Tennessee ranked 10th among the 12 SEC teams in pass defense last season but those same defensive backs are convinced they'll be one of the best secondaries in the league this time.
"We've just got more confidence," safety Jonathan Hefney says. "We just go out there and play. We know we don't have any worries, so we don't worry about what other people have to say."
All four secondary starters return from 2005. That's in stark contrast to last fall, when Tennessee's secondary was a patchwork unit. Hefney was playing free safety for the first time. Antwan Stewart was playing strong safety for the first time. Jonathan Wade was a track star trying to become a competent cornerback. Inquoris Johnson was an unknown.
Those four guys took their lumps last fall but grew from the experience. One year later, the weakest link on the team has become the strongest link. Now the secondary is being asked to carry the defense while the young linemen and linebackers mature.
"It feels different," Hefney concedes, "but we still need the D-line and linebackers to help out. They're the ones who blitz. We just sit back there and make plays."
The defensive backs made three key plays last Saturday, intercepting three passes. Hefney is hoping for more once the season starts.
"Hopefully, the quarterback will make 10 bad throws," he says. "Then we'll get 10 picks in the game."
No. 1 quarterback Erik Ainge completed just 13 of 26 pass attempts against the first-team secondary in Scrimmage No. 1. The defensive backs found that very encouraging.
"I think it was because we put a lot of pressure on him," Hefney says. "Our linebackers blitzed a lot, put pressure on Ainge to throw the ball away or scramble."
One of the three interceptions was made by Hefney in the end zone on the scrimmage's next-to-last play.
"He (Ainge) just threw it up, so it was pretty easy," Hefney recalls. "We had two plays left; he just threw it up and I was happy to get it."