"They work so hard and play with such great effort," he said. "These guys are just phenomenal at running to the football and doing those type things. It helps your confidence, for sure."
Slade's confidence is tempered, however, by the knowledge that he has new starters at three of the four secondary positions. Jason Allen was an All-SEC safety last year but he's making the move to corner this fall. Jonathan Hefney was a Freshman All-America corner last fall but he's learning to play free safety this season. Antwan Stewart, who missed all of 2004 with a torn ACL, is adjusting to strong safety after playing exclusively at cornerback previously. The only returning starter playing the same position as last year is corner Roshaun Fellows.
No one knows how all of the changes will work out, including Slade.
"It's a new thing," he conceded. "You have two new safeties, and I'm looking forward to seeing them play. We have a freshman safety (Demetrice Morley) who's outstanding, and I'm looking forward to seeing him play. I'm looking forward to getting Jason Allen back on a corner. Inky Johnson will play. Hopefully, Antonio Gaines and Jonathan Wade will play. I'm excited about all those guys."
Tennessee's depth in the secondary was so weak last fall that the Vols stopped using the five- and six-defensive back packages that served them so well in previous seasons. This often forced UT linebackers to cover opposing receivers. Now that the depth problem in the secondary has been resolved, that shouldn't happen much in 2005.
"It's a lot better when you're able to match up," Slade said. "We still have to go out and prove it but we have a chance to have eight or nine guys that are capable of playing."
After losing senior starters Gibril Wilson, Rashad Baker and Jabari Greer following the 2003 season, Slade knew he had some glaring holes to fill in 2004. Having to fill those holes with freshmen like Hefney and Fellows was "scary" he said.
Those fears were well founded. Opposing passers burned the youthful Vol secondary for huge chunks of yardage last fall.
"If you look at the film of last year, there was a big play here and a big play there," Slade said. "We're a lot more comfortable this year."
After getting toasted for 402 passing yards in UT's first preseason scrimmage, Vol defensive backs made real progress -- allowing 326 passing yards in scrimmage No. 2 and 250 in scrimmage No. 3. Were those numbers a true indication of how much the secondary improved?
"Wait until Saturday," Slade hedged. "I will say this: There were fewer critical errors in the last two scrimmages -- fewer big plays – and that's what we're very excited about."
Tennessee's defensive backs won't have to wait until Game 2 against Florida's Chris Leak to learn how they stack up against a talented passer. UAB quarterback Darrell Hackney threw for 3,070 yards last fall, with 26 touchdown passes and just eight interceptions. He could give the Vols fits.
"It would be nicer to open up with a lesser opponent," Slade said. "We're playing against an outstanding passer. Hackney has the ability to move around in the pocket, find receivers. He has an extraordinarily strong arm. If you watch him on tape you see him throw off his back foot 50 or 60 yards.
"We just have to be totally disciplined. If you've got the middle third, you can't leave it. He's a guy who can get the ball there, and that's a challenge."