Hefney to be UT's Hester

Devin Hester turned the NFL upside-down last year as a rookie return specialist for the Chicago Bears. He was so spectacular running back kickoffs and punts in his debut NFL season that he earned a bid to the Pro Bowl.

Still, Hester's punt-return average of 12.8 yards was just slightly better than the 12.1 mark compiled last fall by University of Tennessee standout Jonathan Hefney.

The difference? Hester scored five touchdowns (three on punts, two on kickoffs) last season, whereas Hefney scored zero. That's a gap Hefney is looking to close as a Vol senior this fall.

"I want to score touchdowns on punt returns," he said earlier this week. "I've been watching Devin Hester from the Super Bowl all the way back through the season, and I'm trying to do what he's doing."

Hester, a 5-11, 186-pound defensive back who played collegiately for the Miami Hurricanes, proved to be one of the NFL's most dangerous weapons in his roookie season. Like the rest of America, Hefney was shocked by the impact Hester had on games.

"Man, he's got vision. He can run!" Hefney said, shaking his head in awe. "He's setting up his cuts and where he's going to go when he catches the ball."

Hefney can run, too. That's why he had a 65-yard punt return against South Carolina last fall, plus returns of 40 and 32 yards against Alabama. That's why he had a 30-yard interception return vs. LSU and a 29-yarder against Vanderbilt.

Whereas Hester is strictly a special-teams guy – contributing next to nothing as a reserve defensive back – Hefney is a first-rate defender. The 5-9, 185-pound senior led the Vols with five interceptions in 2006 and is listed on many preseason All-America teams heading into 2007. No big deal, he says.

"Aw, I think it's just hype," Hefney said with a shrug. "It's good to have all of that but if you don't show up you're going to get talked about. I really don't pay attention to it. I'm just going to go on the field and do my thing, regardless."

Whereas Hefney is viewed as a star, his fellow secondary starters are perceived as weak links. Senior Jarod Parrish, junior Antonio Gaines and sophomore Marsalous Johnson have done little to date to suggest they are SEC-caliber players. Still, Hefney believes in them.

"Oh, man, we had some guys step up in the spring – Antonio Gaines and Marsalous Johnson," Hefney said. "And Jarod Parrish … he always could do it. We're pretty much going into the season three-deep in the secondary. And we've got the young guys coming in, and they're looking pretty good, too."

Hefney has 36 career starts to his credit heading into 2007. Parrish, Gaines and Johnson have one start (by Parrish) among them. Although he is clearly the "old man" of the secondary, Hefney says that won't significantly affect his role this season.

"I'm pretty much trying to do my thing," he said. "I'm trying to get myself right, too, but I try to coach 'em up and do everything I can."

Ultimately, Vol defensive backs are likely to learn more by observing Hefney than by listening to him.

"I'm going to go out and play as hard as I can," he said. "They'll watch me and, hopefully, they'll follow."

Three heralded newcomers have joined the Vol secondary corps this summer – High School All-American Eric Berry, plus junior college transfers Nevin McKenzie and DeAngelo Willingham. Hefney's early impressions of them are favorable.

"They work hard," he said. "I haven't seen much of what they're doing one-on-one because I'm always doing what I'm doing to try and get ready, too."

Asked to pinpoint a key for the newcomers, Hefney paused before answering:

"Just learning everything. They've got to learn all the checks and everything that we're doing. Once they learn that, they've got the talent to do anything."

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