The Tar Heels converted on just a third of their third downs, Vol free safety Janzen Jackson came up with a clutch interception and strong safety Brent Brewer laid out a couple of the hardest hits of the season.
With the entire starting unit scheduled to return not only this fall but in 2012 as well, the chatter went from curious to enthused.
As preseason camp got underway, the depth in the secondary was as impressive as it'd been in many years.
That was in July and is no longer the case.
Jackson was dismissed last week and his absence hurts the Tennessee defense on the field.
"Well, we're not as good," coach Derek Dooley said of not having All-SEC team member Jackson. "I mean I'd like to sugar coat it but when you lose an all-conference guy, you're not as good back there. It moves Prentiss (Waggner) into a role that we didn't have him in or didn't need him in. So, you start getting stressed everywhere.
"Our program's better. Team's better. But, we're not as good in the secondary."
Injuries, position swapping, grades and transfers have also depleted the defensive backfield.
Former safety Dontavis Sapp moved up to linebacker. Former cornerbacks Nyshier Oliver and Anthony Anderson switched over to wide receiver. Safety Geraldo Orta looks like he will redshirt as he continues to rehab a shoulder. Tino Thomas, who is also recovering from shoulder surgery, is greyshirting. Signee Eddrick Loften never made it into camp.
|Freshman Pat Martin and Tennessee are severing their ties.|
The latest news has freshman safety Pat Martin leaving town.
"Pat looks like he is going to transfer," said Dooley, noting that he'll have more details on the situation by Monday afternoon. "He's going to transfer, and I don't know where. We're certainly going to support him and try to help him go somewhere where he might be a better fit. It's a mutually-agreed upon decision."
With the talent pool continuing to grow more and more shallow at DB, it would seem all the more enticing for a rookie like Martin to get playing time early in his career. The former three-star prospect from Greenville, S.C., may simply be homesick.
"I see it every year. There's always a little bit of that, but usually you get over the homesickness," Dooley said.
"Those guys have really progressed — both of them in different ways," Dooley said of Randolph and Wilks. "Rod's a guy that's been in the program. He's gone through a lot of frustration I think from not playing. But, he's got a great attitude, he's showing a tremendous amount of improvement, and we don't bat an eye putting him in.
"Brian Randolph is one of those guys a little bit like Coleman, who I think is going to get better and better and better over the course of the season. He's just brand new. He's not playing as fast as you'd like him to because he is thinking. But, the more he gets it, the better he'll play and he's a really smart, intelligent player and he's a physical player. So, he's going to be a good player for us."
Another freshman that is taking advantage of his opportunities continues to be cornerback Justin Coleman.
"Justin's done well," Dooley said. "He's made progress. He's not near where he needs to be to be a good, dependable starter in this league. The only thing that's going to get him there is time and experience. We have confidence in him, but he's going to have some growing pains out there. But, he's been doing good."
Coleman, a former three-star prospect out of Brunswick, Ga., has himself in a position to trot onto the field with the first-team defense against Montana at Neyland Stadium on Saturday at 6 p.m.
"I knew Justin was going to be a great player for us," senior linebacker Austin Johnson said. "He came in this spring and played awesome. He is really kind of growing up to be a mature player and that is what we need."
Another means of earning a job is with the expanded use of the Nickel package that implements an extra defensive back. Senior linebacker Daryl Vereen's skills that once had him in the secondary looks like it's got him rotating in on definite passing situations. The actual Nickel back could be a musical chair approach depending on a host of factors but at the top of the list is redshirt sophomore Eric Gordon.
"We've got a lot of options, and we're not 100 percent sure right now," Dooley said. "But, you can think of it this way, we've got three guys kind of playing at the corner position — (Marsalis) Teague, Coleman and (Izauea) Lanier. You've got a guy like Gordon who's played a lot at Nickel, so he gives you a Nickel presence there. And, you know what our safety situation is, so there's a lot of combinations. Gordon could be the Nickel; we'll see how this week goes."
Gordon, Lanier and redshirt sophomore Byron Moore are all competing for that remaining spot. Both Montana and Cincinnati are likely to spread the field with receivers early and often, so the roles should become defined by the time the Volunteers head south to Gainesville, Fla., for their SEC opener against the Florida Gators.