Slade's comfort level

After being roasted like a rack of lamb in 2007, Tennessee's defensive backs are more experienced, more resilient, more confident and more comfortable heading into Monday night's 2008 opener at UCLA.

That makes secondary coach Larry Slade more comfortable, too. Right?

Maybe not. Slade certainly was uncomfortable with the question. He grew weary of hearing his troops crudely ridiculed in 2007 and he's growing wary of hearing them lavishly praised in 2008 ... at least until they've done something to justify the hype.

After a long pause and a pained grin, the Vol aide finally answered the question about his comfort level.

"We've got to go perform," he hedged. "Our expectations are high. We expect to play well. We have great respect for our opponent. We've got to stop the big play. Until we go out and play against an opponent I really can't say ... except that we have worked hard."

Except for senior Jonathan Hefney, Tennessee's three top defensive backs in 2007 were all rookies – true freshman Eric Berry, true freshman Brent Vinson and juco transfer DeAngelo Willingham. All three are grizzled veterans by now, which has vaulted the secondary from team weakness in '07 to team strength in '08.

That kind of talk makes Slade a tad uncomfortable, as well.

"Obviously, it's a more experienced secondary, probably a more confident secondary," he said. "When you break in a lot of new guys they're learning on the job. Eric will tell you it's a world of difference when you concentrate on the opponent and you're not worrying 'What do we do when they do this?' They play a lot faster, and they're playing a lot faster now than they did."

Tennessee's secondary should be up to the Game 1 challenge posed by UCLA, which is down to No. 3 quarterback Kevin Craft with Ben Olson and Patrick Cowan sidelined by injuries. Craft played junior college ball last fall, so Slade isn't sure what to expect from the Bruin air game Monday night.

"We really don't know," the Vol aide said. "They have three really good receivers coming back. Terrence Austin is extremely fast. He's a punt/kickoff return guy, and we expect him to do some great things.

"The quarterback has a live arm and can get the ball in different places, so I expect them to do well. And they're playing in a great system. Coach Norm Chow has done a super job everywhere he's been. His offense takes a lot of pressure off of those guys."

Having a bunch of experienced defensive backs takes a lot of pressure off a secondary coach, too ... even if he won't admit it.

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