Gaines gains in DB derby

Minus its top three cornerbacks from 2006, Tennessee desperately needs someone to step up at the position this spring. One veteran Vol did just that – literally and figuratively – in last Saturday's scrimmage.

Antonio Gaines stepped up to thwart an Erik Ainge pass on the fifth play of the intra-squad workout. Gaines and intended receiver Austin Rogers briefly battled for the ball, with the former winning the tussle and then racing 37 yards to paydirt.

The spectacular play provided a huge boost for a secondary in serious need of playmakers and leadership.

"It was real big," said Gaines, a 5-9, 180-pound senior from Covington. "They (coaches) are looking for me to make plays so I can get in the mix this year, so that was a big play for me. "

Asked to recap the play, Gaines was happy to oblige.

"I read the three-step drop, and I was going for the ball," he recalled. "But Austin was being the DB (trying to break up the pass). He swatted it out of my hands and it went up in the air but I went and caught it."

Gaines has no career starts to his credit but saw some action as a backup last fall. He finished the 2006 season with four solo tackles, three assists and a pass breakup. His best game came against Alabama, when he recorded three stops and the PBU.

In addition to its top three cornerbacks - Jonathan Wade, Antwan Stewart, Inquoris Johnson - Tennessee is seeking a replacement for safety Demetrice Morley, who is academically ineligible. Minus four guys who combined for 38 starts last fall, the Vol secondary may qualify for federal disaster relief. Except for senior safety Jonathan Hefney, UT's defensive backs are as green as the grass at Neyland Stadium.

Given this muddled outlook, Tennessee's secondary players understand that there is considerable concern within the Volunteer Nation. They know some fans consider them the team's weak link. They also know heralded prep signee Eric Berry will be pushing for a starting job in August, as will junior college transfers DeAngelo Willingham and Nevin McKenzie.

Gaines and his fellow returnees understand that they need to make a statement this spring or risk making the bench their home in the fall.

"We've got a lot to prove," he said. "We've got some good guys coming in (Berry, Willingham, McKenzie), so we need to step it up before they get here."

Complicating the chase for first-team jobs in the secondary is a new wrinkle the Vol offense is throwing at the defense this spring – a no-huddle attack. Gaines got his first up-close look at it Saturday, and came away amused.

"It's pretty fast-paced," he said, smiling softly. "It's different ... something we ain't used to."

Of course, the Vols aren't used to replacing their top three cornerbacks in the same year, either.

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