Secondary puzzle

Knowing which players you can count on is a big deal for a college football coach. Just ask Tennessee secondary coach Terry Joseph.

When asked recently for his assessment of the Vols' defensive backfield, Joseph replied: "If we played tomorrow, I know Brent Brewer would be the bandit (strong) safety."

It wasn't until five seconds of silence elapsed that his audience realized that the coach had just shared everything he knows about the secondary. Anything else would be guesswork.

With just one of the four secondary positions capably filled, it appears that Joseph lacks confidence in the players battling for the other three starting slots. That is not the case, he says.

"No, no, no, no," Joseph said, shaking his head emphatically. "I definitely feel a lot better about those guys than I did leaving Nashville after the Music City Bowl. But nobody has really taken that step to say they're The Guy."

The outlook is especially muddled at cornerback, where the Vols used a committee approach in 2010. Marsalis Teague started eight games last fall. Fellow junior Prentiss Waggner started six, as did senior Art Evans and sophomore Eric Gordon. Then there's senior Anthony Anderson and mid-term freshman Justin Coleman, who finished spring practice bracketed No. 1 at right corner.

Joseph summed up the cornerback outlook this way: "I couldn't say 'These two guys are going out there without a shadow of a doubt in my mind.' I think they'll all play. Who'll start? I don't know. Who'll play the most snaps? I don't know ... probably the one with the hot hand. None of those guys has taken the bull by the horns, so the competition is going to continue."

The safety spot opposite Brewer isn't exactly secure, either. Janzen Jackson was a second-team All-SEC pick at free safety last season but his future is clouded. He left school last February to address what head coach Derek Dooley called "a personal matter," so his return to the program is no sure thing.

Even Waggner, who made the preseason watch list for the Lott IMPACT Trophy as the NCAA's premier defender, is no lock to start in 2011. The 6-2, 175-pound rising junior started the first seven games of 2010 at strong safety, then started the last six games at cornerback. He seems to be a "tweener" who lacks the physicality you'd prefer at safety and lacks the explosive quickness you'd prefer at corner.

"The one thing Prentiss gives us is he's versatile," Joseph said. "We can plug him where we need. Depending on what happens these next few months, we feel he can help us at all three positions - safety, nickel and corner. He's a valuable guy to have, as much as anything because of his versatility."

Evans missed the last half of the 2010 season on a disciplinary suspension. He returned in time to have a good spring but did not prove he deserves a first-team job. Still, he could win one.

"Sometimes you don't miss something until it's taken away from you," Joseph said. "I think the guy really missed football last year. I think he missed being around the team, being around his friends. I think he's taken this as a second opportunity that he doesn't want to let slip away. He knows this is his last shot, so he's been doing a great job for us. I have no complaints at all."

Joseph finished last season with a starting secondary that consisted of three sophomores (Waggner, Teague, Jackson) and a freshman (Brewer). If Jackson returns, the defensive backfield should be more experienced in 2011.

"You can see they're a lot more comfortable with the system," Joseph said. "The words mean a lot more to them. They react a lot quicker. That's been a great thing this spring - for me to teach them and them to get coached - because we're all on the same page.

"As all of our players get into Year 2 of the system, the words make sense to 'em, instead of taking a second or two to figure it out. That's the great thing about the cohesiveness of being together again as a staff."

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