Toney beats the odds

InsideTennessee realizes that the best stories don't always involve the best players. Check out this article about a former walk-on who is playing a key role for the 2013 Vols:

For a walk-on, escaping the scout squad and evolving into a first-teamer is similar to a tadpole escaping the pond and evolving into a frog. Case in point: Tennessee's JaRon Toney.

Growing up just 15 miles away, Toney was not recruited by the Big Orange … despite running for 2,358 yards and a state-record 50 touchdowns en route to being the state's Gatorade Player of the Year as a senior at Alcoa High School in 2009.

Determined to be a Vol, he enrolled without a scholarship, redshirted in 2010, then played sparingly as a fourth-string tailback in 2011. The 5-foot-10, 188-pounder persevered, however, switching to cornerback and winning a scholarship as a sophomore in 2012. He started four times last fall, posting career-high 11-tackle efforts against Missouri and Kentucky.

Now serving as Tennessee's first-team nickel back, Toney is coming off a nine-tackle effort last Saturday at Missouri. For the season he is the Vols' fifth-leading tackler with 37 stops. He's also tied for second in special-teams tackles with 6.

Toney is one of those rare walk-ons who works his way into a key role. That is mostly a credit to his rugged nature.

"My strengths are I'm tough, I don't back down from nobody and I've got a little fight in me," he said. "Being a walk-on had a lot to do with it. Once you've been a walk-on you can't let go of it. You get comfortable and you're right back in the pond."

Toney's toughness and tenacity have not escaped the notice of Tennessee's secondary coach. He recognizes the chip on the player's shoulder.

"I see that," Willie Martinez said. "But I also see his personality. He's a kid that practices really hard, has a good attitude and is really coachable … and you can't ask much more than that."

Although Toney had just four starts prior to this season, he is something of a grizzled veteran in the freshman-heavy Tennessee secondary. His experience is serving him well as the No. 1 nickel back this fall.

"You can see it," Martinez said. "Understanding leverage, understanding his assignment is crucial because that is a position that you have to know a lot. You have to be involved in the checks. It gives us a tremendous amount of experience that some of the other guys don't have."

Given how green Tennessee's secondary is, the Vols' defensive coordinator really appreciates Toney's maturity.

"JaRon is a guy that knows what to do," John Jancek said. "He's in position; he's just got to make plays when the time presents itself. I'm happy with him. He's just got to keep getting better."

Toney must keep getting better because the nickel back generally plays a major role in crucial situations.

"Yeah, Coach (Martinez) says the nickel back needs to be the third-down man," Toney conceded. "Money down … that's what we call it. On third down we need to make our money and get off the field. That's pretty important."

Lacking elite size and speed, Toney compensates by being aggressive and technically sound.

"I'm always coming downhill," he said. "And I'm a pretty good tackler."

Although he recorded 37 tackles in the last four games of 2012, Toney believes he is a better player now that he has a full year of secondary play behind him.

"I feel more comfortable," he said. "These coaches have different techniques that make covering a little bit easier. The transition to these coaches and having another year under my belt makes me feel more comfortable."

Toney's willingness to move from tailback to cornerback to nickel back says a lot about his team-first approach to football. Vol coaches appreciate that.

"I proved that I like to win," he said. "In one-on-one drills to show how tough you are, I don't like to lose. I think I've proved that. They see you fighting to win, and that's what they want."

Tennessee's coaches respect combative players, whether they're All-SEC standouts or obscure former walk-ons.

"You can be 1 to 4 on the depth chart," Toney noted, "but if you ain't hungry and fighting every day you never know where you're going to be (on the next depth chart)."

Obviously, Toney's rise from scout-squad performer to scholarship player to first-team nickel back serves as an inspiration to other walk-ons.

"Not only other walk-ons but other players," he said. "When I got my scholarship they saw that as something big. They were like, ‘Hey, it's not impossible. Hard work does make things happen.'"

No doubt JaRon Toney's hard work will continue. He knows that, without it, he's just one hop away from being back in the pond.

JaRon Toney

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