Malik Jackson talks about the UT-Bama rivalry
Tennessee Stat Book
Eventually Prentiss Waggner figured to settle at one position.
But it won't be this week, and the Tennessee junior doesn't seem to mind if it never happens.
The flexibility of Waggner continues to be invaluable for the Vols as they tweak and shuffle around defensive backs, a process that might not be so easy without one piece they can seemingly move anywhere on the board in the secondary. And UT is putting him to the test again as it readies for No. 2 Alabama at Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday (TV: ESPN2, 7:15 p.m.), sliding Waggner to cornerback from safety one more time — though even within the game it reserves the right to change its mind.
"Certain packages and in the base group I'm going to the corner," Waggner said after practice on Tuesday. "When we're in a certain run defense, I'm going back to the safety.
"It's up to the coaches, whatever they want is what we'll give them. I guess there's not one guy who has stood out back there in the secondary, so that's probably what that is."
Even Waggner has had a bit of a tough time standing out for the Vols defensively recently, at least compared to the high standard he set a year ago as a turnover-creating, touchdown-scoring machine.
Through six games, the junior has been a steady, reliable performer and two weeks ago turned in the best tackling effort of his career with 11 in a loss to Georgia. But other than a sack and a forced fumble, the big plays are missing from his resume this season, though perhaps a change of scenery and the emergence of Brian Randolph that is enabling it could light a spark for the Vols (3-3, 0-3 SEC).
"I wouldn't necessarily say that one or the other suits me best," Waggner said. "We knew that I had a lot of cover skills, better than I do in run defense, so the coverage part of corner or safety suits me best, you know.
"(Randolph) has progressed a lot. He's coming in, he's making all the checks without all the coaches having to be on him as much, he's out here making plays. (At practice) he got his hands on a couple balls, so that was nice to see. I don't think it's much of a drop-off with Brian at the safety position. He's sort of an old-school type of player. He can cover, and he can come down and make plays on the ball also."
The Vols clearly prize that kind of versatility, with Waggner perhaps the perfect example of the options it can provide.
UT appears to need it more at cornerback now thanks to some recent breakdowns in coverage, with Waggner likely to bump Marsalis Teague or Izauea Lanier into a smaller role against the Crimson Tide (7-0, 4-0) and try to jumpstart a defense that intercepted just one pass over the first half of the season.
"We may not have a choice but to do that," UT coach Derek Dooley said. "We need to play better at the corner position.
"We need to play better — so we're going to keep moving it around."
Like usual, that starts with another move for Waggner.
Keep it Cool: Matt Simms had been in the position before, though it had obviously been a while since he was playing quarterback in a meaningful setting.
The UT senior admitted that might have been a factor in a poor start against LSU last weekend, though he still wasn't looking to make it an excuse.
"It had been a while, and I tried to play it cool like they were just another team," Simms said. "But, hey, I was pumped to go out there and play against them. There were a lot of NFL players out there on the field, and I was kind of stressing not making a mistake and it ended up causing me to make mistakes.
"But the bright side is that there are corrections that I can easily fix. I'm looking forward to the opportunity to fix them."
Grind Time: The physical effects of the season are beginning to show up at the midway point for the Vols, though they escaped the loss to No. 1 LSU last Saturday without any new injuries for Dooley to report.
But for a young roster, the ability to respond to the wear and tear is starting to get tested.
"This is about the time of year where the physical nature of the game starts, you start feeling it a little bit in your body," Dooley said. "It's so important to accept that it's not going to be easy and accept that this is part of football and your body will adjust to the amount of stress you put on it.
"We keep hitting and we keep practicing with the same structure, and what we believe is it builds strength."