UT Secondary a Primary Concern

Given the problems Tennessee has experienced defending the pass the last couple of seasons, the secondary is probably the most scrutinized unit on either side of the ball entering the 2005 campaign.

That situation is further complicated by a potential starting lineup that looks oddly out of place. Larry Slade's charges are using two safeties — Jonathan Hefney and Antwan Stewart — that haven't played primarily at on the corner and a cornerback in Jason Allen, who thrived at safety last season. The other corner is manned by sophomore RaShaun Fellows who lost his starting spot after injuries sidelined Jonathan Wade in preseason practice. Whether Fellows maintains that position once Wade is healthy is purely a matter of conjecture.

By all accounts, Hefney has impressed coaches with his ability to support the run during the early phases of preseason practice. He is a physical tackler that consistently demonstrated good fundamentals as a true freshman in 2004. However, at 180 pounds it's questionable whether he can absorb the degree of punishment that comes with taking on backs and tight ends that outweigh him by 40 to 80 pounds.

That in no way is an indictment of Hefney or his talent. It's simply a nod to the laws of inertia that state a larger mass moving forward at a faster rate has a considerable advantage. Then there's the matter of passes that go over the deep middle Hefney must defend against receivers that are a half-a-foot taller.

At the strong safety post, Stewart offers more in the way of resistance, having added some 20 pounds on a 5-foot-11 frame. But below the waist he he looks closer to a 160-pound cornerback than a 205-pound safety. That can be a significant factor when it comes to having the leg drive needed to arrest forward progress. Stewart also has a history of injuries that has resulted in him playing just one season in the last three, which was as a corner.

Again that's not a slap at Stewart, it's just an observation that he doesn't have the classic cut of strong safety predecessors like Tori Noel, Fred White and Andre Lott. Neither is it to suggest he can't excel, after all, a much smaller player, J.J. McCleskey, did very well in that role for the Vols. However, McCleskey played next to Jason Parker, who started three seasons at free safety for the Vols.

Perhaps the strongest argument for using Allen at safety more than at corner is the fact he was the SEC's leading tackler in 2004 at free safety with 112 stops (82 solo). Why put your strongest run-support DB in a position in which opponents can simply eliminate him by way of formation?

These concerns may all be unfounded. The coaches certainly know from the many hours they spend with players what their strongest lineup is, which may or may not mean getting the best players on the field at one time.

For sure, it won't take long to find out as UAB brings an advanced passing offense to Neyland Stadium followed by a trip to the Swamp in Gainesville where Urban Meyers has installed an attack designed to isolate weaknesses in the secondary and create the most favorable match-ups.

The Gators gave the Vols fits with the passing game in 2004 and that offense wasn't nearly as sophisticated as what UT will see this year. Learning from mistakes is one thing, learning before mistakes is quite another.

Inside Tennessee Top Stories