However Tennessee doesn't have any appreciable game experience with redshirt freshman Jerod Parish or JC transfer Brandon Johnson who were battling for the spot at the end of spring practice. Jason Allen got a look at strong safety this spring, but the knee injury to cornerback Antwan Stewart is likely to keep Allen at the corner where he proved a great matchup for big receivers last season.
The return of Jonathan Wade from track and the arrival of Jonathan Hefney from prep school this fall could fortify the corners enough to allow Allen to move to strong safety, but given the relative lack of prior playing time logged by redshirt freshman Roshaun Fellows, junior Robert Boulware, Wade and Hefney, UT figures to be stronger with Allen at the corner.
That's where true freshman Ellix Wilson comes into play, so to speak. A three-year starter at Memphis Melrose, Wilson earned all-state honors and was rated the nation's No. 36 safety prospect by The Insiders. Moreover, at 6-2, 205 and with 4.5 speed, he has the ideal combination of size and speed to flourish in Tennessee's defensive scheme.
Heard of Felix the Cat? Well, meet Ellix the Bat, a force on the field of play who knows how to lay the wood on a receiver, runner, quarterback or anyone in the general vincinity of the football. Instead of a bag of tricks, Ellix has a bag of sticks. If you plan to trespass in Wilson's territory be prepared to pay the pound of flesh. In fact, pounding flesh and separating ball from player is Wilson's specialty. Last season against Hillsboro in the state semifinals he recorded 12 tackles and caused three fumbles, one which he returned for a touchdown.
His reputation as a physical player is more than mere hype, and his pigskin pedigree suggests he could be ready to assume an early role at the collegiate level. His brother, Cedrick Wilson, earned a letter at UT as a true freshman after working his way into the rotation at receiver with the likes of Marcus Nash, Peerless Price and Jermaine Copeland. He went on to start three seasons and led the Vols in receiving in 1999 and 2000. What's more remarkable: Cedrick, who was voted UT team captain his senior season, had been a quarterback at Melrose High School.
Ellix won't have that adjustment to make as he has made his living in the secondary from Day One of high school.
"Ellix has started since he was a freshman," said Ingram. "He really only plays defense, he plays strong safety and corner also. He could probably play either position at the next level. He's such an aggressive player and a big-time hitter, strong safety is where he might be more valuable.
Ellix shares his older brother's poise under pressure, competitive nature and sharp instincts, but he's bigger, stronger and faster. Ellix brings a load in a hurry from his strong safety post. He's also a versatile talent. He can transform himself into cover corner capable of matching up with physical receivers. Or he can become a fourth linebacker where he can put heat on the quarterback and stuff the run.
Through his playing experience and athletic apptitude, Wilson was something of a coach on the field for the Golden Wildcats which is a another positive portent of his potential to make an early impact at Tennessee.
"He's a very aggressive player, very sharp, very intelligent," said Ingram. "He's a player that probably understands the game better than anyone I know at his level.
"He's able to be a coach on the field, to remember the things the coaches say and be able to translate it. He was our best leader as a junior. He's been showing those qualities ever since his freshman year."
Wilson intercepted six passes as a freshman and three in each his sophomore and junior seasons as teams tended to be too tepid to test him.
As a freshman at the next level teams will seek Ellix Wilson out, and if he's up to the challenge Tennessee's secondary could be special.