DB outlook bright

It would be an exaggeration to say Larry Slade has it made in the shade. Still, Tennessee's secondary coach has a lot more reason to smile than he did this time last year. His troops have gone from being the team's weakest link to its strongest link in a span of 12 months.

This time last year Slade was understandably anxious. Converted cornerbacks Antwan Stewart and Jonathan Hefney were preparing to play safety for the first time … and Stewart was rusty following a one-year layoff caused by a torn ACL. Jason Allen was readjusting to cornerback after playing all of 2004 at safety. Only one starter would be lining up where he had been in 2004, sophomore cornerback Roshaun Fellows, and he was wildly inconsistent. Depth was non-existent.

The results were predictable. Tennessee ranked 10th among the 12 SEC schools in pass defense, allowing 215.7 yards per game. Only Kentucky (243.3) and Vanderbilt (223.8) did worse. The Vols also finished 10th in completion defense, allowing 59.9 percent. Only Kentucky (62.2) and Mississippi State (61.3) did worse.

The two corners who started UT's 2005 season did not manage to finish it. Allen lost his job due to a midseason hip injury, giving way to Inquoris Johnson. Fellows lost his first-team spot due to erratic play, giving way to Jonathan Wade.

Once the speedy Wade joined the lineup, Tennessee's secondary began to jell. He, Johnson, Hefney and Stewart started the last six games and improved (except for a poor outing in Game 10 vs. Vanderbilt) on a weekly basis.

Whereas Slade had just one returning starter for 2005, he has four returning starters for 2006. That kind of experience will give him the freedom to utilize more coverages and disguises in the season ahead.

"Obviously, when you have experience you're able to do more things," Slade conceded, "but it's still a challenge."

In addition to more flexibility, Slade has much more versatility at his disposal than he had last year. Several defensive backs have proved themselves capable of playing both safety and corner.

"Playing Jonathan Hefney and Antwan Stewart at safety … man, it's helped us," Slade noted. "It gives you more flexibility. Both of those guys can go play corner. Roshaun Fellows, if he had to, can go play safety. Demetrice Morley is capable of playing corner. It's a much better feeling going into this season."

Although Morley is capable of playing corner, the talented sophomore won't do so any time soon.

"Morley has the TALENT to play cornerback," Slade noted, "but we're still going to play him at safety. In our dime package, though, he's going to play one of our inside guys, so he'll play a lot of coverage in that position."

With considerably more experience and depth on hand than he had a year ago, Slade's challenge shouldn't be nearly as daunting in 2006 as it was in 2005.

"We have some hard-working guys," he said. "It's good to have that type talent and flexibility."

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