Best of Fulmer era - safeties

You don't think of safety as being one of Tennessee's strongest positions in recent years, yet five former Vols are likely to be playing the position in the NFL this fall.

Deon Grant (Seahawks) is about to begin his ninth pro season. Gibril Wilson (Raiders), fresh from a Super Bowl championship with the Giants, is soon to begin his fifth pro season. Rashad Baker (Patriots) is ready to launch his fifth NFL season. Jason Allen (Dolphins) is set to embark on his third year in The League. Finally, 2008 free agent signee Jonathan Hefney has a good chance to make the Tampa Bay Bucs' roster because he has the flexibility to help at safety, corner and as a return man.

And don't forget about Julian Battle and Raymond Austin, who played four seasons each in the NFL.

Obviously, Tennessee has been blessed with some very good safeties in recent years. That said, here's my ranking of the best ones of the Phillip Fulmer era (1992-present):

1. Deon Grant (1998-99): The consummate "center fielder" at free safety, Grant recorded 14 interceptions and 14 pass breakups as a Vol, despite bypassing his senior season to turn pro. Tabbed All-SEC and All-America in '99, he was a second-round pick in the 2000 NFL Draft.

2. Jason Allen (2003-05): Although he started at corner in '03 and '05 (a season cut short by injury), Allen's best position was safety. A sure-handed tackler, he led the SEC with 123 stops in '04, earning all-conference recognition. He finished his career with 220 tackles, 4 interceptions and 16 pass breakups, despite missing half of his senior season due to a hip injury. A tremendous leader, he was voted a team captain in 2004 and 2005. The Miami Dolphins selected him in Round 1 of the '06 NFL Draft.

3. Gibril Wilson (2002-03): After spending his first year out of junior college adjusting to SEC competition, Wilson blossomed as a senior and finished his two-year UT career with 196 stops, 3 interceptions and 14 pass breakups. He lasted until Round 5 of the 2004 NFL Draft but earned a Super Bowl ring with the Giants last January and has established himself as one of the league's premier safeties.

4. Julian Battle (2001-02): Although he played corner in '02, this 6-3, 210-pound juco transfer had greater impact as a hard-hitting safety. A starter in each of his two years at UT, he finished with 132 tackles, 3 interceptions and 10 pass breakups. He earned All-SEC recognition as a senior and spent four years in the NFL after being taken in Round 3 of the '03 draft.

5. Rashad Baker (2000-2003): A converted wideout, he spent two years learning to play safety and the next two years actually playing it. In four years as a starter he compiled 233 tackles, 11 interceptions and 11 pass breakups. An All-SEC pick in '02, Baker posted one of the strangest statistics in program history that season – intercepting five passes without netting a single return yard. Tabbed a team captain as a senior, he made the NFL as an undrafted free agent in '04 and remains active in The League to this day.

6. Jonathan Hefney (2004-07): Another four-year starter, Hefney recorded 322 tackles, 10 interceptions and 22 pass breakups during an up-and-down career. He also handled most of UT's punt-return duties. Surrounded by young defensive backs in '07, Hefney grossly underachieved as a senior. Still, that does not alter the fact he was a very productive player his first three years in the program.

7. Raymond Austin (1994-96): Although he started at cornerback as a senior, Austin was better at safety, the position at which he started the previous two years. He finished his career with 231 stops, 8 interceptions and 14 pass breakups. A fifth-round NFL Draft pick, he stuck in the pros for four years.

8. Jason Parker (1992-94, 1996): He appeared to be a budding superstar as a freshman starter in '92 but Parker leveled off after his blazing beginning. Suspended for the '95 season, he came back to finish his career in '96. He posted some outstanding numbers – 266 tackles, 10 interceptions and 13 pass breakups – but never lived up to the potential he exhibited as a rookie.

9. Fred White (1998-99): He wasn't much in pass coverage but White's skills as a teeth-rattling tackler made him a great fit at strong safety. He recorded just one career interception and 9 career PBUs but put 192 ball carriers on the ground ... usually with considerable vigor.

10. Tori Noel (1995-97): Although he was agile enough to record 16 career pass breakups, Noel somehow managed to start at safety for three years without registering a single interception. He was very good against the run, recording 196 career stops.

11. Cory Gaines (1997): He started just one year but Gaines played enough as a backup to finish his UT career with 162 tackles and 9 pass breakups. In addition, he returned his only career interception 57 yards for a touchdown.

12. Victor Brown (1993): Known for his pad-popping hits, this juco transfer's numbers were mediocre – 64 career tackles, 4 career PBUs, 0 interceptions – but he had one redeeming quality: When he hit someone, everyone in the stadium heard it.

13. Antwan Stewart (2005-06): He appeared to be a rising star at cornerback until a catastrophic knee injury cost him the entire 2004 season. He was never the same thereafter, although he started at safety in '05 and started most of '06 at corner following Inky Johnson's career-ending shoulder injury. Stewart's career numbers show 118 tackles, 5 interceptions and 10 pass breakups.

14. Corey Campbell (2004): Campbell's UT career could be summed up in one word – bizarre. He showed flashes of brilliance as a freshman and sophomore, then virtually vanished as a junior in 2005. He recorded just three tackles that fall, then left the program prior to his senior year. Another odd note: He registered 7 career interceptions but just 1 career pass breakup.


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