Tennessee Athletics photo by Andrew Ferguson / Tennessee secondary coach Willie Martinez puts his defensive backs through a drill during a practice late last month in Knoxville.

Tennessee secondary coach Willie Martinez has the daily task in practice of getting his defensive backs geared to stop Josh Heupel's up-tempo offense in which footballs are flying freely.

When it comes to the number of defensive backs Martinez would like to possess to counter such an attack, no number seems high enough.

"I'll take 20 to 24," Martinez said Tuesday night on a Zoom call. "You need a lot of them. It's changed, because you've got to have guys who can cover. Whether we're facing this offense or other offenses, people will always be looking for mismatches, so you've got to be able to run and you've got to be athletic. You can't be a one-position guy. You can't just be a nickel. You can't just be a corner.

"You can't have a weakness. You can't be someone who covers well but can't tackle well, because you're going to be exposed, but you have to be able to play six defensive backs, and those are six guys who can cover and play man."

Tuesday marked Tennessee's sixth of 15 spring practices.

Martinez admits more defensive backs are needed compared to two decades ago, when he entered the Southeastern Conference for the first time as Georgia's secondary coach. He added that it would be ideal being three deep at five defensive back positions.

"We need more than we used to," Martinez said, "and you want guys who can play multiple positions."

Seniors Alontae Taylor and Theo Jackson were singled out by Martinez for their strong play for the Volunteers, and he has been pleased with his group overall.

"I think our guys on the back end have been very locked in," Martinez said. "It's not a big group, and we don't have the numbers there, but I've been impressed with how they've adjusted to our staff. They haven't pushed back. They're all in, and it's important to them. Their enthusiasm and their attention to detail has been spot on.

"There has been some frustration, however, the last couple of practices when the tempo goes really fast."


Power back trio

Tennessee running backs coach Jerry Mack said Tuesday night that sophomore Jabari Small (5-foot-11, 206 pounds), redshirt freshman Dee Beckwith (6-5, 227) and redshirt freshman Tee Hodge (6-1, 218) have emerged as the top options should the Vols face a third-and-short and fourth-and-short situations. Hodge never carried the ball last season, appearing in just the Kentucky game in a special teams role.

"Consistency is going to be the key for Tee," Mack said, "but I can tell that he works his butt off, and he's got the body type to be a power back for us in this offense."

Mack was asked if Len'Neth Whitehead, a four-star inside linebacker signee in the 2020 class, was getting a look on defense but said that the 6-2, 225-pounder from Athens (Georgia) Academy is locked in at running back.


Graham replaced

Alabama coach Nick Saban this week confirmed the hiring of Drew Svoboda as tight ends coach and special teams coordinator. Svoboda replaces Jay Graham, the former Tennessee running back and running backs coach, who left his role in Tuscaloosa in less than two months and cited mental stress as the reason for his resignation.

"Drew is a bright young football coach who has been successful at every stop of his coaching career," Saban said in a release. "He does an excellent job in terms of teaching the players, and he is someone we believe will be a tremendous asset on the recruiting trail."

Svoboda served as special teams coordinator the past three seasons at Rice and was hired earlier this year for the same role at Memphis, a position he occupied for three months.


Not decompressing

Georgia quarterback JT Daniels was asked Tuesday night on a Zoom call how he decompressed following the whirlwind of a year that was 2020. Daniels arrived in Athens late last spring after transferring from Southern California.

"I've still been here since I moved. I have not been back home," Daniels said. "I have really transitioned to living in Georgia. I've been hanging out with my dogs a lot."


Dawgs sign Smith

Georgia has put the NCAA transfer portal to good use, signing former West Virginia defensive back Tykee Smith. The Associated Press third-team All-American last season played two years with the Mountaineers and racked up 114 tackles and four interceptions.

Contact David Paschall at or 423-757-6524.