DBs face test

Tennessee's pass defense ranked 10th among the 12 SEC teams in 2005 but it was supposed to be vastly improved in 2006. Of course, it was supposed to have Inky Johnson playing cornerback, Antwan Stewart playing strong safety and Roshaun Fellows playing nickel back.

Heading into Game 5 today at Memphis, Johnson is out for the year, Fellows is out for the year and Stewart is playing cornerback for the first time since 2003. As a result, Tennessee's secondary is not as stingy as preseason projections suggested.

The Big Orange ranks sixth among SEC teams in pass defense, allowing 177.0 yards per game. Moreover, the Vols rank seventh in pass defense efficiency at 127.4. By comparison, league-leading LSU has a 61.3 rating.

Even with Johnson at cornerback and Stewart at strong safety, Tennessee surrendered 272 passing yards to California in Game 1 and 127 yards (on just nine pass attempts) to run-oriented Air Force in Game 2.

Oddly enough, the pass defense improved – statistically, at least – since Johnson's injury forced Stewart to play corner and thrust Demetrice Morley into the starting lineup at strong safety. Florida threw for 199 yards in Game 3 and Marshall for just 110 in Game 4.

Cal and Florida were supposed to present the two biggest threats to UT's pass defense this fall but that may not be the case. Memphis has thrown the ball with considerable success. Martin Hankins completed 21 of 27 passes for 211 yards and two touchdowns in Game 1 against Ole Miss. He completed 19 of 30 for 294 yards and another TD in Game 2 vs. Chattanooga, then completed 24 of 45 for 265 yards and three TDs in Game 3 vs. East Carolina.

Statistically, Hankins is nearly on pace with UT's Erik Ainge this fall. Ainge has completed 70 of 106 passes, Hankins 64 of 102. Ainge is completing 66.0 percent of his throws, Hankins 62.7 percent. Ainge has thrown eight TDs and five interceptions, Hankins six of each. Ainge averages 266 passing yards per game, Hankins 257.

The key question: Can Tennessee's patchwork secondary stop Memphis' passing game often enough for the Vols to win comfortably or will the underdog Tigers push UT to the limit, as Air Force did in Game 2?

Jonathan Hefney is solid at free safety and Jonathan Wade is first-rate at one corner. Thus, the guys Memphis is likely to attack are Morley at strong safety and Stewart at corner.

Secondary coach Larry Slade says Morley has improved significantly in recent weeks. After posting zero tackles in Games 2 and 3, he registered nine stops in Game 4 vs. Marshall. His coverage skills are improving, as well.

"He's getting better," Slade says. "He's understanding what to do and getting fundamentally better. He still has a ways to go but he's improving. Athletically, he's there. That's never been an issue. He's very athletic. He's getting there. He made a lot of improvement from his first start to last week."

Because of major reconstructive surgery, Stewart is not as fast or as nimble as he was when he played cornerback three years ago. He's essentially getting by on technique and savvy.

"He's solid," Slade notes. "He's a veteran guy that understands the position and understands how to keep the big one off of us and that type of thing."

If Tennessee can prevent Memphis from completing "the big one," the Vols should win comfortably this afternoon. If not, this could prove to be another nail-biter.

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