The cornerstone of the secondary in 2002 is arguably third-year starter at free safety Rashad Baker. Baker was recruited as a wide receiver, but was forced to defense in 2000 when an injury occured to veteran Andre Lott. Baker's first game as a starter was against LSU in Baton Rouge. Most all Vol fans can remember what happened on that faithful evening in the bayou. Since that night Rashad Baker has grown into one of the premier players in the SEC and the nation at his position. His remarkable one-handed interception in the first game of 2001 against Syracuse was arguably the play of the year for Tennessee on defense. Rashad has so become part of the defense, that now his role appears to be spreading to the offensive side of the ball.
Baker had began running drills as a wide receiver within the first two weeks of fall practice beginning. Coach Fulmer, not one to use a player to be an ironman, insists that Rashad is a special player and the coaching staff would not be trying him on both sides of the ball if he weren't fully aware of his assignments on defense. "Rashad has proved that is smart enough and fully capable of going both ways," Fulmer said. "Now keep in mind he won't be going full-time at receiver, but he is going to give us some looks." Baker's influence as a play-maker may not only be as a safety in 2002, but when he comes off the field from defense, he might be wishing himself good luck on the offensive side of things.
Another player that will make a tremendous impact in Tennessee's secondary is cornerback Jabari Greer. Greer has been known for the last two years as the "big-play guy." Jabari insists that his teammates are who swing the big breaks his way. "Well my boys are who have helped make it happen. Big John (Henderson) tipped the pass against Florida that I picked off. I mean there is no way I get up that high, so it is a good thing he was able to." Greer forsees big things for his team and teammates this coming year. "We are so focused as a team and a group that it is like we know what each other is going to do and what each other is thinking all the time. Whether is is Julian (Battle) or Rashad (Baker) or Willie (Miles) or whoever is on the field. We are ready to create plays for our team."
Greer's "nose for the ball" that most coaches want in their defensive players and the ability his secondary teammates bring to the field, will give him the opportunity to make the big play in games this coming football year. If Jabari is able to dodge injury, he should be considered as one of the top corner backs in college football by midseason. That is how important Mr. Greer could be to Tennessee's football team.
The X-factor in the secondary is just a second year player. Julian Battle came to Tennessee in the spring of 2001. Battle was inked in as the starter at strong safety at the beginning of the '01 season. In the meeting with Notre Dame last season, Julian kept the Vols in the game for the first half. With the Irish driving and inside the redzone, Battle stripped Notre Dame runner Tony Driver as he was inches for the pylon. The next series Battle once again saved the Vols by popping the ball loose from an irish runner and taking the fumble back for a touchdown. If you consider that plus 9 pass breakups and two interceptions, Battle is someone who can change opposing momentum in the blink of an eye. Battle will assume a role at strong safety and at the corner back position. Battle is,in the words of defensive coordinator John Chavis, "a first or second round NFL-type cornerback." Battle would probably be starting at corner if Tennessee coaches were comfortable starting one of the backup safeties. Vol fans, do not be surprised if Battle is the third of three Tennessee defensive backs that become all conference this season.
The Role Players:
Willie Miles halfway frowned and halfway smirked as I said the words; Jabar Gaffney. Two seasons ago Miles was covering Gaffney when he made the infamous phantom catch in the corner of the endzone to secure a 27-23 win for the Florida Gators. "That is something I really hope I can settle in the NFL," Miles said." Miles started all 12 games in 2000 which was his junior season. Last fall Miles suffered a neck injury that forced him to redshirt the 2001 football year. "The injury made me slow down and do things different. I have heard all the talk about me not being able to cover, but I promise you that I have something to prove this year." This kind of talk is what John Chavis loves to hear. "Willie worked very hard over the summer to improve. Frankly he is the reason that Julian has not moved to corner. He has shown the ability to play the corner and allow us to leave Julian covering deep." Miles position coach Larry Slade also concurs with Chavis. "Willie has reemerged as a heck of a football player." Miles has not shown the flashes of brilliance that the aforementioned three guys have, but he is going to play a major role for the Vols this season.
There were two players Tennessee recruited in 1999 that were super receivers that turned out to be members of the secondary. Rashad Baker was one and Mark Jones was the other. Jones' 5-9 frame hurt his chances and coaches moved him over to the other side of the ball. After two years in the secondary with limited playing time at safety he is now spliting duties between safety and receiver. "Mark is still primarily a safety, but he will see some time at wideout," Coach Fulmer said. Jones has seen limited time on defense in his first two years. To Jones credit, he has made some very big plays in his field time. Jones was the led special teams tackler in 2001 with 14 total tackles. Mark's lone interception came in a 38-0 walloping of Vanderbilt last season. He took the pick back to the Vol's 24-yard line and the offense put it in the endzone five plays later. Jones may not start at any point in 2002, but he will play a major role off the bench especially in the nickel and dime package that the Vol coaches will likely use against Miami and Florida.
