When a reporter hinted at praise for Tennessee’s defensive backfield last week, defensive coordinator John Jancek shrugged.
The Vols, he said, were helped quite a bit by dropped passes.
It’s true that an inexperienced receiving corps further depleted by injuries has sometimes made UT’s defense appear better than it would otherwise look. Breaking up passes intended for walk-on receivers isn’t quite the same as guarding Malcolm Mitchell or Jarvis Landry.
But there are glimmers of hope, and junior cornerback Justin Coleman offered one of them in Saturday’s scrimmage when he put his claws on a pass in the back of the end zone and hauled in a one-handed interception.
“It’s one of the best plays I’ve seen in a long time,” said first-year UT coach Butch Jones.
A third-year junior who already has 24 games and 13 starts, Coleman offers one of the best hopes that Tennessee’s secondary will be better than it was a year ago.
“It’s a level of consistency,” Jones said. “It’s making the routine plays. That’s what being a great football player is about. It’s easy to be average, it’s hard to be good and it’s harder to be great.”
After 2012, the Vols’ secondary might be willing to settle for average, but Coleman wants more than that. He even critiqued his attention-grabbing interception.
“Everyone didn’t see that I messed up,” he said. “I did everything wrong at the beginning. I tried to develop a habit (of finishing plays) and at the end of that play, I just tried to finish and I came up with a big play. My mindset was just to deflect the pass, but I felt it stick to my glove and I just came down with it.”
Coleman has one of the firmest grips on the four starting spots up for grabs in UT’s secondary. (A fifth job — the nickelback position — is also open after veteran Eric Gordon left the team due to personal issues. Jaron Toney has done much of the work at nickel this spring).
Sophomore Daniel Gray and junior college transfer Riyahd Jones are also working at corner. At safety, veterans Brian Randolph and Byron Moore and sophomore LaDarrell McNeil will get most of the snaps.
A cast of reserves — veterans Geraldo Orta and Naz Oliver and youngsters Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Lemond Johnson and Tino Thomas — haven’t been able to push into first-team contention. (In the case of Reeves-Maybin and Thomas, they’ve missed the spring due to injury).
That means that, except for Riyahd Jones, the Vols could be embarking on the 2013 season with much the same personnel they used a year ago.
What makes them think that this season will be any different?
Coleman understands the skeptics, but says the improvement this spring has been real.
“I’ve definitely seen a lot of progress,” he said. “Everybody is giving a lot of effort, and everyone wants to play. I’ve seen 10 times more effort. Everyone wants to get better.”
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/TennesseeBeat.