Life as a bandit

One Tennessee football player spent all of spring practice and the first week of fall camp playing the same position. That's probably a personal record.

Few players in recent Vol history have moved as frequently as Rod Wilks, who was rated the state's No. 2 prospect as a senior at Smyrna High in 2007 after starring at receiver (77 catches for 1,170 yards) and at cornerback (62 tackles, six interceptions).

He redshirted as a UT freshman in 2008, practicing as a receiver, then as a safety, then as a linebacker. When injuries thinned Tennessee's wideout corps last August, he returned to receiver. Lacking familiarity with the new offense, he caught just one pass all season - a 33-yarder vs. Memphis.

Returned to safety last spring, Wilks admits that trying to adapt to so many positions has kept him from feeling truly comfortable at any of them.

"It was hard on me," he said following Monday's workout. "It made me think about a lot of stuff (like leaving) but I'm here. I'm doing it to help out the team. I'm trying to stay focused and help out the team as much as I can."

Although he embodies the phrase "jack of all trades, master of none," Wilks believes he benefited a bit from hopping from spot to spot during his first two years on campus.

"I learned how to play all positions," he said, "and I learned how to play defense and read the offense."

Naturally, Wilks would like to stay in one spot for a while ... but he isn't holding his breath.

"I feel like this is my home now and I'm not going to move no more, hopefully," he said. "But it's my choice - to move if they need me to - and I'm willing to do anything for the team."

For now at least, Tennessee needs him at strong safety. That's because 2009 first-teamer Eric Berry chose the NFL over his senior year and second-teamer Darren Myles was dismissed from the team last month. That leaves Wilks battling fellow sophomore Prentiss Waggner and freshman Brent Brewer for supremacy at the so-called "bandit" position.

"I've got a good opportunity," Wilks conceded. "Right now Prentiss Waggner is the first bandit, and he's doing a good job. I'm learning from him. I'm staying focused because I can get my chance at any time.

At 6-0 and 211 pounds, Wilks is one of the squad's most ferocious hitters. He nearly knocked a Vol receiver off his feet with a vicious lick in a bump-and-run drill Monday afternoon. Clearly, Wilks still has some linebacker in him.

"Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah," he said, flashing a wicked grin. "I like the contact."

To win a spot in the secondary rotation, however, he must become as proficient technically as he is physically.

"I've got to learn more of the plays, more of the mental things - my alignments and techniques," he said. "Prentiss is a great safety, and Brewer is doing a good job. I've just got to learn where I need to be at the right time."

Wilks is learning to play free safety, as well as strong safety. He says the other Vols are doing likewise.

"We're all learning both positions - free and bandit," he said, "so everybody can switch up."

Apparently, learning both positions is not as difficult as it sounds.

"Really, you've got the same assignments," Wilks said. "When they come out in different alignments on offense, you never know which one you're going to play."

With Tennessee minus Berry and Dennis Rogan from the 2009 defensive backfield, most experts figure the Vol secondary will struggle in 2010. Wilks begs to differ.

"It's shaping up good," he said. "People are doubting us but we're going to show America how to play defense."


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