JOHNSON CITY — The football surroundings were a pleasant surprise for Tennessee senior cornerback Prentiss Waggner.
The Science Hill stadium and field better resembled college facilities than the high school stadium where Waggner once played in the small town of Clinton, La.
"Aw man, this is 10 times nicer than Clinton," he said Friday as the Vols began their week of practice off campus. "When they told me I was going to a high school, I wasn't expecting field turf or anything like that."
He wasn't expecting the scoreboard, either.
"Steve Spurrier Field," it read in honor of the high school's most famous quarterback.
"I didn't know it was Steve Spurrier Field until like the last period," he said. "I was real pleased about that."
He wasn't so pleased at the mention of another prominent SEC name.
"Did you hear that Tyrann Mathieu was dismissed from LSU (for violation of team and school rules)?" he was asked.
His face showed his disappointment before he said, "That's real sad to hear. I love Tyrann Mathieu."
You probably could have gotten a similar reaction from almost any corner of college football. LSU's All-American cornerback, a. k. a. "The Honey Badger," not only has established himself as one of the game's best-known players. He's above all else a player's player, especially if the player is on defense.
Former UT All-American safety Eric Berry has beamed when discussing Mathieu, whose playmaking prowess was accentuated in a defense that allowed him to stray from the traditional assignments of his position.
Although Mathieu played high school football in New Orleans, Waggner never saw him play until Mathieu attended UT's summer camp in 2009.
"He pretty much locked down everybody at the camp," Waggner said. "I said, 'This guy's something special.' I remember Inky Johnson complimenting him on almost every rep.
"The way he strips the ball away — he has a certain talent. He always finds the ball."
Waggner has a knack for that himself, although you couldn't have proved it by last season. In 2010, Waggner had five interceptions and recovered three fumbles on his way to making second-team All-SEC.
Last season, the ball was more elusive. He had two interceptions but dropped two others. On each of those drops, the offensive player knocked the ball from Waggner. As a result, he has spent the offseason strengthening his grip — with the help of a tip from teammate Devrin Young.
"He had me put my hands in a (bucket) of rice," he said. "He does it every day. Look at those forearms (pointing to Young a few yards away)."
Waggner's forearms might not be as noticeable, but he's stronger by virtue of the rice regimen. A summer of twisting his hands in a bucket of rice isn't the only reason he's more confident about the upcoming season. He believes his coverage skills have improved by going against UT's talented receivers.
The improvement is timely.
Sal Sunseri, UT's new defensive coordinator, places a premium on one-on-one coverage, just as Nick Saban, his former boss, does at Alabama.
"With these zone and man blitzes, Coach Sal is going to dial it up," Waggner said. "Either you can cover or you're not gonna cover. He's going to dial it up anyway.
"Being on that island will make or break you."
Mathieu's departure will create another opportunity. There's now a playmaker void on defense in the SEC.
Maybe Waggner can help fill it.