Secondary surplus

Phillip Fulmer spent last spring trying to find four defensive backs worthy of playing. He's spending this spring trying to sift through 10 of them to find the four most worthy of starting.

Strange as it sounds, the secondary has gone from Tennessee's greatest weakness to its greatest strength during the past 12 months. Due to injuries in 2007, the Vols played so many defensive backs that they now have a glut of proven players at the secondary positions.

"A good many guys that have played return," Fulmer conceded recently. "Last year, going through all we went through in trying to get those young guys ready was difficult, but certainly the experience should pay off for us."

The cornerback ranks include four guys who started games last season – Brent Vinson (10 starts), DeAngelo Willingham (8), Marsalous Johnson (7) and Antonio Gaines (2). Two of the brightest young prospects on the Vol roster provide even more depth, redshirt freshmen Art Evans and C. J. Fleming.

There's also starting experience returning at the safety positions. Eric Berry started all 14 games as a freshman last fall and Demetrice Morley started 10 games in 2006 before sitting out '07 due to academic problems. Backing them are flashy sophomore Dennis Rogan and another impressive redshirt freshman, Anthony Anderson.

Even with cornerbacks Vinson (shoulder) and Johnson (knee) sidelined this spring, Tennessee has an impressive array of talent available for secondary duty.

"Marsalous Johnson and Brent Vinson will not be able to participate full-speed, coming off surgeries," Fulmer noted, "but we think we know what those guys can do."

The head man said he is looking for Anderson to "establish himself as a guy that can help us in the secondary" and for Morley to "re-establish himself as a factor" after his one-year layoff.

In addition, Fulmer is looking for Berry to develop into one of college football's greatest players. The 5-11, 205-pounder led the 2007 Vols in interceptions (6), interception return yardage (222), pass breakups (9) and fumble recoveries (2). He ranked third in primary tackles (55), fourth in total tackles (83) and fifth in big plays (10).

"Eric Berry is a special player and a guy who can be a special leader for us," Fulmer said. "We're excited about his leadership role and his opportunity to continue his development as a player in the secondary."

Berry showed an incredible knack for open-field running last fall. He returned interceptions 96 yards (vs. Florida), 61 yards (vs. Arkansas) and 37 yards (vs. Arkansas). He also returned a fumble 52 yards against South Carolina. Not surprisingly, Tennessee is looking for ways to utilize his ball-carrying skills on offense and special teams in '08.

As Fulmer noted: "When you get a guy that has that kind of return yardage every time he's touched the football, we obviously want to get him the ball if we can."

There is a chance Berry will see some action as a direct-snap tailback this fall in order to exploit his big-play capabilities.

"I would say we'll get to some of that eventually but that's not a priority right now," Fulmer said. "One, it was a recruiting promise because he wanted to be able to do that. Two, and more importantly, I think he could impact our (offensive) team in some ways.

"Gerald Jones did a pretty nice job with it (direct-snap package) last year, so maybe you do something with both of ‘em."

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