Photo by Amy Smotherman Burgess, ©KNS/2011 // Buy this photo
Late last month, ESPN's cameras, on campus to film an All-Access documentary, caught Derek Dooley asking Prentiss Waggner why his shoulder hurt "when you're not hitting anybody."
Though it may have been the first time Tennessee fans around the country saw the coach interact with the junior defensive back in that fashion, it certainly wasn't unique.
Back in 2007, Dooley, then the coach at Louisiana Tech, had no problem communicating with him that way on Waggner's living room couch in Clinton, La.
"I told him I didn't think he was good enough to go to Tennessee," Dooley said. "So they're probably not going to take you."
Waggner was, of course, and he's been good enough to start 20 games at pretty much every position in the Vols' defensive backfield. But it wasn't until last week's Georgia game when Waggner was able to prove Dooley wrong about his perceived lack of physicality.
Waggner, whom Dooley would often tell that "his next tackle would be his first," was all over the field against the Bulldogs and finished with a team-high 11 tackles and a forced fumble. He may not look like a safety or play like one all the time, but Waggner finally put up the numbers to quell Dooley's trademark sarcasm for at least one week.
"He played his most physical game of his career last week,"
Dooley said. "He's not a naturally physical player. Not everybody can be (Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu).
"Everybody has different skill sets but what you can't have are weaknesses. He's really worked hard to make tackling not his weakness."
There was no game last year that exposed Waggner's biggest weakness more than his trip home to Louisiana. It was against LSU (6-0, 3-0 SEC), whom UT (3-2, 0-2) will host Saturday (TV: WVLT, 3:30 p.m.) at Neyland Stadium, where he had a major hand in one of the more embarrassing plays of the season.
And it had nothing to do with 13 players.
On the game's very first play, Waggner had a clear shot at bringing down LSU quarterback Jordan Jefferson at the onset of his designed run up the middle. Waggner, though, made a poor effort, flailing on a bad arm tackle attempt as Jefferson zipped by him and the rest of the Vols defense for an 83-yard touchdown run.
"It was a play I easily should have made," he said. "My anxiety level was too high on that first play."
When Brent Brewer emerged as a reliable option at safety during the second half of last year, Waggner was able to move back to cornerback, his natural position where open-field tackling wasn't such a focus. He thrived after the position switch and entered the 2011 season with numerous preseason accolades.
Slated to return to cornerback this season, Waggner was abruptly moved back to safety when Janzen Jackson, a fellow Louisianan whom with Waggner keeps in contact, was dismissed. The pressure was back on Waggner to not only make plays at safety, but pile up tackles, too.
So, Waggner rang up former Vol Eric Berry, one of the program's most physical safeties who is now with the Kansas City Chiefs. Waggner, a few pounds heavier from off-season weightlifting, was looking for something, anything, that would give him an edge.
"He just told me that it's all mental," Waggner said. "You have to take it as if it's your last play."
With the steady emergence of freshman safety Brian Randolph, Waggner was, perhaps, looking at one of his last games as the Vols' full-time safety this past weekend.
But, as secondary coach Terry Joseph said, "then Prentiss got more tackles in one game than he probably had in five."
"He was disguising and really was in the feel of the game," Joseph said. "It made it hard to get B-Randolph in."
The effort not only garnered player of the week honors from Dooley, but it prompted a text message from Berry.
"He told me I had a pretty good game," Waggner said. "He gave me a few pointers on what to do and what not to do."
Waggner will be applying those tidbits in front of more than 100,000 fans Saturday at Neyland Stadium. Among them will be 20 or so of Waggner's friends and family from back home, a number of whom are making their first trip to Knoxville.
"My mom's got all this Tennessee stuff in the yard," Waggner said. "So people are passing by looking at all this orange. It's pretty crazy."
It was the same yard Dooley walked across before he told Waggner he wasn't good enough to play at UT. Though the admitted recruiting ploy didn't work for him at Louisiana Tech, Dooley has Waggner around now to push and needle with tough love.
It seems to be working now.
"The way he talks and what he eats, it kind of brings back good memories for me," Dooley said. "We can laugh and talk a little Louisiana that others can't."