With the exception of Morley, who spent last fall in academic exile at Pellissippi State, this was the same cast of defensive backs that fans belittled and berated throughout the 2007 season. Somehow, in a span of just a few months, these players have gone from awful to awesome. That's a credit to the patience of secondary coach Larry Slade.
Slade, who had little reason to smile in '07, grins from ear to ear as he looks ahead to '08.
"It certainly is night and day – from an experience standpoint, from an athletic ability standpoint but mostly from an attitude standpoint," he said. "It's a bunch of hard-working kids who are trying to do things right."
Defensive coordinator John Chavis is the unofficial president of the Larry Slade fan club. He repeatedly praised his secondary coach during the struggles of 2007 and continues to praise him now that times are better.
"We've got some guys back there that are very talented, and Larry's done a great job with them," Chavis said. "Obviously, with the talent we've got back there, we expect the back end to be our strength."
Even with loads of talent, the life of a defensive back is a roller-coaster ride. One play you're cheered for making an interception. The next play you're booed for giving up a 40-yard completion. Maintaining an even keel is vital, so Slade didn't get too down last fall and isn't getting too high this spring. Whether his troops are playing poorly or playing great, his focus remains the same: Preventing big plays.
That's why, as dazzling as the secondary performance was in Saturday's scrimmage, Slade couldn't help nit-picking a bit. He was disappointed that the first-team secondary allowed Jonathan Crompton to complete a 55-yard pass to tight end Luke Stocker. And he was disappointed that the No. 2 secondary allowed Nick Stephens to hook up with Ahmad Paige for a 38-yard gain.
"There were two plays – a play against the 2s and a play against the 1s early," Slade noted. "That's what we talked about to that group. We want to get through a practice where there aren't ANY big plays."
That may be an impossible goal but Slade says his players are well aware of his expectation for them:
"They understand how important it is to stop the big play."