Almost as soon as there was no need for precautionary measures, the cast was coming off Prentiss Waggner.
Not surprisingly, the Tennessee defensive back has found it much easier to make a catch with two healthy hands now than it was in spring practice when it looked like he had a softball covered in tape attached to his left arm.
Apparently the minor setback in camp in April that cut his well-known ball skills in half hasn’t done anything to slow Waggner down as the Vols have thrown it around during offseason workouts this summer.
“Oh yeah, seven-on-seven drills, (quarterback) Tyler Bray is having a little trouble with me,” Waggner said last week during an appearance at a camp led by former teammate Eric Berry. “I’ve picked him off like twice already.
“I was glad to take the cast off. I’ve got my strength back after that. Everything is going good. I’ve been doing my rehab on my hand and I’m back at 100 percent right now.”
X-rays taken in the spring never revealed a break in the hand, though that didn’t make it any less painful or troublesome for the junior as he tried to build on the momentum from his breakout campaign last season.
Preseason hype was starting to pour in for the versatile defensive back, who was shuffled back and forth between safety and cornerback and was focusing on the former with Janzen Jackson not enrolled for classes during camp.
Long renowned for his knack for making big plays in the secondary, Waggner was sporting his oversized mix of tape and a pad on his left hand when the Lott IMPACT Trophy committee named him to its watch list near the end of spring practice, an honor directly tied to his five interceptions, three fumble recoveries and three touchdowns as a sophomore.
And while nabbing a pass or scooping up a loose ball wasn’t much of an option this spring, Waggner still was able to pick up some valuable reps despite the injury as he continues to market himself as an invaluable part of the rotation at the back of the UT defense — whether it’s at corner, safety or some combination of the two.
“Right now, when we’re doing seven-on-seven drills, I’m just out there flying around wherever the team needs me,” Waggner said. “I’m helping on the young guys real well, guys like (junior-college transfer) Byron Moore, (true freshman) Brian Randolph, they’re coming along real well and picking up the system real fast, learning all the checks.
“I think they’re going to be key contributors this fall.”
The Vols are obviously counting on Waggner to be the same thing in the secondary, and his ability to play multiple roles could be critical when practice officially resumes and the coaching staff begins sorting through what it has defensively.
UT put a clear emphasis on adding depth in the secondary with its latest recruiting class, and the potential return of Jackson along with all the newcomers could make the defensive backfield a position of strength — and perhaps lead to a scheme that more regularly features five on the field at a time.
Waggner certainly is planning on being one of them, and since he’s willing to fill any of the spots, he’s also preparing for two handfuls of playing time.
“The day after the spring game I took the cast off,” Waggner said. “It was just on there for precautionary reasons, being out there for practice, the spring game.
“Now the goal is to gain like five or 10 pounds, be more of a mental leader on the field. Just basically, I’m working hard and training for the upcoming season, because it’s going to be a long one.”
Austin Ward covers Tennessee football. He may be reached at 865-342-6274. Follow him at http://twitter.com/Vols_Beat and http://blogs.knoxnews.com/ward