Coach Dooley and players discuss the secondary heading into fall camp
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- Coach Derek Dooley on the start of the Vols' fall camp
The search for depth on the defensive line has included position changes for two players currently holding down starting jobs.
An injury to another projected starter has Tennessee almost completely devoid of experience at linebacker.
The Vols might appear to be lacking in options for their defensive front seven. But as the first practice of fall camp stars today, they know finding options in the secondary won't be a problem.
According to the preseason two-deep the program released Monday, a defensive back named to four national award watch lists and the preseason Coaches All-SEC third team isn't even considered a UT starter. That may be an early indication a deep group of defensive backs could allow the coaching staff to focus on finding one less player to play in front of them.
"Well, about 50 percent of the game is Nickel (with five defensive backs) now with the amount of subs you can play, and half the time you are out there guys are in three-wide (receiver) sets," UT coach Derek Dooley said during his preseason news conference. "So that helps you when you're deep in the secondary. And the question is, 'Can we play Nickel more on regular downs?' I don't know.
"Time is going to tell on a lot of this. It helps having a lot of bodies back there. We don't know if any of them can play, but there's a lot more capable bodies."
The Vols brought in plenty of them to compete with what was already a solid group of returning players, including the talented safety combination of Janzen Jackson and Brent Brewer. And at least for the time being, those two are blocking a starting role for Prentiss Waggner. Waggner, a junior, garnered more offseason attention than anybody on the UT roster after picking off five passes, recovering three fumbles and scoring three touchdowns last season.
The versatile Waggner has split time at both cornerback and safety in the past, and the staff recruited of a handful of possible cover guys to compete with Marsalis Teague, Anthony Anderson and Eric Gordon at corner. Combined with the return of Jackson from personal issues at safety, Waggner's best bet might be to play as a nickelback.
And while that figures to keep him on the field regularly, it doesn't exactly show up in a traditional 4-3 depth chart.
"I don't have any control over those offseason awards," Waggner said. "I think I had a pretty good year last year, and I'm not really concerned about what the depth chart is right now. It always changes before the season starts.
"I don't have a preference (between cornerback and safety), I just love the game of football. No matter where you put me I just try to do my best. I think I just bring a lot of depth to the secondary, and as long as I'm out there having fun and making plays for the defense, I'm cool with that."
With the Vols sorting through those issues up front and at linebacker, they figure to need more of those big plays from Waggner and the rest of the secondary.
UT clearly made improving a defense that finished eighth in the conference in pass defense an emphasis in its most recent recruiting class, and they'll get a look at the haul they landed in February up
close today. Depending on what the Vols wind up seeing in the back end, it might help address some issues elsewhere.
"Throughout all the summer workouts and all the position drills and (defensive back) drills, I just kind of looked back and saw that we had almost 20, 25 guys out there," Waggner said. "I was like, 'Man, this fall is going to be interesting. Lot of competition.'
"Throughout the whole summer we were just pushing each other, getting the young guys and the newcomers, just taking them up under our wing so we can be one of the best secondaries in the SEC."
If the Vols can pull that off, it could easily have a trickle-down effect for the front seven — or six.