THE DIRECTOR: First-year Vols assistant coach Derrick Ansley will handle the cornerbacks while first-year UT assistant and former defensive coordinator at The Citadel Josh Conklin will take care of the safeties.
There is a lot of uncertainty heading up the secondary for the Vols as two fresh faces step onto the eye of the stove in Knoxville. Let's begin with Ansley, who got his first big-time college football job as defensive backs coach at Central Florida only a few months ago after ending his graduate assistant position at Alabama. He wasn't a Golden Knight long as new UT DC Sal Sunseri plucked him from Orlando to join the UT staff. Ansley may not be experienced, but he was an excellent cornerback at Troy in college and was a trusted understudy of Sunseri at Alabama. He is known as a players' coach and an up-and-coming recruiter who is a very good technique coach.
As for Conklin, again, he's a name we haven't heard much of and also a young guy like Ansley. There will be some new, excited blood back there, and hopefully the pair of young guns will get acquainted with one another and become friends. Derek Dooley felt it best to split up corners and safeties with different coaches. Conklin's expertise is the secondary, but he has been a defensive coordinator on the FCS level, and that is valuable experience. Hopefully, both will do a good job. But there are some questions always with the unknown.
THE CAST: 6-1, 205 Jr. Byron Moore; 5-10, 185 Sr. Marsalis Teague; 6-1, 215 Jr. Brent Brewer; 6-1, 190 Jr. Izauea Lanier; 6-0, 215 Sr. Rod Wilks; 6-2, 185 Sr. Prentiss Waggner; 5-9, 185 Jr. Eric Gordon; 6-0, 180 Fr. Geraldo "Wally" Orta; 5-10, 183 So. Justin Coleman; 6-0, 200 Fr. Tino Thomas; 6-1, 190 Fr. Cody Blanc; 6-0, 190 So. Brian Randolph.
Unlike the past few years, there are no stars in this group. Thankfully, there don't appear to be any distractions, either. When you look at the names, there certainly isn't an Eric Berry among them and there may not even be a Janzen Jackson. But the group is very solid -- and deep enough to potentially be a strength. The Vols lost a pretty darn good recruiter when Terry Joseph left for Nebraska, but they didn't lose anything from a coaching standpoint. Hopefully, Ansley and Conklin can be better technique coaches, and some of the nice talent listed can become stellar players. We all know that Waggner, Lanier and Randolph are capable of becoming All-conference-level performers, and there is some substance to the rest of that group, too. This spring, we'll see who can find his way into the rotation.
Coming soon: CB Daniel Gray; S LaDarrell McNeil; CB/S Deion Bonner.
OFFSEASON BUZZ: Things have been relatively quiet this offseason, which, after an offseason filled with Janzen's off-the-field issues, has been refreshing. Waggner is the hardest worker on the team, and I really expect him to have the kind of year that will guarantee him a shot at the NFL. Though Teague was as bad as you can get last year, he has the talent to be a quality player as a senior, and maybe the new coaches will help him. There has been some small buzz that Moore maybe has continued to see the light after it finally came on late last season. But the biggest head-turning whispers have come from a trio of guys who have never stepped foot on the field. Coaches and players alike have been impressed with Orta, Thomas and Blanc. It seems those guys -- especially the first two -- could push for immediate playing time. And Thomas' size-speed combo is ridiculous.
THE PLOT THICKENS [THREE SPRING STORYLINES]:
- Sticking With The Above Theme, What Surprise Guys Work Their Way Into the Rotation? My top two guesses are Orta and Thomas. I love both of those guys -- and coaches do, too. Orta really packs a punch, and he has to be chomping at the bit to hit somebody after redshirting last year. Speaking of chomping, Thomas maybe has a chip on his shoulder after being asked to grayshirt. Coaches kept their word and welcomed him back on campus in December -- and he hasn't disappointed. Thomas spent the offseason working out and came to campus in pinnacle shape. He is 6-1, 200 and runs a 4.5. That's sick. He certainly has the intangibles. Moore is also talented enough to compete.
- Meshing With Coaches. The players liked Joseph well enough, but there were some who questioned his ability to develop talent and help with technique. The Vols -- especially the cornerbacks -- looked consistently slow on the pivot in coverages. Also, there wasn't very much defending the ball. Ansley learned under the best secondary coach in the country at UA [Nick Saban], and there are few secondaries more aggressive to the ball than the Tide. Conklin has the schematic, Xs and Os background as DC. So, it'll be neat to see how -- and if -- UT's players respond to the new staff.
- Is Last Year's Class Ready To Take the Next Big Step? Look at that group of guys who played -- and in some cases excelled -- last season: Randolph, Lanier, Coleman, Moore. They all had nice moments, but are they going to be solid SEC players or spectacular? They all have that ability. There is no better place for them to take that leap forward than this spring ... when all but Waggner's spot are up for grabs.
CLOSING CREDITS: The Vols will welcome two potentially elite talents in August when McNeil and Bonner get to town, but the guys who should be on the field for the most part next fall already are on campus. Surely, Dooley upgraded from a coaching standpoint with Joseph's departure, and getting some hungry, new coaches in with a bunch of talented players could be big for the Vols. Now, it's just time to see if these players are really "really good players" or just better than we've been accustomed to seeing during the Dark Ages of Tennessee football.
Missed the other installments? Catch up here.