Relief for Slade?

After saying goodbye to four of his top five defensive backs from a year ago, University of Tennessee secondary coach Larry Slade could be facing a potentially nerve-wracking football season in 2007.

That's why the Vols' Sept. 22 game with Arkansas State may prove to be a godsend. The Indians ranked 109th among 119 NCAA Div. 1-A programs last season in passing yards (144.6 per game) and 117th in passing efficiency (95.38). Arkansas State quarterbacks threw nearly twice as many interceptions (15) as touchdown passes (8) last fall.

That's got to be somewhat encouraging for Slade. After sending his troops against two excellent passing attacks – Cal (Sept. 1) and Florida (Sept. 15) – in the first three games of '07, the veteran Vol aide might need a bit of a break in Game 4.

Given the futility of Arkansas State's passing attack last fall, it's a safe bet that quarterback Corey Leonard will spend much of this fall handing the ball to star tailback Reggie Arnold. Pete Fiutak of recently characterized Arnold as a guy who "has Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year written all over him before his career is up."

The Indians were 6-6 last season but lost four of their last five outings after a 5-2 start. Their sputtering offense was completely shut down by Auburn (27-0) and Florida Atlantic (29-0), while their defense was shredded by SMU (55-9), Middle Tennessee (38-10) and Oklahoma State (35-7). Even so, Arkansas State had its moments, beating eventual Sun Belt champ Troy 33-26 and whipping Memphis 26-23 – both wins coming on the road.

Arkansas State, which happens to be the alma mater of UT defensive ends coach Steve Caldwell, ranked second among Sun Belt teams in total defense last fall. The Indians' stop unit projects to be reasonably solid again. Like Tennessee, Arkansas State's best defender is a senior safety.

The Indians' version of the Vols' Jonathan Hefney is Tyrell Johnson. Fiutak noted that the three-time All-Sun Belt pick "can do a little bit of everything well with the speed to play free safety and the hitting ability to be a superstar at strong safety."

With the possible exception of Louisiana Lafayette, Arkansas State projects to be the softest team on Tennessee's 2007 schedule. Still, the Indians are not a complete pushover. They won their conference title in 2005 and have a good chance to do the same in 2007.

As Fiutak put it: "Everything is there for one of the Sun Belt's best programs to be a champion for the second time in three years."

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