Marsalous hanging tough

It's a fact of life in college sports: New coaches tend to play their signees ahead of players left over from the previous regime.

So, when first-year Tennessee football coach Lane Kiffin signed four-star defensive backs Janzen Jackson, Mike Edwards, Nyshier Oliver, Eric Gordon and Darren Myles for 2009, you had to wonder if the Vols' veteran defensive backs (except for All-American Eric Berry) would be squeezed out of the picture.

Marsalous Johnson seemed particularly vulnerable to a potential Youth Movement. The 5-9, 184-pound senior recorded just 11 tackles and 3 pass breakups in 2008 and appeared likely to lose his spot in the cornerback rotation to a younger player with more upside.

Johnson says he knew the young DBs, talented as they are, were not ready to step into big-time college football without some seasoning. Thus, he never expected to get swept aside by the Youth Movement.

"Not really," he said this week. "I'm an older guy, been in the program a long time, so I understand that it takes a little bit for a freshman to come in and learn and get the feeling for D-1 football. I knew we were going to have competition, and Coach Kiffin let us know from Day 1 that everybody would start from scratch."

With three years' experience behind him, Johnson believes he is way ahead of the Vols' raw rookies at this stage.

"Having played in SEC games is a big advantage," he said. "Believe it or not, it's different playing on a game field than it is in practice. If you go out there and do too much thinking, it can screw you up. You've just got to go out there and be confident in what you do."

Johnson has been getting a lot of practice repetitions with the first-team defense this week. Just about every defensive back on the roster is getting some work with the No. 1 unit, however, as secondary coach Willie Mack Garza tries to determine who his best four might be.

"He's switching us in and out," Johnson said. "We like that he's not favoring anybody. We're all just out there competing. If he lets the 2s play with the 1s and the 1s play with the 2s - mix us all up - he gets a feel for who can play with who and the chemistry of all the DBs."

Although he appears to be a first-teamer at this time, Johnson is taking nothing for granted.

"We have some DBs out and we've got some good DBs backing up," he said. "You can't be sure of nothing till the first game Sept. 5."

Garza is younger and more animated than Larry Slade, who coached Tennessee's secondary in 2008. Johnson sees similarities in the two men, however.

"They're both real good coaches," he said. "They've just got different techniques. We play our man coverage a little different than how we did for Coach Slade but they're both great coaches."

In addition to a new position coach, Johnson is adjusting to a new scheme - the Tampa 2 - this fall. He likes what he has seen of it so far.

"The responsibility is not much different," he said. "Our cover 2 looks like a lot of the defenses we play, so people won't be able to tell when we're in cover 2. They think we're in another defense, which helps us out a lot. They won't know what defense we're in."


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