Two true freshmen will be secondary starters vs. the Bulldogs – Eric Berry at strong safety and Brent Vinson at left cornerback. Another freshman, Dennis Rogan, could see reserve duty at safety. Marsalous Johnson is a first-year starter at right cornerback and fellow sophomore Ricardo Kemp is the chief backup at free safety. First-year junior college transfer DeAngelo Willingham is the No. 1 reserve at both cornerback spots.
Tennessee's inexperience in the secondary led to numerous coverage busts in September, which led to a bunch of big pass plays by Vol foes in Games 1 through 4. Still, head coach Phillip Fulmer is encouraged.
"We're as talented in the secondary as we've been," he said this week. "We just don't have the experience quite where we want it to be. But they're improving every day. As long as you've got the attitude and you're working hard to improve, you'll get there."
Although the youthful DBs took some lumps in September, they exhibited the speed, athleticism and toughness to become exceptional players in time. Fulmer just wishes that time would arrive sooner, rather than later.
"We are young in spots, but talented," the head man said. "As the secondary continues to grow, I think that is going to be a really strong group for us."
Defensive coordinator John Chavis also sees bright futures for the secondary's young pups.
"If you look at the two freshmen that are starting in the secondary for us (Berry and Vinson) there's a lot to be excited about," he said. "There's going to be some growing pains with those guys but the ability's there, so we're excited about what we see."
Tennessee's coaches knew last March this would be a rebuilding year in the secondary because two 2006 starters (Jonathan Wade, Antwan Stewart) exhausted their eligibility and a third (Demetrice Morley) flunked out. The outlook grew even bleaker when Roshaun Fellows was dismissed from the team last spring, then first-team cornerback Antonio Gaines suffered a season-ending ACL injury in Game 2.
"We lost a real fine safety (Morley) to academics and we lost a real good player in Roshaun Fellows," Fulmer noted. "Then you lose Antonio Gaines, and you've got to overcome those things."
The attrition in Tennessee's secondary helps explain why Berry and Vinson are starting as true freshmen. Still, both are exceptional talents, as is Rogan.
"Dennis is coming," secondary coach Larry Slade said this week. "When he will play a lot, I'm not sure. But athletically he's very gifted and he's a playmaker. He's made a lot of progress."
Rogan is progressing a little slower than Vinson because safety is a much more complicated position in Tennessee's scheme than cornerback.
"Dennis is learning a pretty complex system but he's doing well," Slade said. "Being smart coaches, there are things we can do to get him out there and play. There are certain calls you stay away from when he's out there. He's a guy that's getting closer and closer, as far as being ready to play."
Chavis conceded that he is keeping things simpler than normal this fall to accommodate so many new faces in the defensive backfield.
"We're growing," he said. "As a coach, you try to do the things they can do. They're not going to be able to do everything, so you try to do the things they're capable of doing."