Wade blossoms at cornerback

Jonathan Wade was a two-way star in high school. He has been a two-way player at Tennessee. The Vols have been waiting for Wade, a talented senior cornerback with sprinter speed, to play to his considerable skill level. The wait might finally be over.

Wade was arguably Tennessee's best defensive back during Saturday's first major scrimmage, making one interception, dropping another and breaking up three passes.

``He's learned how to play football,'' secondary coach Larry Slade said. ``He's playing tough. If they throw it out there towards him enough, he's going to get his share.''

Wade has just two career interceptions, but he's made the most of them. He returned a pick 19 yards for a touchdown against Ole Miss in his first start last season. He also returned an interception 34 yards to the 1 against Georgia, and replays showed he probably scored.

Wade (6-0, 195) might be the Vols' most improved player.

``He's just light years better (than 2005) because he's understanding the scheme,'' Slade said. ``That spring practice – guys take that for granted – but that spring practice (in 2006) was invaluable to him. He sees himself having a future. I think that's important.''

That future is the NFL.

Wade's first four seasons at Tennessee, he didn't appear to have an NFL future. He played mostly receiver his first two years, catching nine passes. He was moved to defense full time in 2004, and, despite defensive coordinator John Chavis proclaiming Wade had All-American ability, he was unproductive and inconsistent.

Oh, he has speed all right. He's been an indoor and outdoor All-American on Tennessee's track team. But he didn't know how to use that speed on the football field.

Wade split time between track and football his first four years at Tennessee, but decided last spring to concentrate on football before joining the track team. It paid huge dividends on the gridiron.

``It helped a lot,'' Wade said. ``Instead of going back and forth, worrying about this race or that race, I was able to focus on football the entire time.

``Not only did it help me, I think it helped the entire defense because they were able to see me the whole time just like I was able to see them. Chemistry is a big thing when it comes to the secondary. You have to know who you can trust back there, who's going to do what and when they're going to do it.''

Having played receiver two years also has been a benefit to Wade.

``Oh yeah, I believe it helps knowing how receivers react to a lot of different things,'' Wade said. ``It all goes together. It's like a big puzzle. If every piece fits into its position, nothing will move.''

If Wade keeps playing the way he did Saturday, nothing will move him out of his starting job. He's running No. 1 ahead of Roshaun Fellows, who was a Freshman All-America defensive back in 2004.

Jonathan Wade said his confidence level is ``pretty high. It has to be in the secondary. You have to have a short memory, sort of a swagger, some kind of cockiness that you feel like you can do anything.

``In the secondary, you have such a disadvantage because you have no clue of what's going on. You have to feel like whatever it is, you can handle it.''

Slade has that confidence in Wade now. Asked if Wade could be a lock-down corner, Slade said: ``Jonathan has that ability.''

Wade isn't the only one. Slade thinks he's got another lock-down corner on the other side, Inquoris Johnson.

``Inky Johnson has got so much respect, he didn't see a lot of balls thrown his way (during the scrimmage),'' Slade said.

With two solid corners, Slade feels he has the makings of an outstanding secondary. He praised the play of safeties Antwan Stewart, Jonathan Hefney and Demetrice Morley. He also said redshirt freshman Antonio Wardlow is a ``tremendous hitter.''

``We have five or six guys that are really solid,'' Slade said. ``But we need a couple more guys to step up.''

Slade is expecting a big year from Morley.

``Right now, man, as a player, he has made so many strides,'' Slade said. ``That's a guy that's made tremendous improvement. He's playing with effort. Golly, he's such an athlete. Wow!''

PRACTICE SCHEDULE: After taking off Sunday, the Vols will work Monday afternoon, then have the first of two two-a-day practices Tuesday. The other is Thursday. The next scrimmage is Saturday at 8 p.m. at Neyland Stadium. The final regular scrimmage is Tuesday, Aug. 22 – the day before classes begin.

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