Junior Art Evans thought he was going to be part of a deep and talented secondary in 2010. But rising seniors Eric Berry and Dennis Rogan opted for the NFL Draft. Next, cornerback Nyshier Oliver suffered a torn ACL in the Orange & White Game. Then first-team strong safety Darren Myles was dismissed from the team.
As a result, Evans finds himself the most experienced member of Tennessee's secondary by virtue of 12 starts in 2009. Moreover, the guy who was a pupil last fall finds himself playing the role of teacher in 2010.
"When I first came in guys like Jonathan Hefney and Jarod Parrish took me up under their wing, teaching me the ropes," Evans said recently. "It's the same thing for me now - being a vocal leader and leading by example to the younger guys."
Those "younger guys" include sophomore Janzen Jackson, sophomore Prentiss Waggner, sophomore Rod Wilks and freshman Brent Brewer at safety; redshirt freshman Eric Gordon, sophomore Marsalis Teague and junior Anthony Anderson at cornerback.
Jackson started nine games last fall and Waggner two. Wilks has never started a college game and Brewer, fresh from four years of minor league baseball, has never played in a college game. Gordon has never played in a college game, either. Teague, a converted wideout, has never played a down of defense in college. Anderson, who started one game last season, is the second-most experienced corner behind Evans.
As the old man of the secondary, Evans realizes that he must help groom the youngsters filling the spots around him.
"I think I bring leadership and experience when I'm in there," he said. "And, like any other player, I'm going to bring hard work."
Evans won't be a rah-rah guy, however. It isn't his style.
"That's never been me," he said. "I've always been a mellow-type person. We've got a lot of seniors that will do that, so I'll be the one that falls back (and leads by example)."
Tennessee has had three secondary coaches the past three years - Larry Slade in 2008, Willie Mack Garza in 2009 and Terry Joseph in 2010. Despite the disturbing level of instability, Evans says the secondary scheme has remained consistent.
"The only thing that's different is different players," he said.
Although the loss of two-time All-American Eric Berry was a crushing blow, Evans feels no pressure to fill Berry's shoes.
"Nobody's going to try to be like nobody else," Evans said. "We're all going to be the player we can be and work to be great players."
Helping them in their quest to be great players is a coaching staff that the Vols clearly trust and respect.
"We've got great coaches who put us in different type situations and help us with the thinking part," Evans said. "They help you feel comfortable and relaxed."
Minus Berry, Rogan, Oliver and Myles, Tennessee's secondary clearly has some obstacles. Still, Evans believes the defensive backs who remain can overcome them.
"It's important for all of us to stay out there and work hard," he said. "That's the biggest thing - work hard every day and approach every situation like you don't know what will happen next."
He should have the "don't know what will happen next" part down pat by now.