If Jackson, Jordan and Hawkins run free in Tennessee's secondary, the Vols are in for a long night. Conversely, if Hefney, Johnson and Gaines keep the Cal trio under wraps, this should be a fun evening for the Big Orange.
Tennessee's secondary struggled in 2006 after Inky Johnson suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in Game 2. Strong safety Antwan Stewart switched to cornerback but was victimized regularly. The loss of Inky Johnson also weakened UT's "mustang" (five- and six-DB) package. As a result, Vol foes wound up completing 57.4 percent of their passes for 2,206 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Although Tennessee has three new starters in the four secondary spots this fall, the defensive backfield may be more talented than a year ago. For one thing, there won't be any strong safeties playing cornerback. For another, there's more speed. For another, there's Eric Berry.
Berry is the heralded freshman from Fairburn, Ga., who was widely regarded as the top defensive back in high school football last fall. The 5-11, 203-pounder has adapted quickly to the college game and will see considerable action tonight as a nickel back and reserve cornerback.
Because he has never played in a college game, Berry is sure to make some freshman mistakes tonight. But the budding superstar is sure to make some positive impact, too. Defensive coordinator John Chavis believes the rookie will do just fine.
"Eric's a talented guy," Chavis said this week. "We're not going to put anybody out there that's not ready yet. Anybody can get burned, whether it's a freshman or a senior. You've got to have tough skin if you play back there. He's a talented guy that's ready to play."
Tennessee apparently will open tonight's game with Johnson and Gaines at the corners, Hefney at free safety and senior Jarod Parrish at strong safety. Berry, junior college transfer Nevin McKenzie and sophomore Ricardo Kemp are scheduled to see action in the mustang package.
"We're very comfortable with that," secondary coach Larry Slade said of the multiple-DB scheme. "You'll see Eric out there. You'll see Nevin McKenzie some out there. You'll see Ricardo Kemp out there some."
Despite some inexperience, Slade figures the Vols' top six or seven DBs are exceptional talents.
"We feel like we are," the Vol aide said, "but we've got to go play."
Slade believes the players who comprise this year's mustang package represent an upgrade from last year. He just wishes they were a bit bigger and stronger.
"We were really good when we had a Jason Allen (6-2, 210) or a Gibril Wilson (6-1, 205)," he said. "We're trying to get back to those kind of guys – guys who could come off the edge (on the blitz) but were also good cover guys."