Fulmer focuses on UT secondary

Tennessee head football coach Phillip Fulmer says the primary concern on defense this spring is strengthening the front four. The secondary concern, appropriately enough, is the secondary.

"The second place (after the defensive front) I'm concerned about is our secondary," Fulmer said recently. "We graduated Jonathan Wade and Antwan Stewart and lost a great football player in Inky Johnson. I don't think everybody really knows how important he was to our defense last year and how hard it was to overcome his loss."

In addition to the departure of the top three cornerbacks from 2006, UT also is looking to replace Demetrice Morley, who started 10 games at strong safety last fall. The only returning defensive back with significant experience is rising senior Jonathan Hefney, who started at corner in 2004, at free safety in 2005 and 2006. He ranked second among all Vols in tackles last fall and looms as one of the best safeties in college football for 2007.

"Jonathan Hefney just has a great attitude, leadership skills - kind of a coach's dream, if you will," Fulmer said. "What happens after Jon is you've got four guys competing at corner, four guys competing at safety and we'll see who develops."

The four competing at corner are Antonio Gaines, Marsalous Johnson, Roshaun Fellows and Ricardo Kemp. Fellows started a combined 12 games in 2004 and 2005 but missed 2006 due to surgery on a pectoral muscle. The other three have seen little more than mop-up action.

The safety troops include Hefney, Antonio Wardlow, Jarod Parrish and Sinclair Cannon. Only Hefney has played a significant role to date.

Bottom line: Except for free safety, Tennessee's secondary competition is wide open. As a result, heralded freshman Eric Berry and junior college transfers DeAngelo Willingham and Nevin McKenzie will get long looks when preseason drills begin in August.

"Where we have to fill in the gaps with the guys we signed," Fulmer said, "we will do that.

"We signed a couple of junior college players, and we don't sign junior college players unless we expect them to start or significantly contribute, so we're expecting those guys to come in and help."

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