Jones is now the Vols’ head coach and that promising cornerback, Cameron Sutton, is now playing about as well as any defensive back in college football. The 6-foot-1, 190-pound sophomore from Jonesboro, Georgia leads the SEC in passes defended (7) and ranks second in interceptions (3). Three of his 20 tackles this season have been behind the line of scrimmage. Oh, yeah, he’s also the Vols’ No. 1 punt-return specialist.
Sutton started every game as a Vol freshman and earned second-team Freshman All-America honors for his efforts. As good as he was in 2013, however, he’s twice that good in 2014.
So what’s the difference in him?
“Just confidence in myself,” he told InsideTennessee. “Confidence in my teammates and everybody around me. Confidence in the situations our coaching staff is putting us in with the different coverages and calls they give us.”
He’s also afraid … but in a good way.
“The fear of letting my teammates down; we preach that,” he said. “We have each other’s backs and we don’t want to let each other down. We don’t want to be the one to give up a play or miss a stop, then have to address the defense and say what you did wrong. It’s an accountability thing, where the defense is accountable for their mistakes and their actions on the field.”
No Vol has been more accountable this fall than Cam Sutton – whether he’s in the final minutes of a game at Oklahoma or the opening minutes of a practice at Haslam Field.
“He’s always working hard in practice. You never see him take a day off,” Vol safety Brian Randolph said. “He’s always in the film room, trying to prepare extra for the game. He seems very determined. He’s hungry. He always wants to do more, always wants to do better.”
Sutton is doing more and doing better this fall. His numbers are only a partial reflection of his progress. He’s exhibiting a lot more toughness, strength and aggressiveness.
“He’s become more of a physical player, and I think it shows on the line of scrimmage, whether he’s pressing or getting off blocks,” secondary coach Willie Martinez said. “His hand violence has improved, and I think his overall awareness of our scheme is better.”
Sutton’s greater familiarity with the scheme is giving the coaching staff more flexibility than it had in 2013, as well.
“We didn’t give him too much last year,” Martinez said. “Now we’re comfortable with giving him a lot more – more checks and more freedom in how he wants to play certain things. You can see his confidence growing. He’s consistently making plays. He’s an impact player, and he’s going to continue to do that for us.”
Sutton always had a high football IQ but he now has the comfort level to fully exploit it.
“He’s got really good instincts. He’s smart,” defensive coordinator John Jancek said. “He understands splits of receivers. He understands the weaknesses of the coverage, and he plays to the strengths and weaknesses. He’s got good ball skills when the ball is in the air, and I think he’s proven that time and time again as people have tried to take shots at him down the field. He’s either batting the ball down or picking it.”
Sutton’s first “pick” came in the opener against Utah State, a game in which he also recorded four stops with one being a tackle for loss. He followed with four more stops, including another TFL, in Game 2 against Arkansas State. Game 3 at Oklahoma saw him register a career-high eight stops and a pass breakup. He recorded his second interception of the season in Game 4 at Georgia and his third in Game 5 against Florida, also contributing a career-best four passes defended.
Basically, Sutton seems to perform better each time he takes the field.
“He’s playing with a lot of confidence right now,” Jones said. “He’s really improved his technique and his man-coverage skills. We talk about a defensive back having the ability to find the ball in the blind spot; he can turn and he can locate the ball. He can high-point the ball. He’s extremely, extremely competitive and he’s as hard a worker as we have in practice.”
As well as Sutton performs in practice, though, he seems to find another gear in games.
“He’s a gamer,” Randolph said. “He’s very competitive, doesn’t want anyone to beat him. He’s very instinctive, very smart and he definitely has a lot of athletic ability.”
All of these attributes enabled Sutton to start his first 17 games as a Vol at one of football’s most demanding positions. He wasn’t expecting to make such an immediate impact.
“Those things kind of fall in place,” he said of the 17 starts. “I chose Tennessee for the tradition and the school. At the time I was committed to the old (Derek Dooley) coaching staff but I was also getting recruited by Cincinnati (where Jones came from) and Auburn, where the defensive staff is from, so it all worked out.”
“You get thrown into the fire in the SEC, so it’s just a challenge where you have to step up to the plate,” he said. “It’s harder to get acclimated that first year, so it’s a challenge to take that role and run with it.”
Tennessee’s secondary has recorded eight interceptions through five games and surrendered only four passing touchdowns. Sutton’s improved play seems to be making those around him better.
“It gives us a lot of flexibility,” Jancek conceded. “When you’ve got good players everything looks better. I’m real proud of Cam, the way he works … business-like. He’s not a joker. He just comes in ready to work and he gets better each and every week.”
Tennessee is riding a three-game losing streak heading into Saturday’s 4 p.m. kickoff against Chattanooga. Despite the skid, Sutton sees a better mood on the team than he saw last fall.
“I do,” he said. “Last year there were times when we got down on ourselves because things didn’t go the way we wanted but this year we’re very motivated. We’re an inspired team. We believe in each other and what this coaching staff is trying to do for us. It’s our job to go out there on Saturdays and get those wins.”
Coming off a gut-wrenching loss to Florida that dropped Tennessee’s record to 2-3, the Vols are in danger of posting a fourth consecutive 5-7 season. Sutton says he and his teammates still have big plans for the 2014 season, however.
“We have a lot of football games left in this season,” he said. “We can still do a lot of big things. We can’t dwell on those losses. We just have to keep moving forward, keep believing in each other and what this program is trying to do and, hopefully, come up with more wins than losses this season.”