Comfort level rising

One veteran Tennessee football player can relate to the anxiety mid-term freshman Justin Coleman is feeling during the early days of spring practice. He felt the same anxiety 12 months ago.

Although he was a sophomore last spring, Marsalis Teague was a newcomer to secondary play at the collegiate level. Having spent his first year with the Vols at wide receiver, he hadn't lined up on defense since high school.

Now that he has spent a full year at cornerback, however, the 5-10, 175-pounder from Paris, Tenn., feels much more at ease in the secondary.

"I'm way more comfortable," he said following Wednesday's second spring practice. "That comes with that experience - that game-time experience and going through camp. That was big for me. Now I'm just trying to utilize all the advantages I have."

Tennessee needs a big year from Teague. The 2010 Vols ranked seventh among the 12 SEC teams in pass defense (229.6 yards per game) and opponents' completion percentage (57.4). With safety Janzen Jackson missing spring ball due to some "personal matters," Teague is the old man of the secondary by virtue of eight career starts.

"I don't really feel older," he said with a smile. "I just feel more comfortable. I feel that's our whole secondary, not just me: Our entire secondary feels more comfortable and more confident."

Tennessee's secondary did some good things last fall. The Vols tied for third among SEC teams in fewest touchdown passes allowed (14). They ranked fourth in interceptions (18) and fourth in pass defense efficiency behind Alabama, Florida and LSU. Still, there is much room for improvement.

"We talked among ourselves about how we had to step up and grow up," Teague said. "That's a big deal to us this year - how we've got to put that burden on our shoulders to try to get better."

Because Tennessee had zero secondary depth last fall, the Vols are bringing in eight new defensive backs for 2011. Helping prepare the rookies for the rigors of SEC play is one of Teague's main goals.

"Most definitely," he said. "We can't just throw them out there and let 'em make mistakes. Everybody's going to make mistakes but trying to teach young guys the playbook and the fundamentals ... that's the main thing. I'm going to help 'em as much as I can."

If Tennessee is to improve on last season's 6-7 record, it must improve significantly on defense. The 2010 Vols ranked ninth among the 12 SEC teams in scoring defense (25.1 points per game) and 10th in total defense (382.2 yards per game).

"We can improve on all aspects of our game," Teague conceded. "That doesn't just go for the secondary. That goes for everybody on this team. This team can get much better than what it is. The good thing about it is, we know that. As long as we address the fact that we can get better, we will."

Tennessee's defensive outlook would be much brighter if Jackson, a two-year starter and 2010 All-SEC honoree, were taking part in spring drills. He isn't but his defensive mates are determined to move forward without their best player.

"We're still kind of taking it day by day with that whole situation," Teague said. "We realize that's out of our control. Right now we're just focused on practicing and getting better every day we're out there on the field but we still support our teammate, whether he's out there on the field or not."

With or without Jackson, Tennessee needs its secondary to play better in 2011 than it did in 2010. Teague believes that will happen.

"I feel like we're jelling pretty well out there," he said. "We're communicating more because we know each other's strengths and weaknesses. We try to put each other in the best situation possible."

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