Will opened up the previews of the Vols spring practices by looking at the quarterback situation as it currently stands. Here, we continue to investigate the personnel that the Vols have on hand by evaluating the defensive backs on the roster. Unlike the quarterback position, where so many people are wondering if we're going to find just one suitable starter, Tennessee is absolutely loaded with defensive backs. Will addressed the quarterback question (who's going to start in the fall?); with DBs, the question is:
WHO, BESIDES ERIC BERRY, WILL BE A STARTING DEFENSIVE BACK IN THE FALL?
Monte Kiffin is no longer in Tampa. From now on, his defense is...
Without further ado...
ER-IC BER-RY! [CLAP, CLAP, CLAPCLAPLAAP]
We can get Eric Berry out of the way quickly. Lane Kiffin, in his first press conference, announced that there were no starters and that the staff would have to do their own evaluations based on their own practices. The tape of last year wouldn't matter, they said, because the players would all be learning new systems (both offense and defense) and they didn't want to judge players based on other people's systems.
Evidently, Berry is quick to impress. Spring practices don't even begin until March 10th, yet Cap'n Crunch Berry has already locked down his starting spot and will be the cornerstone upon which Monte builds the rest of the defense. To be fair to the situation, Lane did say that he personally saw Eric in high school when recruiting for USC, and it's not like this guy leaves much doubt:
Eric Berry 2007 highlights (via RockyTopTalk)
Eric Berry Highlights (2008) (via jredz85)
So yeah. Eric's a starter. The starter. That leaves 2 cornerbacks and one safety position to fill for a base 4-DB package, along with a 3rd cornerback/safety for the nickel package (that will be increasingly useful with the upward trend in pass-happy offenses).
THE SENIOR CITIZENS
There were only 2 senior DBs on the team in 2008 - Antonio Gaines and DeAngelo Willingham. I'll be honest - I haven't heard whether either guy is returning for a 5th year or not. For that reason, I'll label both players as DEPARTED ALUMNI until I know any better (hint, hint).
Deafeningly bad pun notwithstanding, 4 DBs on the '08 roster were juniors - Demetrice Morley, Derrick Furlow, Marsalous Johnson, and Stephaun Raines. Briefly:
Demetrice Morley was the main safety adjacent to Berry throughout the 2008 campaign. While Chavis's personnel decisions cannot be considered too heavily in Monte's decisions, we can remember that Morley was an outstanding safety in his own right. He opened the season briskly with one of the four INTs agains UCLA in the opening half and contributed nicely throughout. The warning sign with Morley will always be his academics; suspended for bad grades early in his collegiate career, he brought them up at Pellississippi State and appears to be on track. The warrant mixup brought another gasp from the orange crowd, but turned out to be exactly that - an error. I would expect that Morley places a lot of value in his senior season and will fight hard (on-field and in-class) to keep his starting slot. Based on the advantage of having the spring to learn the system (as opposed to the incoming players), I'll pencil him as the EARLY FAVORITE TO START IN THE FALL as the "other" safety.
Marsalous Johnson and Stephaun Raines have both seen limited action in reserve duty, but neither were standouts for starting time in previous years. Neither has had academic or legal troubles of particular note that would suggest their dismissal under Kiffin's reign, but neither stands out in the mind as a potential starter.
But I'll note now that the evaluation of next year's starters is harder this year than in years' past. Seniority means nothing; effort means everything. Will these two give everything to try for one last year in the lights, and will that even be enough? Honestly, nobody knows at this point, but I would guess that they will remain reservists in 2009 and end their career (hopefully) with degrees in hand. And they'll always be Vols.
With 20 DBs listed in the roster, the Senior and Junior classes of '08 only account for 6. That leaves 14 for the Sophomores, Freshmen and incoming LOI signees. If there wasn't enough reason to be optimistic about the strength of the secondary for the coming years, consider this: only 3 of the remaining 14 DBs are sophomores.
