Head coach Phillip Fulmer said on his Sunday teleconference that Gaines' absence leaves the Vols in "a bit of a situation." Although the Vols' youthful defensive backs have been burned for a bunch of big plays already this fall, there is reason for optimism.
Freshman Eric Berry has started every game, bouncing from nickel back to strong safety to left cornerback and back to strong safety. He returned an interception 96 yards at Florida and might be the finest athlete on Tennessee's roster.
Junior college transfer DeAngelo Willingham, another quality athlete, made his first start Saturday night vs. Arkansas State. Statistically, he had a quiet evening at left corner, finishing with 1 tackle and 1 pass breakup.
Speedy freshman Brent Vinson, a receiver until two weeks ago, saw a lot of backup snaps at left corner Saturday night. He finished with 4 tackles, a pass breakup and an interception that set up a 40-yard touchdown drive.
Fulmer said Willingham and Vinson played well in the Vols' 48-27 defeat of Arkansas State. He believes they'll play even better as their experience level catches up with their talent level.
"They bring more athletic ability," the coach said. "Both of them are guys who physically can do what they need to do at corner. But they're still youthful and still make youthful mistakes – particularly Brent, who hasn't been over there long."
Berry isn't immune to youthful mistakes, either. He gave up a couple of long passes in Game 3 vs. Florida and gave up another one in Game 4 vs. Arkansas State.
"We had another bust," Fulmer conceded. "A young man (Berry) just panicked. He just froze but we were able to overcome it as a team."
Fulmer can live with youthful mistakes because he knows the players making them provide the speed and athleticism Tennessee will need to contain the standout receivers Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, Kentucky and Vanderbilt will throw at the Vols.
Like Berry (5-11, 203), Willingham (6-0, 195) and Vinson (6-2, 190) have limited experience but unlimited ability. In time, they could be the cornerstone of one of the most athletic secondaries the Vols have ever fielded.
"It's a process we're going through," Fulmer said of his young defensive backs. "We've just got to accelerate that."