The Difference Makers:
Steven Marsh was voted the most improved defensive player in the spring of 2001. Teammates have often raved about his ability to "lay the lumber" to receivers. Marsh has had difficulty is pass coverage which as limited him in snaps that coaches feel confident he can be productive in. Steven's big game of his career to this point has been his two interception game against Kentucky in 2000. Marsh sustained an injury in fall drills in the last week. It is unknown how much he will be able to contribute at 100 percent. If his injury is not serious, he will see his fair share of playing time this season.
Gibril Wilson came to Tennessee only seven months ago, yet he has established himself as one of the premier hitters on the Tennessee roster. Wilson came to the Vols from City College in San Francisco. In his two year career out west, he had 135 tackles, 9 sacks and 5 interceptions. Wilson's coach at City College, George Rush, says he can be a big-time player in Tennessee's defensive schemes. "Gibril did it all for us. Played offense, defense and special teams. I think he will make things happen next season for Tennessee." Gibril had a strong spring practice and will see a lot of action in Tennessee's nickel and dime packages. If a receiver playing Tennessee doesn't keep an eye on Gibril, he may take their head clean off their shoulders. At least that is what the coaching staff is hoping for.
Robert Boulware was recruited very highly out of Charlotte, North Carolina. Boulware has the size, 5-10, 185 pounds, to be a great player at cornerback. After redshirting in 2001, this past spring he had a very impressive showing. Boulware was very challenging to Tennessee receivers in the spring and a couple of pretty interceptions in scrimmage action. On one memorable play this spring, Boulware stayed in stride with Vol receiver Leonard Scott. As the ball was thrown, Boulware popped the ball out of the air and it bounced right into his arms. Scott's momentum kept him from tackling Boulware on the play and he took the interception back for what could have been a touchdown. That kind of athleticism is what will put Robert Boulware in position to help Tennessee tremendously in passing downs, special teams and eventually as a starting corner for the Vols.
We still ain't decided yet:
Corey Larkins came to Tennessee as a highly touted running back from Opelika, Alabama. After having a two touchdown game against Syracuse last season, Larkins endured a move midway through the season. The move took him to cornerback. Over the next couple of months, Larkins seemed to grow to the position. He even held his own against Kelley Washington is spring drills. Larkins doesn't have all the tools to become a impact player yet, but he has shown the occasional flash that would lead me to believe that he will be very productive when the Vols need him late in the game. Should an injury befall Greer or Miles, Larkins might just be the guy that you see run onto the field to pick up where one of his teammates left off. Corey has keen instincts and lacks more experience to gain that knowledge of the position. If he picks that up, he might be Tennessee's corner of the future. If he does not, he will be held to special teams rolls and mop-up duty. Only Corey can decide which he will do. He has already made a sizeable step toward the first choice.
When Vol runningback Travis Henry told his little cousin Shannon about the University of Tennessee football program, it makes you wonder what his reaction was. Did he laugh at Travis for going so far from home? Or did the thought of playing for the Vols immediately get his gander? Either way, Shannon Benton signed with Tennessee last season. Like Boulware, he redshirted the 2001 season. Unlike Boulware, Benton has not made the plays to distinguish himself as a difference maker to Tennessee in 2002. Benton's one shining moment of glory was in the Orange and White game this past spring. Benton scooped up a fumble and took it to the endzone for the only touchdown of the game. Shannon has worlds of potential, he will just have to separate himself by great special teams play and solid practice reps.
Jason Allen one year ago was thought to be a lock to be a Georgia Bulldog. In a span of about one week that perception changed drastically. Allen signed with Tennessee in late December, enrolled in January and was dressed out for the Citrus Bowl before some recruits knew where they were going to be attending in the fall. Allen was voted as Alabama state high school player of the year in 2001. After sitting out spring practice in rehab a shoulder injury, Allen has emerged as a surprise candidate for cornerback duties in the future. His strong fall practice play continues to earn him more and more reps in practice. Allen could move to linebacker or safety, but for the time he has shown himself to be capable of containing the corner for the Vols.
Antwan Stewart was a last minute signee for Vol coaches after A.J. Davis committed to North Carolina late in the recruiting game. Stewart is a tremendous athete, but recent academic questions have put his Vol career at a stand-still. If Stewart can get past the NCAA clear, he may look to redshirt to catch up on his body strength and knowledge of the playbook.
There is a short summarization of Tennessee's secondary. As I said, the Tennessee coaches are very excited about what all these guys bring to the table very week. If they all play up to their potential, Vol fans could be "Toasting in Tempe" in January. If not, well you can't spell Outback Bowl with out UT.