Is it a blessing or a curse that the Vols return eight defensive backs with significant experience from a 5-7 football team?
The fact that UT used eight defensive backs extensively last year - nine if you count Izauea Lanier, ineligible for the 2012 season - speaks volumes about the situation. Don't be fooled by Tennessee's 177.8 passing yards per game allowed stat, which was good for 12th nationally last year. LSU (20 attempts), South Carolina (18), and yes, Kentucky (6) didn't need to pass to beat the Vols, and even the teams that did like Arkansas and Alabama called off the dogs long before the final whistle. More telling are Tennessee's nine interceptions - six against Montana, MTSU, and Vanderbilt - which, combined with UT's inability to get to the quarterback, meant the Vol pass defense was simply trying to hang on last year...and more often than not, the Vols were beaten into submission by the third quarter.
There are questions about how Derrick Ansley and Josh Conklin will scheme it. There are questions about every returning defensive back. And the Vols clearly weren't satisfied with the answers they got last year: Jaron Toney and Vincent Dallas join the fight from the offensive side of the ball, and two of UT's most prized recruits were LaDarrell McNeil and Deion Bonner, who could both get in the mix right away.
That's a dozen bodies for four to six spots. For the second year in a row, we head toward fall practice hoping that the law of averages works in our favor. We'll have to wait and see on the newcomers, but here's a look at the names you already know who will battle for playing time in the defensive backfield:
The conversation starts with Prentiss Waggner, who brings seven career interceptions to the table. The primary (and hopefully only) question on Waggner is whether he plays corner or safety; #23 clearly prefers and is clearly better at corner, where he has always been more productive. But at times last season the Vols felt like they had no better option at safety, and so Waggner slid over. Again, law of averages suggests we can find better options at safety, and we probably feel like we already have them (more on that in a second), which would put Waggner where he belongs. The Vols don't face most of the teams with the best passing attacks in the league (after ours, of course), so they don't necessarily need the "shutdown corner" model. But if the front seven gets more aggressive under Sal Sunseri, Waggner must lead the way in the defensive backfield. If there's a second question about Waggner, it's his ability to be physical in a more physical 3-4 scheme, but it seems hard to believe that he isn't UT's best option heading into the season.
He should stay at corner because Brian Randolph got plenty of experience at safety last year, and the true freshman ended up fifth on the team (and first among defensive backs) in tackles. If Randolph can stick, the Vols could have their answer at free safety for the next two or three years. It seemed for a time that the other answer at safety was Brent Brewer, but a torn ACL in the middle of last year and a false start on a move to linebacker during spring practice leaves some room for head scratching. The best possible solution here is that Brewer was simply beat out by someone better; in this case that could be Byron Moore. Last year Moore was the latest edition of "Don't get too excited about jucos right away" - we'd link to a story on our site this time last year on how Moore would be the team's best DB from day one, but there are too many of them - but he did come on late and had a solid spring. If he can live up to his original hype this season, the Vols could be more than fine at safety.
That brings us back around to the other corner position. Justin Coleman had a strong spring last year, scored some early playing time, but it proved to be a little too much too soon for the true freshman. But now as a sophomore, Coleman had another strong spring, and could be considered the favorite to join Waggner in the starting lineup. #27 has a lot of football in front of him, and could certainly grow into a big time player for the Vols. When UT goes nickel, look for Eric Gordon to get in the mix. Gordon may not be as consistent as the coaching staff would like, but he's made huge plays with pick sixes vs Ole Miss in 2010 and the game winner against Vanderbilt last year. He's a guy you'd like to see on the field somewhere. And don't forget about Marsalis Teague, one of the few seniors on the team, which would make it a nice story if he was able to bounce back from a forgettable 2011 and contribute in a positive way in 2012. Rod Wilks also returns, the latest member of the "how long has that guy been in school?!" team.
The four that start in the Georgia Dome may not be the four that start against Kentucky. That could be a good thing if either of the two freshmen come along quickly. What we know for sure is that this group has to do a better job making a difference instead of just trying to hang on - more interceptions would be nice, but I think you're going to see more pressure regardless. For the second year in a row, we look at all these bodies and think surely, surely...a good secondary has to be in there somewhere.
Which four do you think will end up making the cut?
10 Questions for 2012