Vinson is another academic question mark case. At one point during the break, Volquest reported him as dismissed due to academic issues. More recently, his academic problems appear to have been cleared up, and he is ready for 2009 so long as his grades stay acceptable. The academic issues are doubly-maddening with Vinson: first, you really hate to see any student get into academic trouble; second, he's sometimes been referenced as the best natural athlete on the entire team - even ahead of Berry. (gasp!)
So if he's such a great athlete, we all dearly hope that his grades stay intact. Monte's defensive philosophy is built around defensive speed and gang tackling. (In the T-2, you might get the ball to a receiver, but he's going to pay the price by the time his feet hit the ground. It's a defense that wears down the skill players of the opposing offense.) People like Berry and Vinson are built to play in such a system. I'll take a flyer on his grades and label Brent Vinson as the #1 STARTING CORNER in the first game this fall.
When you stop and think about it, this is a phenomenal sophomore class of DBs. Rogan has one advantage over Vinson in that he's the odds-on favorite for return duties on special teams. During his freshman season, Rogan invigorated a flagging return game. With a dedicated special teams coach (yay!), we may see some shakeups here as players get a more intensive evaluation, but you can't discount Rogan's natural sense for fielding kicks. He knows when to call for the fair catch, when to run, and which direction is the best first step to take - all crucial skills for a guy who is looking straight up at the clouds.
But beyond his return game, Rogan served well as a cornerback last year. The one hitch is that Chavis tended to rely on zone coverage more than man coverage, and Monte is more willing to man up on the receivers. Is Rogan up to the shift in philosophy? Early on, you have to like his odds. He's smart, he's physically gifted, and he's a hard worker who just doesn't get into trouble. I expect the Fulton High product to possibly take the #2 CB assignment, but more likely to be THE STARTING NICKELBACK for the Vols, which would keep him rested up for his other gig as THE PUNT RETURNER AND ONE KICK RETURNER.
Five freshmen are listed as DBs (including redshirts). As much as we all get tired of hearing about Fulmer's propensity for playing upperclassmen over underclassmen, you'll begin to notice that it still affects our ability to predict the team - we just don't have a lot to go on with these guys. That doesn't mean they won't play, it just means we can't guess with any certainty.
Anderson is a redshirt freshman who was a 3-star ATHLETE according to Rivals. The Knoxville native is 6'0" and likely to shape up to fit as a safety; unfortunately, that lands him in direct competition with Berry and Morley. (His second-best choice would be as a nickelback against pass-catching TEs or larger receivers.) I have absolutely nothing to gauge him by. Kick returns? Backup safety? I don't know. Without any evidence, I'd guess he'll play backup duty at best.
I could recycle the Anderson paragraph, except that Evans is 6'1" and from Florida. He's a little bigger but decidedly slower, so his only real shot is as a backup safety or as a special-teamer. But he also carries that ATH tag, so who knows if they'll slide him over to offense or not. Either way, don't expect to hear his name much unless he has an absolutely monster offseason.
At 5'10", this redshirt is built more like a cornerback than a safety. Because the cornerback situation is a little more nebulous than the safeties, I would guess that his odds of playing time are slightly better than Anderson or Evans, but that's pure speculation. The biggest thing working against him is that the cornerback position relies more on physical talent than scheme knowledge, and the incoming class is just loaded with DB talent. I don't expect to hear his name much either, but I always hope to be pleasantly surprised.
What to do with Vereen? Originally recruited as a RB, Vereen shifted to the defense due to the lack of DB depth at the time. He's 6'1" and over 200 lbs, which makes him a good candidate for a safety. If Morley doesn't start, Vereen may have the best shot of any non-incoming player. But again, knowledge is limited, especially with him having redshirted. The safe money is that he's a backup unless Morley stumbles academically.
