“The secondary should be a strength for us,” Fulmer says. “When we started the season last year that was not the case. We were moving guys around.”
Indeed. The 2005 secondary featured just one starter (Roshaun Fellows) playing the same position as the previous year. Jason Allen was adjusting from safety to cornerback, while Antwan Stewart and Jonathan Hefney were adjusting from cornerback to safety.
This time there’s much more stability. Stewart and Hefney are proven safeties as spring practice begins.
“Having Antwan Stewart and Jonathan Hefney back at safety is a plus,” Fulmer said.
Both Stewart and Hefney are in danger of losing their jobs, however. That’s because Demetrice Morley is pushing both of them after playing a backup role as a true freshman last fall.
“Demetrice Morley needs to be a starter for us somewhere,” Fulmer notes. “He needs to become more familiar with the schemes and more aware but physically he is capable of being a good player.”
There also is cosiderable competition for playing time behind Hefney, Stewart and Morley.
“This is a big spring for Antonio Wardlow, Jarod Parrish and Sinclair Cannon,” Fulmer says. “They need to see if they can fit themselves into the mix or are they going to give way to a freshman or a move we might make?”
Although Jason Allen is out of eligibility, the outlook at cornerback is bright. Inquoris Johnson played awfully well after Allen suffered a season-ending hip injury last October.
“Inky Johnson played exceptionally well last year in relief of Jason Allen,” Fulmer recalls. “Roshaun Fellows and Jonathan Wade also will battle for the starting corner positions.”
Building some depth behind those three is a key objective this spring.
“Antonio Gaines won’t be full speed but he’ll get a lot of work and individual attention,” Fulmer says. “Marsalous Johnson (who redshirted as a freshman in 2005) had a tremendous off-season, and I’m anxious to see what he gets done.”
Whereas the secondary returns virtually intact, that is not the case in the front seven. Three of the four defensive line starters are gone, and so are all three starting linebackers.
Still, Fulmer feels the Vols have players capable of filling the voids in the front four.
“Justin Harrell, Turk McBride, Antonio Reynolds and Robert Ayers will certainly get a chance to do that,” he says.
Sophomore Demonte Bolden will get a long look at tackle, coming off a solid freshman season. Fulmer also plans to give redshirt freshmen Wes Brown, Raymond Henderson, Vladimir Richard and Dan Williams plenty of opportunities to show their stuff. The same goes for juco transfer Walter Fisher, who Fulmer calls “a newcomer we’re really excited about.”
The head man says the young ends and tackles are “going to get lots and lots of looks this spring,” adding that “Their tongues will be hanging out” from so many practice repetitions.
The task of replacing all three starting linebackers, plus backup Jon Poe, is challenging but not insurmountable.
“Replacing four linebackers is an unusual situation to have that many guys leaving at the same time with that much experience,” Fulmer notes. “Physically, we’re very talented but mentally and experience-wise, they’re going to be a little short-handed.”
The first-teamers this spring are Marvin Mitchell on the inside, Ryan Karl and Ellix Wilson on the outside. James Turner and Andre Mathis are listed 2-3 behind Mitchell. Converted safety Adam Myers-White is backing up Karl, while walk-on Anthony McAllister is behind Wilson.
Two of the top linebacking prospects, sophomore Jerod Mayo and redshirt freshman Rico McCoy, are missing spring ball while recovering from off-season surgeries.
Fulmer notes that “Some young guys have a chance to be pretty darned good,” specifically mentioning Mayo and McCoy as “both capable of being starters.”