Vol D-backs brace for big test

Tennessee's football players, like Tennessee's football fans, follow the recruiting process quite closely. They know which signees have big-time reputations and which ones are projected to come in and make an immediate impact on the program.

No Volunteers watched the recruiting process more closely last winter than Big Orange defensive backs. They are acutely aware that Tennessee signed the No. 1 high school cornerback in America, Eric Berry of Fairburn, Ga. They are acutely aware that Tennessee also signed two junior college players who are capable of starting – DeAngelo Willingham (College of the Desert in California) and Nevin McKenzie (Trinity Valley in Texas).

Rather than view the talented newcomers as a threat, however, secondary coach Larry Slade's holdover players insist they view the incoming recruits as a challenge ... a challenge that is providing them with a lot of incentive.

"It motivates me a whole bunch," said sophomore cornerback Marsalous Johnson, voted the Most Improved Defensive Player of spring practice. "Coach Slade always tells me I have the upper hand. I've been here. I know the system.

"Those young players coming in, it's going to be hard for them. We (veteran players) have the upper hand. That should motivate me and the other players to get better and do the right thing."

Minus four of the top five defensive backs from 2006 – Inquoris Johnson, Jonathan Wade, Antwan Stewart and Demetrice Morley – Tennessee's secondary was considered a disaster area entering spring practice. Several unheralded defensive backs – Johnson, Antonio Gaines and Jarod Parrish in particular – performed well in early spring workouts, however, building their confidence and their reputations.

"When we came out early and showed we could play, knew we had the upper hand, our confidence skyrocketed," Johnson said. "That let us know we could come out here and play real good."

Whether they can play well enough to hold off celebrated signees such as Eric Berry, Nevin McKenzie and DeAngelo Willingham remains to be seen, of course.

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