Secondary answers call

With three starters gone, Vols rushing to fill void on defense

  • Position Coach: Larry Slade
  • Starters: CB: Antonio Gaines (Sr.); CB: Marsalous Johnson (So.); FS: Jonathan Hefney (Sr.); SS: Jarod Parrish (Sr.)
  • Keep an eye on: Eric Berry (Fr.)
  • Key Stat: The Vols had 16 interceptions last season but must replace seven of those belonging to Antwan Stewart and Jonathan Wade.
UT's Antonio Gaines knocks the ball loose from Vanderbilt's Earl Bennett in Nashville. The Vols beat the Commodores 39-10.

Photo by Amy Smotherman Burgess

UT's Antonio Gaines knocks the ball loose from Vanderbilt's Earl Bennett in Nashville. The Vols beat the Commodores 39-10.

Tennessee safety Johnathan Hefney (33) takes down Georgia's Kregg Lumpkin (6) during first half action in Athens, GA.

Photo by Michael Patrick

Tennessee safety Johnathan Hefney (33) takes down Georgia's Kregg Lumpkin (6) during first half action in Athens, GA.

A preseason All-American, a couple of Smurfs and a talented, yet inexperienced veteran.

Almost sounds likes the start of a bad joke, doesn’t it?

Maybe back in February, but heading into fall practice it’s certainly not.

Tennessee’s secondary, one of the biggest concerns entering spring practice, is shaping up to be a solid unit by the fall.

“In the secondary, when you lose three starters, you obviously have concerns,” UT coach Phillip Fulmer said. “Going into spring practice, it was a huge concern. Coming out of spring practice, it was less of a concern.”

Senior safety Jonathan Hefney isn’t causing his coaches to lose sleep at night.

The Vols’ second-leading tackler in 2006 returns having already been named a preseason first-team All-SEC selection by league coaches and named to several preseason All-American teams.

But Hefney is only part of the reason UT’s coaches are feeling better about the secondary, despite the loss of corners Antwan Stewart and Jonathan Wade.

When Demetrice Morley (academics) left school following his sophomore season in January, the Vols lost another safety who should have been a two-year starter.

Enter senior Jarod Parish, who made play after play in spring practice.

Then there’s the Smurf Patrol, as Fulmer dubbed the pair of 5-foot-9 cornerbacks Marsalous Johnson and Antonio Gaines.

“I couldn’t ask any more than what Antonio Gaines and Marsalous Johnson did during the course of spring practice,” Fulmer said.

In the same breath, Fulmer notes that those two will be pushed by a pair of incoming players.

It’s hard to imagine Eric Berry, the nation’s top-ranked cornerback coming out of high school, won’t find some time on the field.

The son of former UT receiver James Berry, Eric Berry has been impressive in off-field works and is physically mature at 5-foot-11, 195 pounds.

Then there’s DeAngelo Willingham, a junior college transfer from South Carolina, who is expected to challenge at the other cornerback position.

Nevin McKenzie, another junior college transfer, could push Parrish for the starting safety job, too.

But Parrish is looking tougher to beat out for the starting job than he did when McKenzie signed in February.

In the Orange and White Game, Parrish picked off a pass just a week after recording three interceptions in UT’s final scrimmage of the spring.

“Jarod Parrish is a guy that showed that kind of ability in spring practice,” Fulmer said. “Every time we turned around, he was in the right place making a play. It’s a credit to (defensive backs) Coach (Larry) Slade and also a credit to that young man.

“Now he’s got a chance to solidify that position.”

Says Parrish: “I’m going to play as hard as I can. If somebody beats me out, they’re going to be really good.

“I feel like somebody’s got to be an All-American to beat me out.”

Coming off knee surgery in 2005, Parrish made just two tackles in 10 games last season.

Perhaps the biggest change for Parrish entering this season is confidence.

“My confidence started growing more and more through the end of last season. I was making a lot of plays out there on the field, getting more into the game,” he said. “I feel like a lot of people already knew that I could be a good player. It was just a matter of whether I could show it. It’s a good feeling.”

Even after the pre-spring question marks, Hefney is feeling good about the Vols’ secondary, too.

“We’ve got talent,” he said. “We’ve got the young guys coming in, but we don’t know where they’re going to be at until we start fall practice.

“I really can’t say too much about what they’re going to do. But the guys that played in the spring, they balled out.”

Drew Edwards covers University of Tennessee football. He may be reached at 865-342-6274.

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Comments » 6

jweaver3#395614 writes:

I love to see the confidence from these young men it should be awesome to see the competition this fall.
Go Vols!!!

scvols writes:

I hope we feel the same way after we play CAL and FL.

GreerVol22 writes:

5'9" vs 6' anything is tough no matter how good you are. I feel better that there are enough JUCOs around to backfill if needed.

eb502us#225637 writes:

No doubt we won't be better even with the lack of experience. Fulmer still needs to be shot for allowing Antwan Stewart to ever see the field, as he was the worst starting DB in UT history. The fact that he's gone and being replaced by anyone, is a major upgrade.

brian.e.durkee#210155 writes:

Eric Berry's dad, James, was a running back at Tennessee rather than a receiver......

charlesfol#284066 writes:

no sec title since 1998, how long are we going to put up with fulmer?

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