"I've found the new scheme to be more player-friendly," first-team strong safety Prentiss Waggner said this week. "It gives me the opportunity to play a little more man-to-man coverage. It's just basically one-on-one with the receivers."
If the simpler scheme is a plus for a third-year sophomore such as Waggner, it must be a godsend for the first- and second-year DBs on Tennessee's roster.
"I think it will help the young guys a lot," Waggner said. "They won't have to think that much. They can just go out and do their jobs - stopping the man from catching the ball."
Unfortunately for Tennessee, "stopping the man from catching the ball" will be no easy task, given the youth and inexperience of the 2010 Vol secondary. It took a double hit last winter, when juniors Eric Berry and Dennis Rogan opted for the NFL Draft. It took another hit in April, when first-team cornerback Nyshier Oliver tore an ACL, then took another in July, when first-team strong safety Darren Myles was dismissed.
Those departures leave the Vols with a projected starting secondary consisting of one junior (Art Evans), two sophomores (Waggner and Janzen Jackson) and a redshirt freshman (Eric Gordon). Moreover, the top reserves appear to be a sophomore who spent last season playing wideout (Marsalis Teague) and a freshman who spent the past four years playing minor league baseball (Brent Brewer).
Given all the above, many Vol fans consider the secondary a disaster area heading into 2010. Waggner begs to differ.
"The young secondary's coming along real well," he said. "We go to the meeting room every day, do our film study and we're communicating well on the back end."
Waggner is playing for his third secondary coach in as many years. He redshirted in 2008 under Larry Slade, played in 2009 under Willie Mack Garza and now finds himself working under Terry Joseph.
"The defense is pretty much the same; it's just different terminology," Waggner said. "All of the coaches wanted us to play the defense a little different but I had good learning experiences from all of those coaches."
Despite its youth, Tennessee's secondary has a little experience. Evans started 12 games last fall, Jackson nine and Waggner two. The only first-time starter in the projected No. 1 secondary is Gordon, who reportedly is making great strides in preseason.
"He's coming along real well," Waggner said. "He's taking coaching and listening. He's going out there every day and making plays on the practice field. He probably has the most pass breakups on the team. I'm excited about him."
Waggner is excited about the secondary as a group. Even with young players filling so many key roles, he believes the defensive backfield will be solid in 2010.
"I think we shape up pretty well," he said. "We've got a lot of talent on the back end. We're real young and inexperienced but I think we can do a good job this year."