KNOXVILLE — About to begin his 13th season as an assistant in the Southeastern Conference, Tennessee defensive backs coach Willie Martinez knows a thing or two about success and failure in the nation's toughest league this side of the NFL.
"In this great league," Martinez said Friday afternoon during the Vols' annual August media day, "you've got to have depth."
The Vols have had talent ever since Martinez joined UT head coach Butch Jones' first staff in December 2012. But that talent was both young and shallow. No more.
The Big Orange can count on no fewer than three seniors on its back line of defense — probable starters LaDarrell McNeil and Brian Randolph, plus reserve Max Arnold — gifted juniors Malik Foreman and Cam Sutton and a trio of potentially game-changing sophomores: Todd Kelly Jr., Justin Martin and Emmanuel Mosley.
And if eight's not enough, there are always a handful of freshmen waiting in the wings.
"Oh, the depth is definitely better," starting quarterback Josh Dobbs said of the secondary he must attempt to riddle each practice. "We had athletes back there last year, but there are more of them now. And they seem stronger and faster."
Added Martinez, "All those young guys who were here last year are a year older and feeling a lot more comfortable. We're still a work in progress back there, but last year we weren't able to substitute the way we needed to because of lack of depth. I don't know that I'd say we had guys who were gassed in the fourth quarter, but they were probably a little tired.
"Now we'll have more guys playing, and not just on defense, but on special teams. You can already see the difference. We've already had some really good practices."
To hear Martinez and UT defensive coordinator John Jancek tell it, the back line of the defense has never been more important than now.
Tennessee may have once built its defense around the line and guys such as Shaun Ellis, Albert Haynesworth, John Henderson, Jesse Mahelona, and, of course, the best one ever, Reggie White, but that was a long time ago. It's not that the secondary and linebackers weren't good back then, but they didn't have to be special, because you couldn't run on the Vols and you were almost always rushed attempting to pass.
"Ten, 15 years ago, it was a big man's game, a physical game," Jancek said. "Now it's a leaner game, a faster game. You're recruiting a different type of player."
This isn't to say there's no room for the really big guy on defense. Freshman lineman Kahlil McKenzie checks in at a robust 344 and is said to require two blockers to slow him down.
In fact, the best quote during Friday's player interviews may have been from McKenzie, whose father is UT great and Knoxville native Reggie McKenzie.
When told Dobbs was wondering what McKenzie's touchdown celebration might be if he returned a fumble 80 yards for a score, the rookie shot back: "My celebration is to get to the oxygen tank as soon as possible. Because me running 80 yards, I know I'm going to need it."
Yet what most programs seem to need more of is guys like freshman defensive end Kyle Phillips — the son of Tennessee State athletic director and former Girls Preparatory School great Teresa Lawrence-Phillips — who is said to carry blazing speed and quickness on his 6-foot-4, 255-pound frame and can swiftly get to the corners against today's no-huddle, spread attacks.
"Offense is such a perimeter game now," Jancek said. "Speed and depth are both at such a premium now."
Said Martinez: "In some ways, we've been prepared for it all along. Our style of play is fast. Everything we do is fast. Our communication has to be fast. And it has to be to succeed in the SEC."
But when Martinez speaks of the potential improvement in a secondary that last year stood fifth in the 14-team SEC in pass defense efficiency, he also points to a change in recruiting philosophy.
"We're recruiting some longer, leaner guys who can play the bigger receivers," he said.
One of those recruits figures to be Martin, a junior college transfer who is 6-1 with basketball hops. Randolph and Sutton also push 6-0, and both are physical. The others all go a legitimate 5-11.
"There's no question our depth is going to help us this year," Sutton said. "And we've got a lot of leaders out there. Everybody's bringing it every day."
Added Randolph, the savvy senior: "We definitely have one of the top secondaries in the league in terms of athletic ability. And there's no drop-off when we substitute. We've got a lot of smart young players, too. You don't have to tell them stuff twice."
And that should make it twice as hard to play against them, which just might make the secondary the primary reason Team 119 can reach the Georgia Dome on the first weekend of December as SEC East champ.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at email@example.com