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Tennessee's Rashaan Gaulden (7) reacts to almost intercepting a Vanderbilt pass. The Tennessee Volunteers visited the Vanderbilt Commodores in a cross-state rivalry at Dudley Stadium on November 26, 2016.

KNOXVILLE — Even more than three weeks later, the play still bothers Rashaan Gaulden.

Its presence on the instructional video Tennessee's coaching staff created for the defensive back certainly didn't help.

The redshirt sophomore was one of the more consistent performers in a secondary experiencing its troubles throughout the 2016 season, but there is one play Gaulden wishes he could have back.

In the first quarter at Vanderbilt in the regular-season finale, the Volunteers had taken a 7-0 lead following a fourth-down defensive stop when defensive end Derek Barnett deflected Vanderbilt quarterback Kyle Shurmur's pass right to Gaulden with nothing but artificial green turf between him and the end zone.

He took his eye off the football for a split-second and dropped it, and a few plays later the Commodores scored to tie a game they eventually won 45-34.

"That's really a tough break," Gaulden recalled earlier this week, "but as a defensive back you have to have confidence and you have to bounce back whether it's good or bad plays, and I feel like I responded well after that dropped pick. But, I mean, when six is not on the board, it kind of stings.

"I'm just going to try to make that up when we go to Nashville."

Gaulden would love nothing more than to atone for his mistake in his hometown when Tennessee faces Nebraska in the Music City Bowl next Friday.

After sitting out last season due to a preseason foot injury, Gaulden exited spring practice as a starting safety, but he switched to the nickel cornerback position, where he often was used as an edge blitzer due to his speed and the linebacker-like physical dimension he provides.

He finished third on the team with 63 tackles this season while adding six tackles for loss and two pass break-ups.

"I had an OK season," Gaulden said. "I definitely wanted to make more impact plays for the team, but that's just things I can improve on in the offseason and that's things I've improving on in the bowl prep. At the end of the day, I'm just trying to make plays to benefit the guys around me, so I feel like I need to do better at that."

Gaulden said he's used bowl prep this month to fine-tune some of his coverage techniques and blitz mechanics after reviewing a video including good plays and bad put together by the coaching staff after the regular season.

"At the end of the season, (the coaches) had individual clips of each player in the defensive backfield," he explained. "This whole bowl prep and this last week we've been trying to redefine our tools and different techniques that we need to get better at and focusing on those things we saw were a deficiency.

"It's really helped us come out and be focused, and it helped the team in general."

Four of Tennessee's top five tacklers this season were defensive backs, which typically isn't a good sign.

Confidence was an issue for the defense during its collapse at the end of the season, but the time off between the loss to Vanderbilt and the bowl game provided the time necessary for the Vols to heal a little bit, particularly in the secondary.

"I think we have a very high level of confidence, and confidence a lot of times is borne on your preparation," Vols coach Butch Jones said. "How do you prepare? It gets back to that adage of are you ready or are you prepared. Everybody thinks they're ready, but are you prepared?

"I'll give you an example. Probably one of the best days of practice time I've had in a while, I just went back and tried to get in the life of a safety during practice and tried to coach them up from down-and-distance to stance to seeing the big picture to understanding the splits of wideouts and eyes of your opponent and all that and bringing energy.

"I think a lot of times confidence is borne in your preparation of knowing you're prepared and you're not just ready to play, and our kids have shown a lot of confidence."

Gaulden sounds like a player expecting a bounce-back game, both personally and collectively, against Nebraska.

"As a back end, our confidence really never wavers," he said. "As a defensive back, I feel like you have to be the most confident on the field, because you're going to have situations where there are going to be those completions. It's how you battle back from those completions or those pass interference calls.

"That's what defines a defensive back, just having that confidence when things are not going your way and making a break when things do come your way. I feel like our confidence is the same as it was at the beginning of the season. We're all very confident individuals and we all want to win."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.

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