UT Secondary

This has been, by far, Phillip Fulmer's most underachieving team at Tennessee.

Outside of C.J. Fayton, the receivers have underachieved.

Outside of Rick Clausen's second half at LSU, the quarterbacks have underachieved.

Outside of Rob Smith and Arron Sears, the offensive line has underachieved.

Outside of Gerald Riggs' second half at LSU, the running backs have underachieved.

Outside of James Wilhoit's kickoffs, the special teams have underachieved.

Tennessee's front four and linebackers – ranked among the SEC's best -- have played well.

That leaves only one area of the team that has overachieved – the secondary.

After a shaky start against Alabama-Birmingham, Larry Slade's defensive backs have answered the bell, making big plays against mobile, quality quarterbacks.

The task gets tougher without the secondary's leader, Jason Allen, out for the season with a dislocated hip. But the Vols have enough talent and confidence to get the job done, although Alabama's Brodie Croyle and Notre Dame's Brady Quinn will present major challenges.

A unit that entered the season as a question mark has made its mark. Jonathan Hefney made arguably the play of the year with his interception against LSU that sparked a fourth-quarter rally for a win over a top five team on the road.

Jonathan Wade's interception and return against Georgia helped cut the lead to 13-7 in the third quarter, at least giving the Vols a glimmer of hope in an eventual 27-14 loss. Wade also returned an interception for a touchdown against Ole Miss.

``What a confidence deal to see him make plays like that,'' said Slade, UT's oft-criticized secondary coach.

``He's had an opportunity to go out under the lights and make plays. Up until (the Ole Miss game) he'd played in some games but never really performed well under the lights. So we're excited abut the way he's playing and the confidence he's playing with.''

Slade said his secondary has been ``very disciplined'' going against such talents as Chris Leak, JaMarcus Russell, Michael Spurlock and D.J. Shockley.

Asked to assess his unit, Slade said: ``We're playing OK. We're a ways away. We've got to keep making more plays.

``I am pleased because we've played with great effort. They come to practice and they work their tails off to try to do the little things and the little details right.''

Asked if he's surprised, Slade said: ``No sir. We were due for a breakout season.''

Tennessee's secondary doesn't rank all that high statistically – seventh in the SEC in pass defense efficiency and top 35 in the nation. But compared to last season, that's a quantum leap.

In 2004, the Vols were last in the SEC in passing yards allowed per game (236.4), ninth in pass defense efficiency and 76th in the nation. UT allowed opponents to complete 60.8 percent of their passes for over 3,000 yards and 19 touchdowns. The latter two figures were the worst in the SEC. The completion percentage was 11th.

This season, opponents are completing almost 59 percent of their passes for 205 yards per game and an SEC-low one touchdown pass through five games. Considering the quality of passers UT has faced and opponent's inability to run and the big-play interceptions, those pass-defense numbers represent significant improvement.

Only Shockley has averaged more than 12 yards per completion. None has averaged more than 8 yards per pass attempt. Only one – Darrell Hackney – has passed for more than 207 yards (eight did it last year) and just two – Hackney and Leak – have completed more than 60 percent of their passes.

``We're getting better each game,'' Slade said. ``The guys are understanding. We're still young, especially at safety. But they're starting to see things better, starting to make checks better. We're improving.''

Tennessee will go the rest of the season with Wade at one corner and Inky Johnson or 2004 freshman All-American Roshaun Fellows at the other. The safeties are Hefney and Antwan Stewart. Demetrius Morley, a true freshman, is working at safety and cornerback.


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