Secondary SOS

Tennessee football coach Phillip Fulmer rarely signs junior college prospects. When he signs one, there's obviously a gaping hole to be filled. When he signs TWO at the same position ... well, that speaks for itself.

"I think it speaks volumes," Vol defensive coordinator John Chavis says regarding the recent addition of junior college defensive backs Nevin McKenzie and DeAngelo Willingham. "We knew we had to have some immediate help there."

Three guys started at cornerback for the Vols last fall – Inquoris Johnson, Jonathan Wade and Antwan Stewart – and none will be back for 2007. With first-team strong safety Demetrice Morley recently dismissed from the team, UT is without four of its top five defensive backs from 2006. That left Fulmer little choice but to go the juco route.

"It's hard to find freshmen who can come in and play for you," Chavis notes. "Normally, when we take a junior college player, we take him with the idea that he can come in here and start."

McKenzie and Willingham won't win starting jobs by default but their path to first-team jobs is nearly unimpeded. Except for senior free safety Jonathan Hefney, the Vols' returning secondary talent is frighteningly thin.

Roshaun Fellows started some games at cornerback in 2003, 2004 and 2005 but sat out the entire 2006 season following surgery on a pectoral muscle. The rest of the cast – Antonio Gaines, Marsalous Johnson, Ricardo Kemp, Sinclair Cannon, Antonio Wardlow and Jarod Parrish – has scarcely played enough to break a good sweat.

Still, the returning defensive backs have a leg up in the competition for starting jobs, since McKenzie and Willingham won't join the mix until August. As Chavis puts it: "The guys who are here will have an advantage because they're going to have spring practice."

Although Tennessee also has unsettled situations at wide receiver and in both lines, the secondary appears to be the team's most pressing concern. Resolving that concern in 15 spring practices appears impossible.

"We've got a proven player back there in Jonathan Hefney," Chavis notes, "and we've got a lot of work to do. Graduation really hit us hard there.

"You're glad you've got spring football but it needs to be about 30 days for us to get to where we need to be."


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