Stern test for young DBs

Since three of Tennessee's top six defensive backs are true freshmen, you'd figure that game day is like Christmas morning for secondary coach Larry Slade: He never knows what he's going to get.

As the Vols prepared for today's regular-season finale at Kentucky (1:30 kickoff on CBS), Slade admitted he has seen some things from his rookies this fall that he'd never before imagined – much less witnessed.

"We're getting better at that, where we kind of know (what to expect)," he said earlier this week, smiling softly. "Early on in the year I said, 'Man, that's the first time I've seen something like that! Man, where did that come from?' But those instances are very few."

Eric Berry has started from Game 1. Fellow freshman Brent Vinson switched from wide receiver to cornerback two weeks into the season and has started since Week 5. Dennis Rogan has been the top reserve at cornerback the past three games. All three have made the typical rookie mistakes.

Slade said his young DBs consistently do the right thing in practice but "in the heat of battle" have occasional mental lapses. These lapses haven't been nearly as commonplace in November as they were in September and October, however.

"It's experience," Slade said. "That's part of growing up. I'm really pleased with the way these guys have gotten better and the way they've grown up."

Asked specifically how his rookies have grown up, Slade replied: "I think the big thing is that they're understanding football. They learn from their mistakes. There are still some things they aren't certain about but they have gone to practice every day to correct their mistakes. We're not making the same mistakes over and over again, and that's the quality that you like."

Tennessee's pass defense was exploited by Cal (247 passing yards in Game 1), Florida (299 passing yards in Game 3) and Alabama (363 passing yards in Game 7). It could be in for another stern test today against a Kentucky team that leads the SEC with 265.5 passing yards per game. Offering a ray of hope is the fact Georgia limited the Big Blue to 297 net yards last Saturday in Athens. Star quarterback Andre Woodson passed for 268 yards but managed just 13 points. How did the Bulldogs neutralize him?

"They changed it up (in terms of coverages) and they got after the quarterback," Slade said. "The big deal is that they beat him up pretty good."

Like Georgia, Tennessee will try an assortment of defensive alignments and coverages in an attempt to keep the Cats off balance.

"Against a Kentucky and teams like that, you have to do different things," Slade said. "Our guys will be ready to do those things."

Georgia bothered Woodson a bit by pressuring him all day and sacking him five times. Slade is hoping UT's front seven can muster some pressure today, even though Tennessee ranks dead last among SEC teams with just 14 sacks.

"It's very difficult to do your job," the Vol aide said, "when there's no pressure."

That's especially true against a quarterback as talented as Woodson, a probable first-round pick in the next NFL Draft.

"Andre Woodson is outstanding. He can throw the ball all over the place," Slade noted. "He's very poised, and he's confident he can throw the ball anywhere on the field."

Making Woodson even better is the fact he has good weapons around him. Keenan Burton (51 catches), Steve Johnson (48), Dicky Lyons (47) and tight end Jacob Tamme (44) are quality receivers. Rafael Little (784 yards) is a talented tailback when healthy and Derrick Locke (475) has starred in a backup role.

"Twelve (Lyons) is an outstanding guy, reminds you a little bit of Austin Rogers," Slade said. "He can go get the football. Obviously, the Burton kid is really good, and so is the Johnson kid.

"Those guys are playmakers. They're going to make plays. It's going to be a challenge but we're looking forward to it."

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