Schooled by the master

As the opener draws near InsideTennessee takes a look at one of the Vols' most critical positions. Sign in or subscribe now for an in-depth preview.

Before he was the best head coach in college football, Nick Saban was the best secondary coach in college football. After assisting him the past two seasons at Alabama, first-year Tennessee cornerbacks coach Derrick Ansley hopes to spread some Saban magic in the Vol defensive backfield.

"He just coaches details," Ansley said. "Every coach in the country has their own way of coaching details but he's got everything well thought out. He's been doing it a long time."

Indeed. Saban's resume' includes 19 years as a defensive assistant at the pro and college levels, generally specializing in secondary play.

"Any time you've been doing anything as long as he has you're going to be good at it — whether it's driving a truck or being a carpenter or being a plumber," Ansley said. "He's got a lot of experience, and he does a really good job with those defensive backs."

Ansley believes he has enough talent on hand to field a solid group of cornerbacks at Tennessee this fall. Based on the progress he saw throughout spring practice and fall camp, he feels good about his troops heading into Friday's opener against North Carolina State.

"They're coming along well," he said. "We've got a good group of talent back there, with a lot of guys in the mix. We're excited about moving forward and seeing who's going to separate themselves."

With the opener mere days away, no one has separated himself at left corner. Senior Marsalis Teague and sophomore Justin Coleman were bracketed first-team when the Game 1 depth chart was released late last week.

Though somewhat inconsistent, Teague started eight games in 2010 and eight more in 2011, so experience is in his favor. He also starred in Tennessee's first preseason scrimmage.

"Marsalis did great in the scrimmage at Milligan," Ansley said. "He defended the pass well, came up and stuck his face in against the run. I was proud to see that. He's just got to continue to work and get better, compete every snap. That's what we want to see him do. We want to see him master his craft and continue to compete."

Coleman started the first two games of 2011 as a freshman but lost his job after giving up a couple of big plays. He regained a starting spot for Games 9 and 10, then surrendered it after getting burned for another long gain.

"He was a true freshman last year, so you kind of had to think that was going to happen when you throw a guy in that position that's so critical to a defense," Ansley said. "When you give up a play in the secondary everybody takes notice because you're the last line of defense. Justin's had a hell of a camp. He's done a wonderful job of competing. We've got to continue to get him to grow and become the player we know he can be."

Whereas left cornerback remains unsettled, right corner is locked up. Senior Prentiss Waggner overcame a staph infection to hold off junior Eric Gordon for that spot.

"It didn't set him back much," Ansley said of Waggner's infection. "Our trainer was on top of it; Jason McVeigh did a great job of catching it before it got too bad. He missed half a day and was back the next day. He's a tough kid, and we're proud of him getting back out there and doing well."

Waggner's brief absence may prove to be a blessing. Some of the reserve cornerbacks stepped up when given his practice reps. Ansley was encouraged by that.

"Any time you've got a good group of guys like that and somebody goes down, you're able to put some young guys in there and get them some valuable reps, that's always a good thing," he said. "We know what Prentiss brings to the table. He's a veteran who has played a lot of good ball here."

Ansley believes he has capable depth behind Waggner, Gordon, Coleman and Teague.

"You've got three more guys — (redshirt junior) Naz Oliver, (freshman) Deion Bonner and (freshman) Daniel Gray," the Vol aide said. "All of those guys are getting reps. We're spreading all of those guys out to see who can do what. We're trying to build depth at that position. I think we've done a good job of identifying who needs to be where, then coaching those guys up so they can go out and perform."

Although Ansley mentioned seven corners, that doesn't mean he'll play all seven in the opener.

"I want to play as many guys as we feel can go out there and compete at a high level," he said. "Right now we've got a couple of guys we've identified. Now we're looking for more guys to come on and provide depth at that position.

"Any time you can get four, five or six quality guys in the game who can hold up, that's going to make everybody better. Now you're going to do better on third down because you can roll more guys in. The more you've got, the better off you're going to be."

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