Tall and lanky (6'2", under 200 lbs.) Waggner is an odd fit in the secondary. If he manages to add bulk to his frame, his height suggests safety. He ran a 4.5-40 out of high school, but I don't know if his speed has improved any since then. My guess is that his playing time banks on his speed. If he gets closer to 4.4, he might be a great matchup against a taller receiver. Until I hear that he's faster, though, I think he'll be a backup throughout the season.
General Note: The '08 freshmen (including redshirts) should be worth an occasional glance. They're bookended by some absolutely terrific athletes, with people like Berry, Vinson and Rogan ahead of them, and people like Jackson, Teague, and Edwards behind them. At this point in time, it's easy for us to project by recruiting scores and figure that they'll be limited throughout their careers, but you would almost expect that one of them will find a way to break through and take a starting spot (most likely next year, if at all).
MONTE'S FIRST VOLS
This year, Monte's reputation preceded everybody in the recruiting game. Despite such a short window of time, the Vols landed SIX defensive backs - some of whom wouldn't have given UT the time of day prior to December. These kids were clearly looking to receive the best secondary education available, and it's hard to argue the point.
The 6'1" Atlanta native projects to be a safety, though at 175 lbs., he could use a little extra bulk in the offseason. His presence at UT is largely a product of Eric Berry - another Atlantan who has had a decent amount of success in the Big Orange Secondary. His primary strength as a safety is his cover skills, and he could be invaluable as a nickelback or as a safety against spread teams. I'd still like to see a little more beef on him before putting him man-to-man against a TE, but a cover safety is a great catch for the T-2, and his career projects well. Redshirt, maybe?
The Nashville native is fast - registering a 4.4-40 in high school. He's decidedly a cornerback and should provide strong competition in the fall. Whether he starts this year - like most freshmen CBs - will come down to his offseason conditioning. Does he have the discipline to push himself as hard as the current Vols are being pushed? He'll need to; Monte doesn't play softies. I think he does, though, and I would not be surprised to hear his name this fall - a lot.
Nyshier is one of the enigmas of this recruiting class. Originally a Vol commit, he was one to flee after the season and the fallout, but then recommitted when it mattered. At 5'10" and about 180 lbs, Scout thinks he'll be a safety; I see his 4.4 speed and lean more toward cornerback myself, but I'm not an expert on these things. Evidently, he heard something that he liked from the coaches, because there is a lot of depth chart to work through at UT. He, like Myles, might be a redshirt candidate if the only thing holding him back is his weight and his preferred position.
Teague may be a Kiffin fencepost in Tennessee, but he's a Monte fencepost. Like the others, I can't blame him at all for taking the chance to learn the T-2 in college. Teague is a guy that I can't peg well. I tend to lean more toward CB, given his 5'10" height. Like other incoming DBs, he's lighter now than he'll be when he plays (175ish at last check), so it's hard to guess. But the #4 player in the state was impressed enough to walk away from the Strong defense in Florida (where freshmen are known to get playing time) and into the Kiffin defense. I'm going to take an early flyer on Teague and pick him to START AS THE #2 CB IN THE FALL.
The steal from the Bayou was an absolutely terrific grab by the recruiting Chimera. Jackson lives deep in LSU territory, with a terrific shot at playing at LSU, with a defense coached by a guy who can claim Berry, Rogan, and other DBs as his tutors (we tend to forget about Chavis with regards to the recruitment of Jackson). Additionally, Jackson switched his commitment when he knew that Tennessee was already loaded up with DBs for the foreseeable future. He's 6-foot plus, with a 4.4-40 and solid grades. If he gains a little more weight by the fall, he'll be a challenger for safety slot; if he stays lean, he'd make a great corner. I don't see him drawing too many assignments covering TEs early on, but he's physical enough to grow into that role if needed. It's kinda like asking which model Ferrari you'd most like to drive around on somebody else's nickel, but I see Jackson as the SECOND MOST LIKELY INCOMING FRESHMAN TO GRAB A STARTING SLOT.
So there you have it. UT is blessed with a load of talented defensive backs; the secondary should be the strength of the defense for yet another year.