Marsalous' new vantage point

He watched Tennessee's 2006 opener with Cal from 145 miles away, relaxing in front of the TV on his mom's couch in Smyrna. His vantage point for the 2007 opener will be a lot closer and a lot less restful.

After missing the '06 opener under a disciplinary suspension, sophomore Marsalous Johnson will be a starting cornerback when the Vols and Golden Bears kick off '07 Saturday at 5:13 Pacific time in Berkeley.

Johnson's arrest and subsequent suspension for brandishing a toy gun in front of an off-duty policeman during the summer of 2006 has been chronicled too often to warrant rehashing here. He says he prayed every night that he could move past the incident and rejoin the Vol program. Eventually, the charges were dismissed and he got that opportunity.

After sitting out the first five games of 2006, Johnson saw mop-up and special team's duty in Games 6-13. Then, like a dogwood tree, he blossomed in the spring. He was so impressive in March and April that he won (A) a first-team cornerback job and (B) the Andy Spiva Award as the Vols' most improved defensive player of spring practice.

After following up with a strong preseason, Johnson will make his first career start Saturday evening.

"My mom is so excited for me," he said. "She's not going to be able to make the game but she's going to be watching on TV."

This time Patricia Fayne will be watching alone, but that's OK. Marsalous spent enough time watching games with his mom last fall to last quite awhile. Now he's eager to be on the TV, not in front of it.

"It means a whole bunch to me," he said. "This is my first time starting, and we come up against what we think is one of the top receivers (DeSean Jackson) in the nation. It's a big challenge for me and the rest of the secondary. We just have to stop the big plays. Hopefully, that's what we're going to do."

Making your first career start against a team with a preseason All-America receiver and a vaunted passing attack is hardly ideal. Still, Marsalous Johnson isn't complaining.

"It doesn't matter," he said. "We're all prepared. We're all up for the challenge. It wouldn't matter if it was the worst passing team or the best passing team. We're going out there and play our hardest."

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