The quarterbacks were unproven. The receivers were painfully young and inexperienced. The steady rain may have hampered the passers and pass catchers. The outing was a glorified practice session, not a real game.
Still, Tennessee’s secondary wasn’t shredded Saturday night at Neyland Stadium, and – given how Vol defensive backs were abused last fall – that is cause for celebration. Yes, they gave up some plays in the situational scrimmaging. Not as frequently as they did last year, though. Yes, there were some assignment busts. But, again, not as many as last year.
Bottom line: Vol defensive backs held up reasonably well in an open practice session attended by roughly 40,000 curious onlookers.
Like the weather, the practice was sloppy. Still, having some butts in the seats helped the Vols stay reasonably focused throughout the 100-minute workout.
“It was a lot more energy (than a normal practice),” junior cornerback Justin Coleman said. “Everybody was ready to play. Everybody came to play and compete.”
Tennessee’s secondary is frightfully young. The only senior is strong safety Byron Moore, a junior college transfer who may not start this fall. Coleman is a junior but he has just 13 career starts. Free safety Brian Randolph is a redshirt sophomore who started just three games last fall before tearing an ACL. LaDarrell McNeil is a sophomore who only started last year because Randolph was hurt. The top two cornerbacks after Coleman are freshman Cameron Sutton and Malik Foreman. The next corner in line, Vincent Dallas, was a wide receiver one week ago.
“The freshmen probably was a little nervous because they wasn’t used to it – a little bit of crowd, loud noises and music playing,” Coleman said. “We enjoyed the fans. The fans was loud.”
There weren’t many opportunities for the fans to get loud. Many of the night’s best plays were made by Vol defenders. Linebacker Kenny Bynum drilled a running back five yards backwards after he caught flat pass. Freshman defensive tackle Malik Brown sacked fellow rookie Joshua Dobbs for a 10-yard loss. Nickel back JaRon Toney made a nice breakup of a pass thrown by junior Justin Worley. Foreman looked good as he broke up a Nathan Peterman pass. Freshman walk-on Davaun Swafford provided air-tight coverage on an out route.
Probably the two biggest plays the defense allowed were attributed to Dobbs. The freshman quarterback threw a perfect ball on a 30-yard touchdown toss to Jason Croom. The coverage was excellent; the throw was simply better. Dobbs also excited the crowd by juking safety Tino Thomas on a read-option keeper that gained around 20 yards. Nathan Peterman also showed some running ability from the QB position, once burning the second-team defense on a 13-yard scramble.
For the most part, though, Tennessee’s defense – especially the secondary – seemed to hold up reasonably well.
“We’ve made a lot of progress,” Coleman said. “I feel we’re ready to compete with anybody. We have each other’s backs.”
Head coach Butch Jones was luke-warm about the defensive performance.
“I didn’t think we did a good job with our gap integrity,” he said. “We had some exposed gaps. To play great defense you have to maintain your gap. A couple of times we let people outside the framework of the defense, and you can’t do that.
As for the secondary play, Jones elected to withhold judgment for a day.
“It’shard to guage because you’re rotating the 1s, 2s and 3s in so many different groups,” he said. “I thought for the most part that our first secondary made the plays. We still had too many missed tackles, especially in the red zone. I’ll know a little bit more when I watch the film.”