Doggin' it

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JOHNSON CITY — Sometimes young pups can learn a lot just by watching how the old dogs patrol the neighborhood.

The pups in Tennessee's secondary surely learned plenty if they watched veteran defensive backs Marsalis Teague and Nyshier Oliver in Saturday's scrimmage at Science Hill High School. Teague, a fourth-year senior, recorded 6 assists and registered 4 of the day's 7 pass breakups. Oliver, a fourth-year junior, chipped in 2 solos, 2 assists, a tackle for loss, a pass breakup and a 32-yard return of the scrimmage's only interception.

Thanks to an ultra-conservative interpretation of the "in the grasp" rule, Vol quarterbacks combined to complete 28 of 50 passes for 327 yards. Still, Teague was encouraged. Mental errors in the secondary were not very common and not particularly costly.

"Not real blatant," he said. "I'm sure there was a lot of missed assignments but that's kind of typical (early in fall camp). We'll go back, watch the film, try to get those mistakes corrected and try to keep them limited."

Teague is battling fellow senior Eric Gordon, sophomore Justin Coleman and Oliver for the cornerback spot opposite all-star candidate Prentiss Waggner. No one has the edge for now.

"We rotate our depth chart, so we're going in and out," Teague said. "Nothing's set in stone. That's why you go through training camp. We're all competing for that spot and we're all pushing each other to make each other better."

Helping the cornerbacks get better is perhaps the most talented wide receiver trio in college football — Justin Hunter (6-feet-4, 200), Da' Rick Rogers (6-feet-3, 208) and Cordarrelle Patterson (6-feet-3, 205). Covering those guys in practice each day is a tall order in every sense of the word.

"It's fun," the 5-foot-10 Teague said. "It's a challenge because they're three of the best receivers in the country arguably. It's a big challenge for us but we work with each other to make each other better."

Cornerback Eric Gordon and the Tennessee secondary is getting help from their wide receivers to prepare for the season.
(Danny Parker/
Gordon believes he's getting better at the star position, a variation of the nickel-back concept.

"It's going along pretty well for me," he said following the scrimmage. "I'm pretty comfortable. I've been learning these calls since the spring, and I feel like I'm adjusting to it a lot."

Teague and Oliver weren't the only defensive backs to play productively in the scrimmage. Brian Randolph recorded 7 stops. Fellow safety Byron Moore added 6 stops and a tackle for loss. Another safety, Rod Wilks, chipped in 3 stops, including a sack. Freshman Deion Bonner contributed 3 stops, including a tackle for loss, and a fumble recovery.

Tennessee ranked 11th among 12 SEC teams in interceptions last season and 10th in pass defense efficiency. Based on Saturday's scrimmage, Gordon sees the Vols improving dramatically in both areas this fall.

"I feel like the secondary performed pretty well," he said. "We were getting off the field on third down and we were getting stops. We could've improved on the run, though."

Indeed. Missed tackles and poor angles in the secondary enabled Rajion Neal to break a 68-yard touchdown run and helped freshman Quenshaun Watson pop a 61-yard scoring burst.

Although he was credited with just one tackle in the scrimmage, Gordon feels he is getting the hang of the new defensive scheme of first-year coordinator Sal Sunseri.

"I'm getting very comfortable," he said. "We're going over things every day, learning new things and playing pretty fast. I feel like I could've played a lot better today, though, stepped up and made more plays."

Vol defenders believe Sunseri's liberal use of disguises, stunts and blitzes in the front seven will create pressure on opposing passers that is sure to result in costly mistakes.

"Most definitely," Gordon said. "I know they're going to put pressure on guys, which is going to give us an opportunity to make big plays."

Teague agrees that pressuring the quarterback makes life a lot easier for Vol defensive backs.

"The pass rush is very critical, and our D-line is doing a good job," he said. "Our edge rushers are getting good pressure. The pass rush we get allows us to have tighter coverage when that ball comes out quick."

Like Gordon, Teague believes the improvement in Tennessee's front seven is going to produce better play in the secondary.

"With the rushers we've got and the D-line getting pressure, it's all good," he said. "The defense is working as a unit."

Find out more about the Tennessee secondary by listening to safeties coach Josh Conklin in this video interview:

Waggner started all 12 games last season, registering 48 tackles and intercepting two passes. See what the vet said at Science Hill High this week:

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