Backin' Berry

Following two position switches within eight months, one of Tennessee's most talented 2008 football signees finally appears to have found a home ... stuck behind the Vols' most outstanding player.

After previous stints at wide receiver and outside linebacker, Rodriguez Wilks this spring finds himself playing strong safety. That means all he has to do to win a starting job is beat out Eric Berry, who earned consensus first-team All-America honors as a sophomore last fall.

Obviously, he isn't going to beat out Berry but the 6-0, 200-pound Wilks is going to be a part of the secondary rotation this fall if he continues to flash the potential he exhibited the first three weeks of spring practice.

"He's young, a little green but he's smart and really developing," Vol secondary coach Willie Mack Garza said. "He's a big body that can run. He's a solid kid, and I enjoy coaching him. He'll definitely have a role on this football team."

Wilks, who redshirted last fall and has four years of eligibility remaining, is versatile enough to play several roles. He was rated the state's No. 2 prospect by The Knoxville News-Sentinel after leading Smyrna High School to back-to-back state titles in 2006 and '07, earning first-team all-state recognition each year.

A superior receiver, he caught 77 passes for 1,170 yards and 20 touchdowns as a senior and was named Mr. Football Back of the Year for Class 5A.

Wilks' brilliance as an offensive weapon at Smyrna was matched by his skills on defense and special teams, however. He recorded 62 tackles and six interceptions as a senior cornerback. He also registered a punt-return touchdown and a kickoff-return TD.

A lot of schools wanted him but Wilks chose to sign with Tennessee and be a teammate of his brother, Vol cornerback Marsalous Johnson.

Johnson started seven games as a UT sophomore in 2007 before suffering an ACL tear that relegated him to a backup role in '08. Now fully healed, he and his younger brother could be paired up in the Vols' nickel package this fall. First, Rodriguez needs to become a little more physical. Garza believes that will come with time.

"He was mostly on offense when he first got here – wide receiver – so it's a definite adjustment on defense ... how aggressive we want to play ... how involved we get the strong safeties in the run support," the Vol aide said. "They're like linebackers, so a guy coming from wide receiver faces a big-time adjustment. But I would have to say he's making it. He's making it."

Because he played receiver in high school, Wilks understands pass routes and the tricks wideouts use to get open. That should help him in man-to-man coverage. Even if he isn't ready to contribute by September, his steady progress this spring suggests he'll help the Vols at some point.

"No doubt," Garza said. "I think he's definitely bought into what we want him to do. Now it's just a matter of him getting comfortable and executing it full-speed without having to think."

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