Terry Joseph didn’t shield his players’ eyes on National Signing Day. He couldn’t if he tried, not with the way his players surf the Web and keep up with the latest Tennessee recruiting news.
Instead, UT’s secondary coach has had his defensive backs embrace what happened when the Vols wrapped up their 2011 signing class, when seven of the 27 signees announced that day had “DB” etched next to their name. Another, Eddrick Lofton, was added one day later, giving the Vols a potential of eight new faces in a secondary that graduated just one player — safety Tyler Wolf — from last season.
Only one of the eight — Justin Coleman — is currently with the Vols, who will move past the halfway point of their spring practice schedule with their eighth of 15 set for Tuesday afternoon. The other incoming freshmen are still at home, still in school, still hundreds of miles away from trying to take away their future teammates’ jobs on the UT practice fields.
“In the business world, every successful company has competition. Competition makes us all better,” Joseph said. “The guys who are here … they know that we’ve got guys coming, but also they know they’re getting reps right now while those guys are not getting reps.”
All indications from the first seven practices have shown that the current UT defensive backs are making the most of their opportunities.
Coach Derek Dooley was quick to criticize the passing game for its overall inefficiency after Saturday’s scrimmage, but that didn’t prevent members of the UT secondary from coming away with a few smiles on their faces, as they picked off two passes, ran one back for a touchdown and just made life difficult for one of the SEC’s most promising receiving corps.
“These guys are out here working every day,” senior linebacker Austin Johnson said. “They’re pushing each other and making big plays. As they keep doing that, their jobs are going to be locked up.”
Before spring practice even started, Dooley met exclusively with the defensive backs and “spoke frankly” about the incoming group of players, which includes two junior college transfers — Byron Moore and Izauea Lanier — whom recruiting analysts consider “SEC-ready.”
“Their objective is not to come in and sit on the bench, I can assure you that,” Dooley said. “This spring is very important for all these guys in the secondary to show that they can be dependable, every-down players in this league. It’s a great opportunity for them.”
A number of UT defensive backs were every-down players last season. They just weren’t always dependable.
Cornerbacks Eric Gordon and Marsalis Teague went through their own respective growing pains in the line of duty. Gordon was a redshirt freshman and a starter by the season opener. Teague was a wide receiver at this time last year before he was moved to defense one month before the start of the season.
He finished the year as a starter and is in the mix to do the same at the beginning of 2011.
“I’m honed in on my defensive back drills,” Teague said. “We come up here and we do them as a unit so we’re all trying to make each other get better. That’s how we all compete amongst each other, but in a friendly way to make each other better.”
Safety Brent Brewer, a 22-year-old former baseball player who took over at safety midway through last season, has shown no signs of rust from a five-week suspension that prevented him from working out with the team during the offseason. Brewer, who was arrested in February on domestic abuse charges and has since had the charges reduced to “offensive touching,” has received rave reviews from his coaches and teammates throughout the spring. He led the team with six tackles and an interception in Saturday’s scrimmage.
“If anybody can stay away from that amount of time and come back and play, he’s probably one of the guys that can do it,” Joseph said. “He’s going to get better and better, too.”
Reserves such as cornerback Anthony Anderson and safety Dontavis Sapp and former starter Art Evans, who was suspended for the second half of last season, have also received praise through the first seven practices. Sapp has been a popular name among his teammates and Anderson, a fifth-year senior, returned an interception 81 yards for a touchdown Saturday.
Holding it all together has been Prentiss Waggner, a junior Joseph described as a “Band-Aid” because of his ability to “patch things up” and play wherever he’s needed. Right now, it’s at safety, as Janzen Jackson remains away from the team because of personal reasons.
Waggner could very well be back at cornerback in the fall, a position he thrived at last season on his way to all-SEC second team honors. If he is, he’ll be joined by a slew of talented freshmen who will be after his job.
“Every year I’m pretty motivated,” Waggner said. “Even if we would have signed one or two corners, I know this spring is going to be a competition with guys that we have now.”