Redshirt complete, ready to compete

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The safety position is a microcosm of what's going on now on The Hill.

The Tennessee roster is finally approaching the 85-man limit as a plethora of skilled athletes are competing for two starting spots on the back end of the defense.

Brent Brewer, Brian Randolph, Rod Wilks, Byron Moore, Tino Thomas and Geraldo Orta were the top six safeties coming out of the spring (with Randolph as the lone surefire starter).

The competition is making the entire unit better each week whether it's at Haslam Field, on team runs, in the weightroom or in film study.

"I think it's really good, I think it's really good," first-year Vol safeties coach Josh Conklin told InsideTennessee of the competition. "I think you've got a group of guys back there that are really trying to identify roles. You've got a guy like Orta and a guy like Rod Wilks that are not only learning the safety position but also learning some other positions in our sub-packages and different things. A guy like Brew…same deal.

"You want these guys to be multiple and so they're learning different positions. But, also there's a lot of competition. I really feel like that's been a big factor on why guys have studied more, why they're taking the time to come in and meet with coaches and do all the things that they can do to get themselves ready to go when we step back on the field."

First-year Tennessee assistant coach Josh Conklin has several options from which to choose at safety.
(Danny Parker/InsideTennessee.com)
Injuries and position juggling decimated the Tennessee secondary last fall. Janzen Jackson was kicked off the team Dontavis Sapp was moved to linebacker. Oliver and Anthony Anderson were flipped to wide receiver. Pat Martin left school. Brewer was sidelined with a pair of torn knee ligaments.

Orta and Thomas are joined by other freshmen Deion Bonner and LaDarrell McNeil as contributing candidates in 2012. Although he is yet to play a snap and redshirted last season, Orta was the only one of those four that was on campus through the summer and fall. He was the 64th-ranked safety in the Class of 2011, according to Scout.com.

"I figure if anybody else goes down, I feel like I can fit into their position to play anything," Orta told InsideTennessee. "So, if they go down, I figure coach will throw me in there to get me that experience on the college level to learn it. I've still got four years, so I'm gone be good."

The 6-foot, 180-pounder is itching to be a contributing football player again.

"It feels good because I kind of sat out a lot last year," Orta said. "It kind of made me feel bad because seeing my teammates out there playing hard and I can't go out there and help them fight to the end too. It feels good to know that I'm going to go out there to help my team and to see them win."

Deciding to redshirt a player can be a stress point for a coaching staff as it can hammer on the psyche of a young student-athlete that likely hasn't had to stand and watch every single play of an entire football season in quite some time…if ever.

"I've never sat out before but sitting out last year really hurt me a lot," Orta admitted. "I had a lot going through my mind. I really wanted to practice hard every day just to get better so I could be the same type level that they were on. So, it really hurt me a lot."

The possibility of transferring even crossed the Valdosta, Ga., native's mind.

"I mean it kind of crossed my mind some, but I thought about it. Tennessee has been good for me, they've treated me good. Everything's been good so far. Who knows what will happen, but so far I like it," he said.

Trotting onto campus last summer with a torn labrum in his shoulder that needed to be surgically repaired contributed heavily to the decision to sit Orta all of 2011. He says he is OK now.

Linebacker Herman Lathers (pictured) has been a shoulder for Orta to lean on.
(Danny Parker/InsideTennessee.com)
"I'm 100 percent now. I started at the end of the season practicing, and I did real good. It meant a lot to me to be at that point. Everything is going good so far."

A source of mental relief from riding the pine is that you're never alone at a Southeastern Conference school with over 100 players on the roster. Vols like veteran linebacker Herman Lathers and wide receivers Justin Hunter and Nyshier Oliver were there to stand alongside the rookies to help them cope with sitting out and having to cage their competitive nature from an on-field standpoint.

"I look to Herman Lathers as my brother," Orta said. "We always worked out together a lot and stuff just to get stronger than everybody else so when we came back we'd be on the same level as them. It was good to be on the sideline with him, kind of taught me a lot."

The prospect of begin able to run through the "T" and Neyland knock the breath out of a wide receiver in college when he is 23 years old has Orta salivating.

"I figure that's a big advantage. They might be quicker. I might be bigger then. I figure I'm going to have the most experience. I'm going to learn the program so I can play faster," he said.

Even though the Lowndes (Ga.) High School product is itching to go and has already showcased tremendous athletic ability in practice, he understands that he is not going to rocket to the top of the two-deep simply because he is healthy again and in his second year.

"I think the best way to be a DB is to know how to play everything — corner, safety, nickel. So, I figure if I learn all of them and be able to play all of them that I'll be an overall DB. It's good learning all of them," he said.

Orta was joined by Moore, Randolph and Thomas all signed the same day and are in competition with one another but Orta suggests that's not a negative thing in any way.

"With my signing class, it seemed like we all came together as one anyway. We don't really have that hatred toward each other; we're all as one. It's good back there in the secondary as well. We all seem like we're brothers. We're going to take up for each other either way."

The Volunteers take on North Carolina State at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta on Aug. 31 with kickoff slated for 7:30 EST.

Danny Parker is currently the Associate Editor, Recruiting Analyst and Staff Photographer for InsideTennessee.com. He was previously the sports editor at Shelbyville Times-Gazette. He joined the InsideTennessee team July 2011.

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