"He did a nice job for us," defensive coordinator John Chavis said. "Be it fair or unfair, players have to earn a coach's confidence. Sometimes all they need is an opportunity. He made the most of his opportunity. That's why he's sharing reps with the first team this week. He's earned that right. He showed us he can play. He did a really good job."
Wardlow is the latest in a string of young Vols who have come off the bench and out of the shadows to make major contributions in recent weeks. Redshirt freshman tailbacks Montario Hardesty and LaMarcus Coker distinguished themselves after returning starter Arian Foster was hurt in Game 2. Redshirt freshman Josh McNeil has taken over as the first-team center. Sophomore tight end Brad Cottam is emerging as a force. End Wes Brown, cornerbacks Ricardo Kemp and Marsalous Johnson – all redshirt freshmen – have begun contributing significantly on defense.
"There are some exciting elements to our team that have proven to be a plus for us," Fulmer said. "One of the most pleasing things is that we've continued to have young players step up and help us. The latest example was Antonio Wardlow going in and doing a really, really good job at safety for us in the last ball game."
The head man indicated he was more pleased than surprised by Wardlow's performance.
"He had a good, solid spring," Fulmer said. "He's improved his coverage skills. He's not where he needs to be just yet but he's a good tackler and a smart young man. He's doing well in school. He's actually doing better in college than he did in high school.
"He's been responsive to what we've asked. He's a little on the quiet side, so he's a little hard to get to know from a personal standpoint, but I've enjoyed my relationship with him because he's the right kind of young man."
Wardlow, originally from Winston-Salem, N.C., may not be as athletically gifted as Morley – few players are – but his determination and work ethic suggest he's going to be a key player over the next 3 ½ seasons.
"I don't know if he'll ever be a superstar but he's got a toughness about him and he's very into the team," Fulmer said. "He plays special teams and does a lot of different things. I like him a lot."
He likes him so much, in fact, that he may start him ahead of Morley again this week.
"Wardlow will continue to share time," Chavis said. "Either one of them could start this game. We'll determine that later in the week but we certainly feel very comfortable with Wardlow being in the game."