Vol DBs ready for big year

Tennessee's much-maligned secondary may be ready to silence its doubters.

Despite allowing opponents the third-lowest completion percentage (53.3) in the Southeastern Conference, Vol defensive backs were routinely criticized last fall. Instead of pouting, they worked hard to improve. The result was a strong showing in spring practice and an even stronger showing in preseason drills. From all appearances, the secondary will be one of Tennessee's strongest units this fall.

''That group has been criticized probably more than any other, whether it was fair or unfair,'' defensive coordinator John Chavis said recently. ''Sometimes I wonder if you guys (media) look at stats when you make some of the comments that are made. That group's been criticized, but they've taken it and hopefully they've grown up. From the way they practice, they appear to have grown up quite a bit. We're excited about where they are.''

The DBs seem excited, too. There's a little swagger in their walk these days.

''The guys are playing with a lot of confidence,'' Chavis said. ''It's a group that's talented. We knew that last year but it's a group that's playing with some confidence now because they've got some experience. We don't have busted alignments now, and we don't have busted assignments. I like the way they're playing, as a group.''

Willie Miles has been the surprise of the secondary. He started all 12 games in 2000 but was generally unimpressive. After missing last season with an injury, he is a vastly improved player in 2002. He's slated to start at the cornerback spot opposite junior Jabari Greer, who also has made significant strides in the past year. Backing them are redshirt freshman Robert Boulware and sophomore Corey Larkins.

Junior Rashad Baker is back for his third season as the starting free safety and senior Julian Battle is back for his second season as the starting strong safety. Junior Mark Jones, junior college transfer Gibril Wilson and senior Steven Marsh are quality reserves. Battle and Jones also can play cornerback.

All things considered, the secondary may be Tennessee's most improved position this fall.

''Jabari has really grown up, and Jabari played well for us last year,'' Chavis said. ''Then you look at what Willie Miles has done at corner, and the ability to move Battle out there (to corner). They've grown as a unit, and those guys really care about each other. They were criticized quite a bit but they took it to the field, worked at getting better, and I think they've made a ton of progress.''

Whether that progress translates into improved pass-defense statistics remains to be seen, however. The recent ACL injury to defensive end Constantin Ritzmann leaves UT without a proven pass rusher. Still, Chavis vows to generate pressure on opposing passers this fall, even if it means blitzing his linebackers from start to finish.

''We've been a pressure defense for eight years now, and that's not going to change,'' he said. ''We'd like to be able to rush four (linemen) from time to time but we're going to bring extra guys. That's just us. When we do need to have a good four-man rush, I think we've got four or five good quality guys we can put out there and get pressure with four.''

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