the past three days, the Vols will take today off.

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