Spring preview: secondary

Lemond Johnson

Any website can tell you what already happened. InsideTennessee gives you insights into what may happen in the future. Check out this look at four football players who could be key contributors come fall.

Tennessee's football team allowed 29 points per game last season, partly because the defense surrendered 211.1 passing yards per contest. An anemic pass rush was somewhat responsible, but the Big Orange clearly needs better play from its secondary in 2014.

Here's a look at four defensive backs who need to "step up" when spring practice starts later this week:

Riyahd Jones: A 6-foot, 179-pound transfer from Garden City Community College, he missed all but two games last fall due to a nagging calf injury. Blessed with 4.5 speed and good size for a cornerback, he should be a factor this fall if he can stay healthy.

"With Riyahd, that was big. That injury set him back tremendously," secondary coach Willie Martinez said. "You can't get all those reps everybody else had when you're sitting out. He had a very serious injury and he is now getting back to better shape actually than he was when he came into camp. He's made improvements."

Defensive coordinator John Jancek thinks Jones should contribute now that he's healthy.

"Riyahd needs to get out there and make some plays," Jancek said. "He's got to show a level of consistency each and every time he's on the field, show us he's ready to play."

Asked if he sees any lingering effects of the injury, Jancek replied: "Not much. It's just a matter of him making plays."

Michael Williams: This 5-foot-11, 184-pounder transferred in last summer from Maryland, where he ran track. He competes as a sprinter for the Track Vols but didn't play football last fall due to a fractured scapula. He could be a factor in 2014, however, thanks to his speed and athleticism.

"Mike's coming," Martinez said. "He's got the speed for playing corner. He had an injury to the upper extremities that set him back. He'll be somebody that's competing for a job this spring."

Tennessee's secondary was ponderously slow last fall. Williams could provide a significant upgrade in that area once he masters the intricacies of the defense.

"He's got great speed," Martinez said. "He's a hard worker. It's important to him. You can see the strides he made since he came here. He's a walk-on who was here for track. You see him grasp the defense a little bit better than he did when he got here."

Jancek's eyes light up when he discusses Williams.

"I'm excited about Mike," the coordinator said. "I'm fired up about Mike. He's got the speed that you need to play corner. He's got recovery speed. He's got great foot quickness. There's a lot of things with technique he's just got to get better at but I'm really excited to see what he can do."

Malik Foreman: This 5-foot-10, 177-pounder played in nine games as a true freshman last fall, recording 10 stops (4 of them on special teams) and an interception. He showed flashes in November of becoming the player the Vols expected when they signed him out of Kingsport's Dobyns-Bennett High School.

"He made tremendous strides during the season," Martinez said. "He's understanding what he's supposed to do on defense and he's had a little bit of success on special teams. He's more comfortable, and you can see that. Things are coming to him a lot more naturally. His reactions are not robotic. They're natural. I think he's feeling a lot more comfortable."

Now that he's more comfortable, Foreman needs to become more aggressive.

"Malik needs to really become more competitive," Jancek said. "He needs to challenge himself more. He needs to show a little more fire and passion for what we're asking him to do. He's got the tools and the skills. He's a smart kid, and I like him. He's just got to compete."

Although 2013 starters Brian Randolph and LaDarrell McNeil return at the safety spots, the need for depth is severe. There's a potential X factor at this position, as well.

Lemond Johnson: This 6-foot-1, 188-pounder recorded all three of his 2013 tackles on special teams. Still, he has a chance to help from scrimmage in 2014.

"He's come a long way," Martinez said. "He's played a lot of special teams but you could see the improvement and the development of him as a defensive back in our individual drills."

One factor working in Johnson's favor is the fact he can play strong safety and free safety.

"He plays both," Martinez said. "Our safeties are interchangeable. Whether you're strong or free it's basically the same. He has the athleticism and he has the size. He'll be competing for playing time this spring."

Jancek said Johnson needs to show in spring practice that he's ready to be more than a special-teams contributor.

"This offseason and spring are going to be huge for him," the coordinator said. "He's got to get a better understanding of our package and what we're doing, then go out and make some plays. The key is showing us he knows exactly what's going on and what he needs to do.

"He hasn't really asserted himself like I thought he would. He's just got to make us play him. We like Lemond. Just make us play you."

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