Hypin' Hefney

Jonathan Hefney couldn't help but appreciate the compliment paid to him by Tennessee defensive coordinator John Chavis.

Chavis called Hefney UT's best safety since All-American Dale Carter more than 15 years ago.

``He hyped me up, huh?'' Hefney said. ``I like that. That's big time. Dale Carter, I've watched all his tape in the past. He was pretty much a monster.''

Tennessee is counting on Jonathan Hefney being a monster, although that might be more difficult for someone who appears to be a shade shorter than 5-feet-9 and weighs 185.

But pound for pound, Hefney is UT's hardest hitter. And he's one of the team's best athletes. He was voted by his teammates as the squad's best basketball player.

Hefney is the lone starter returning in the secondary. He has to have a great season for Tennessee's pass defense to be effective.

``Jonathan is a play maker,'' said secondary coach Larry Slade. ``He's always around the football. He has an opportunity to be really good.

``When you start comparing him, he's a different guy. e's not a Deon Grant-type guy. He's more like the young man who plays for the Indianapolis Colts He's not a Deon Grant-type guy. He's more like the young man who plays for the Indianapolis Colts, and they need him. When you take Bob Sanders off the field, that secondary is different.

``It would be the same way here. We take Jonathan Hefney off the field …''

The thought is too torturing for Slade to complete the sentence.

It's hard to image a UT secondary without Hefney. He's been a starter since the second game of his true freshman season in 2004. He's got 36 starts under his belt, at cornerback and free safety. He's got 226 career tackles, 96 last season, when he had 17 against Air Force and 15 against LSU. He's got nine career interceptions, five last season.

``I've always seen myself as the quarterback of the secondary,'' Hefney said. ``At free safety, that's what you do.''

Hefney's skills aren't limited to defending passes and open-field tackles. He has been the team's best punt returner the past two seasons. He averaged 11.5 as a sophomore, 12.1 last year to rank third in the SEC. He had a 43-yard runback against Vanderbilt and a 65-yarder against South Carolina, his home state.

``Jonathan wants to do it all,'' Slade said. ``But we've got to limit some of the things he does.''

Hefney will be asked to lead a secondary with new starters at the corners – Marsalous Johnson and Antonio Gaines entering fall camp – and fifth-year senior Jarod Parrish at strong safety.

Hefney doesn't seem worried about breaking in a new secondary.

``It's really no challenge,'' he said. ``Just go out there and work and everything will sort itself out.''

What about opening against a prolific passing team like California?

``They'll be ready,'' he said. ``Once everybody learns everything, it'll be smooth. We've got a couple of older guys coming in from junior college that know the game.''

They would be Nevin McKenzie and DeAngelo Willingham. McKenzie had 119 tackles as a junior college freshman. Willingham had eight career interceptions in the juco ranks, five last season.

For a coach who is losing three starters (Jonathan Wade, Antwan Stewart and Demetrice Morley), Slade seems confident his unit will perform well.

``We made a lot of improvement in the spring,'' Slade said. ``We didn't realize how good it would be. We were really pleased.''

Cal might be the best passing team UT faces all season. How difficult will it be to get McKenzie, Willingham and true freshman Eric Berry ready for the opener? Slade said he'll have several of them working with the second unit right away.

Is Slade uneasy about Cal being the opener?

``Not really,'' Slade said. ``I've been around it for a long time. We'll get them ready. It'll be tough because they (Cal Bears) are outstanding and they do a great job throwing the ball. … It will be a challenge, but our guys will be ready.

``It's easy to look out there and say, `You should be nervous because you're starting a new secondary.' But our guys have made strides.''

And the clearcut leader is Hefney, who wants to lead the team in tackles, interceptions and punt returns.

But first things first – he's got to get his unit ready for Cal.

And Slade knows the value of the senior from Rock Hill, S.C.

``You asked me that question about being ready for Cal, I'd be big-time concerned if we didn't have Hefney,'' Slade said.

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