"I think they're growing up," defensive coordinator John Chavis said this week. "We've got some real talent back there. The thing we're concerned about is inexperience."
That's a legitimate concern. Cornerback Roshaun Fellows and free safety Jonathan Hefney were part-time starters last year but they're still just sophomores. Strong safety Antwan Stewart is a junior but he hasn't started since the early stages of 2003 -- having missed all of 2004 with a torn ACL.
The other starter, Jason Allen, is a senior but he's making the switch from safety to cornerback. Moreover, Hefney and Stewart are making the switch from cornerback to safety. So, even the guys who aren't young chronologically are young in terms of experience at their current positions.
Meanwhile, the backups are REALLY young. Demetrice Morley looks to be the No. 1 reserve at safety, and he's a true freshman. And, with junior Jonathan Wade sidelined by a hip flexor, the top reserve at cornerback appears to be Inky Johnson, a sophomore who saw very little action in 2004.
Although the Vol secondary still has a lot of growing up to do, Chavis seems confident the DBs will be fine in time.
"We're talented enough to be good, and they're being well coached (by Larry Slade)," the coordinator said. "We've just got to continue to grow. They were in better position to make plays (Tuesday than Saturday). We expect them to improve daily."
There have been encouraging signs lately. Hefney and Stewart recorded interceptions in Saturday night's scrimmage. Fellows registered an Oskie and a spectacular pass breakup in Tuesday's dress rehearsal.
"Fellows has played enough around here I expected him to play a little better earlier," Chavis said. "But he's playing well now. The focus has been getting those safeties (Hefney and Stewart) up to speed."
Despite its relative inexperience, this defensive backfield has a lot more potential than last year's quartet.
"I know we're ahead of where we were last year," Chavis said. "Talent-wise, there's no comparison. Again, it's the mental part (that's a concern). We've got to do a great job as coaches of putting them in positions they can handle and not asking them to do things they're not ready to handle.
"It's a work in progress. We're not good yet but we're working at it."