Layin' the wood

If he had hit the curveball as hard as he has hit receivers and ball-carriers this spring, he'd be playing shortstop in the Major Leagues instead of playing safety in the SEC.

By all accounts, Tennessee sophomore Brent Brewer is making a lot more solid contact as a college football defender than he ever did as a minor league baseball player. Exhibit A in this argument is Vol fullback Channing Fugate, who absorbed the most talked-about hit of spring practice from Brewer two weeks ago.

"The hit he put on Fugate in the first scrimmage, I was like 'Wow!'" fellow safety Prentiss Waggner recalled, shaking his head in amazement. "Fugate's like a 260-pound guy, and Brent just ran through him."

Perhaps it is no coincidence that Fugate showed up for the next practice wearing a red (no-contact) jersey.

"I think that may be why," Waggner said, referring to Brewer's big hit. "On the practice field, he's become fearless out there. Nobody wants a piece of Brent out there. He's been a big plus this spring."

With only Saturday's Orange & White Game left of spring practice, Vol secondary coach Terry Joseph admits being a bit surprised that Vol receivers challenged Brewer as often as they did. At 6-1 and 210 pounds, Brewer hits like an army tank, whereas the 6-2, 175-pound Waggner hits more like a spaghetti noodle.

"They don't realize when Prentiss is back there and when Brewer is back there because it's a little bit different," Joseph said with a smug grin. "If I was a smart receiver, I'd see where Brewer's at and I'd see where Prentiss is."

Brewer appears to be cast from the same mold as Pittsburgh Steelers star Troy Polamalu, an "enforcer" at safety who makes opposing receivers hesitate to go over the middle and regret it when they do.

"When you've got a guy that can lay the wood a little bit, you get what we call 'alligator arms' by some of the receivers because they know he's roaming a little bit," Joseph said with a grin. "Obviously, a guy who lays it down like Brewer gives our entire defense energy when he gets a big hit."

After four seasons in the minor leagues, Brewer switched from pro baseball to college football last summer. Despite a limited knowledge of his assignments, he wound up starting the last six games of 2010 at strong safety as a true freshman. Now that he knows what he's doing, he's reacting quicker and hitting harder.

"This spring with Brent you see a guy that's more comfortable with the playbook," Joseph said. "He's reacting instead of thinking a whole lot. I believe that's why the hits have been more explosive - because he's getting a lot better reads and breaking on the ball. That's why you've been seeing the big hits. He's a lot quicker because he's more comfortable with the system."

At 23 years of age, Brewer is much farther along in his physical development than his 18- and 19-year-old teammates. Still, he has a long way to go in terms of his football development.

"As a coach, you've got to realize that Brent only played five or six games of football over the past four years," Joseph said. "Sometimes when you see him physically and you see his tested numbers, your expectations get so high.

"He's been limited in how much he's played the past four years but the guy has exceeded every expectation that we, as coaches, have had for him. He's been rock-solid for us in the secondary. Everybody's competing for snaps back there but he's the one guy who has taken every snap with the No. 1 defense. I think he's going to be fine and he's going to continue to improve."

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