Size matters

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Big cornerbacks can jam wide receivers at the line of scrimmage. They can fend off blocks by tight ends and fullbacks. They can wreak havoc on blitzes. They can even win Heisman Trophies (see Woodson, Charles).

They also can be harder to find than four-leaf clovers. The Tennessee Vols found one last year, however, and he wound up distinguishing himself. Starting the final nine games at left cornerback, junior college transfer Izauea Lanier posted 48 tackles — a total that ranked sixth on the team and second among defensive backs. Filling a position normally manned by 5-foot-9, 170-pounders, his 6-foot-1, 188-pound frame proved exceptionally beneficial against the run.

"The biggest advantage I've got is taking on blocks," Lanier said recently. "I'm not so quick to be thrown out of the way. That puts a little hesitation in the running back's mind — to see me coming up with the receiver, instead of him pushing me back."

Interestingly enough, Lanier had his two best games against the two most physical running teams the Vols faced last fall. He recorded 4 tackles and 2 assists against top-ranked LSU, then posted 6 tackles and 1 assist a week later against second-ranked Alabama. He also had productive outings against Arkansas (3 tackles, 3 assists) and Vanderbilt (5 tackles, 2 assists) in November.

The reason big corners are so rare is that most lack the flexible hips and fast feet to cover speedy receivers one on one. Lanier seems to be an exception to this rule. He ranked second among all Vols with 4 pass breakups as a sophomore in 2011 and expects to be even better in pass coverage as a junior in 2012.

"Starting the last nine games brought me into the spring with a lot more confidence than I had when I first came here," he said. "That's the key. Those nine starts gave me a taste of it. Basically, it's a technique thing because I'm really a tall corner."

Tennessee might have the tallest cornerback tandem in college football when Lanier is paired with senior Prentiss Waggner (6-2, 180) this fall. The duo is being challenged for starting jobs, however, by rising senior Marsalis Teague (5-10, 183), rising junior Eric Gordon (5-9, 197) and rising sophomore Justin Coleman (5-10, 180).

"These guys are very competitive, so every rep I get I make sure I do it the fullest because every one of us is competing for a job," Lanier said. "It's not going to be easy in this new system, so all of us have just got to buy in to what we're doing."

The competition will be even more intense once some injured corners return to the practice field. In the meantime, Lanier and the other healthy CBs are getting plenty of work.

"It's a lot of reps. A whole lot of reps — not just mentally, but because depth is so small," he said. "There's a lot of people not out there that should be out there but that gives us more time to develop the (available) players."

With a new defensive coordinator (Sal Sunseri), three new defensive assistants (John Palermo, Derrick Ansley, Josh Conklin) and a new scheme, the coaches are doing a lot of experimenting to see which players fit best in which positions.

"It's a clean slate for everyone," Lanier said. "They're just trying to evaluate right now, see who can fit the scheme because the scheme is no longer like a 4-3; it's like a 3-4."

Because so much is brand new on defense, a good portion of each practice is spent teaching and explaining the changes.

"Everything's OK," Lanier said, "but the tempo is a little slow right now. I think that comes with us not knowing the defense yet. We're still developing, though, so everything should be good from here on out."

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