KNOXVILLE — Eric Berry, DeAngelo Willingham and Dennis Rogan don’t see just teammates across the line of scrimmage from them this spring.
Those three Tennessee defensive backs see a little bit of themselves in the Volunteers offense. Injured cornerback Brent Vinson probably does, too.
Berry, Willingham, Rogan and Vinson were all major contributors last season, their first at UT. They know how tough it is being baptized by fire in a new system against Southeastern Conference athletes. They spent much of last season looking like the Vols’ offense has this spring under first-year coordinator Dave Clawson.
“They’re a little frustrated,” Willingham said of his offensive teammates. “But by the time the season comes, they’ll be all right. It’s a new offense for them, and this is our regular defense, so we know what we’re doing.”
That combination has clearly given the defense an advantage during most of this spring — at least during the parts open to the media. Despite key losses such as Jerod Mayo, Jonathan Hefney and Xavier Mitchell, UT’s defense has often looked dominant against the offense, which also is breaking in a new quarterback in Jonathan Crompton.
Safety Demetrice Morley’s return didn’t hurt the defense, either.
“When you know what you’re doing, you can go 100 percent,” Berry said. “When you’re not sure, you can probably go only about 80 or 90, because you just don’t know. But now everybody on defense knows their assignments, we’re just flying around and having fun.”
They had plenty of fun last Saturday, when they picked off four passes in a Neyland Stadium scrimmage. Three of the interceptions were thrown by Crompton, the third resulting in Rogan’s 82-yard touchdown return.
Backup quarterback B.J. Coleman had the other interception on a play that showed the secondary’s depth. Knoxville native Anthony Anderson, who redshirted last season, anticipated Coleman’s throw and made a full-extension catch.
“We’ve got excellent, excellent defensive backs,” Coleman said. “We’re excited to play against them, and that’s going to make us better in the long run. SEC football is very excellent, and it’s full or serious athletes, so we’re going to have to compete week in and week out with guys like Morley and Berry and Rogan and DeAngelo Willingham.
“That’s just how it is, and we’ve got to rise up to meet those challenges.”
Today’s scrimmage will present the quarterbacks with an even stiffer test. They won’t have green no-contact jerseys for much of the day.
“We expect to come out and make plays and play well,” Crompton said. “You have to expect that every time you step on the field.”
Second-team quarterback Nick Stephens was even more optimistic, saying that “if you take away the picks, we moved the ball just fine” last Saturday.
“We would have moved the ball better, because we’d still have the ball,” Stephens added. “If you take away those turnovers, you go from a bad scrimmage to a decent scrimmage, and that’s what we’re trying to work for this time.”
Decent would be an improvement, but it wouldn’t be good enough for Clawson and head coach Phillip Fulmer.
“I’m not expecting the defense to touch the football,” Fulmer said.
Berry isn’t expecting the offensive players to make anything easy. They didn’t last Saturday, he said.
“I would say a they’re a little bit frustrated, but you could see when they came in the red zone that they just kept fighting,” Berry said. “That’s how our offense is. They just keep fighting and keep pushing to get to where they need to be. It’s going to take time, just like our young guys on defense last year. We would get frustrated when we were coming in and didn’t really know the defense.
“Once they get it, they’ll be fine. Our offense is great. I love them.”
Added Willingham: “They’re just learning something new, and when they learn it, we’re going to be awesome. ... They’re going to keep getting better, just like we did last year.”