"We're really pleased with the first group," secondary coach Larry Slade said. "They did a great job communicating. DeAngelo (Willingham) is night and day compared to what he was last year. Dennis Rogan is playing well, and those two safeties (Eric Berry, Demetrice Morley) are pretty special.
"This has a chance to be a really good group. We just need some other guys to come along and help us out."
Specifically, the Vols need some guys like redshirt freshmen Anthony Anderson and C. J. Fleming to "come along" and prove dependable. Both answered the call on Saturday. Anderson led all tacklers with 5 stops and Fleming chipped in 4.
The veteran defensive backs didn't do too badly, either. Junior safety Demetrice Morley contributed 3 tackles, a sack and a 23-yard interception return. Willingham, a senior who is splitting time between corner and safety, chipped in 3 tackles. Berry displayed his big-play skills with a tackle, a pass breakup and a blocked field goal. Sophomore Dennis Rogan provided some air-tight coverage at cornerback after playing exclusively at safety last fall.
After watching Tennessee finish 11th among the 12 SEC schools in pass defense (245 yards per game) and pass-defense efficiency last fall, head coach Phillip Fulmer is thrilled to see the defensive backs making plays AND progress this spring.
"There's a lot of guys that really can fly around and make plays," he said. "You can just see the difference ... night and day. There's no big balls given up. They're breaking on the football. They're playing good right now."
Because of injuries and academic casualties last fall, Tennessee wound up starting two first-year freshmen (Berry and Brent Vinson) and a first-year junior college transfer (Willingham) in the 2007 secondary. Now that those guys have a year's experience under their belts, the improvement in their play is dramatic.
"The thing I was really pleased with was that we had guys breaking on the ball, getting in position to make plays and making some good hits," defensive coordinator John Chavis said. "They know what they're doing.
"Coach Slade obviously has done a terrific job and there's obviously some skill back there, some really good skill. It could be some of the best skill we've had back there, and that makes it exciting.
"We'll see how they keep progressing."