Little Smurfs are a big plus

Tennessee's undersized cornerbacks were an oversized concern for Vol head coach Phillip Fulmer entering spring practice. Their remarkable progress in March and April has alleviated many of his fears, however.

Rising sophomore Marsalous Johnson and rising senior Antonio Gaines – both listed as 5-9 and 180 pounds – were two of the bright spots of spring drills. Johnson wound up being named Most Improved Defensive Player, while Gaines was just a step behind.

Since senior safety Jonathan Hefney (5-9 and 185) is another diminutive defensive back, Fulmer has begun referring to the Vol secondary as the "Smurf Patrol." The head man knew Hefney could play but he clearly was surprised by the spring work of the two inexperienced cornerbacks.

"The 'Smurf' corners really did a good job," Fulmer said. "Marsalous Johnson won the most improved award during the spring, and it has been fun to watch Antonio Gaines compete. The biggest thing for him is he had not competed consistently since he has been here (due to injuries). But he made good strides and progress, so I think we have at least created a more competitive situation at corner than we started the spring with."

There is nothing undersized about Tennessee's other projected secondary starter. Rising senior Jarod Parrish is a 6-3, 200-pounder came from nowhere to intercept four passes in three spring scrimmages and establish himself as the No. 1 strong safety.

"Jarod Parrish is an amazing guy," Fulmer said. "He has hung around here and played a little bit for us, and now all of a sudden he's making plays and in the right place to intercept balls. And that's a good thing."

Although Johnson, Gaines and Parrish performed surprisingly well in the spring, they will be seriously challenged in August, when junior college transfers DeAngelo Willingham and Nevin McKenzie join the secondary competition, along with prep superstar Eric Berry.

As Fulmer noted: "We really won't know in the secondary until all those guys get here. You sign junior college players with the intent for them to be starters, and we've got two signed in the secondary. It's going to create competition once we get to the fall, which we desperately need."

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