KNOXVILLE — The reinforcements have started arriving, and more are still to come.
With the first session of summer classes and summer workouts set to begin this week, Tennessee’s football signing class has begun arriving on campus. Since February’s signing day, the 22 possible players have followed similar routines: finishing school, working out to stay in football shape and counting down the days until the expected move.
That’s especially true for the defensive signees, who see considerable opportunities to stake claims to spots on the depth chart, maybe even as starters.
“It’ll get interesting around here pretty quickly,” defensive backs coach Terry Joseph said last month.
Head coach Derek Dooley said after the Vols’ spring game that he wished the entire signing class could have gone through spring practice. Only six of the signees gained that advantage, and cornerback Justin Coleman was the lone early enrollee on defense.
That doesn’t mean, however, that the rest of the incoming group hasn’t worked to come in as ready as possible. Since signing day and the end of spring practice, UT’s coaches have sent the recruits parts of the playbook along with some video to study.
“There’s certain amounts that you can send them and certain you can’t, but they have some information in front of them,” defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said. “They can call and ask you questions, and it’s one thing to learn on paper. It’s another thing to do it.
“What we want them to have is hear the language, learn a couple of the concepts and when they get in ... it’ll be a crash course. In some cases, it’ll probably be a certain guy learning parts so he can go out and play fast and not have to think too much and learn everything.”
The competition in the secondary between now and September figures to be the fiercest, with a number of returning players hoping to hold off eight new players who believe they can work themselves into key roles.
“A lot of those guys are real in tune to [learning the system] because obviously they’re excited about the opportunity they have and it’s also very new to them,” Joseph said. “Those guys, for the most part, I’ve talked to most of them about at least twice a week, but some of the guys who have been really tuned in, it’s been about four or five times a week — questions on the playbook and just how’s it going and who’s doing this and who’s not doing that.”
Included in that new crop of secondary players are junior college defensive backs Byron Moore and Izauea Lanier. Moore, who’s expected to compete for a starting cornerback spot right away, said he’s become very comfortable with his playbook this spring.
“I’ve got the whole playbook and the film from their spring practices and their spring game,” the 6-foot-1, 200-pound Moore said this past week. “I check in with them every week, and we go over different stuff. I pretty much know the whole playbook. It’s going to help a lot — I won’t have to be doing too much thinking since I already know most of the plays, so I can play fast and make plays.”
A.J. Johnson, who will come to Knoxville from Gainesville, Ga., on Tuesday, is part of the Vols’ move toward heavier linebackers. The 245-pound Johnson, who will start his UT career at outside linebacker, admitted he’s not been in his playbook much this spring, but he has spoken with linebackers coach Peter Sirmon.
“I talk to [Sirmon] about the team and stuff,” Johnson said, “and he told me to look at the position I’d be playing at and try to [get] an idea of what I’m going to see when I get there. I’m looking to come in, work hard and be able to get on the field. [The coaches are] telling me pretty much the same: Just come up there with a good strong work ethic and get up there and learn the plays.”
Marietta safety Brian Randolph, Georgia’s Gatorade Player of the Year, has enlisted some outside help in the form of Spencer Smith, a former Kell High School safety who just finished his career at Hawaii, to assist him with the spring packet of plays he received.
“He’s been helping me understand some of it, with the terminology,” Randolph said. “That’s probably one of the most important things, to be able to learn quickly and get in the flow so you can catch on and get as many reps as you can. That’s a big step so you can start taking chances. If you don’t know the plays very well, you have to stay pretty safe with it, but once you get to know the plays, you can move around and do your own thing.”
Wilcox said he isn’t going to simplify his entire defense even if a handful of the new players are slow learners. He will, however, simplify the defense on an individual basis to take advantage of certain players’ specific skill sets.
“We’re going to put in the whole defense,” he said, “just like we always would where we might tell a couple guys, ‘Hey, this is what we need you to do right here.’ It might be three or four things or whatever, but we need him to be able to pick it up fast and go play fast and not have to sit out there and think, and let him go react.”
Moore, who spent a season at Southern Cal before transferring to Los Angeles Harbor Community College, will have an advantage over freshmen with whom he’ll be competing when he arrives next weekend. At the same time, though, he’ll have higher expectations on him to come in right away and add a dynamic dimension to a UT secondary that struggled last season.
“A lot of the stuff is the same I learned before, and a lot of the stuff at Tennessee I did at junior college, so it’s just all carrying over,” he said. “I’m not learning too much new stuff, just the new terminology and stuff like that. As far as the schemes and concepts, it’s all the same. Since I’m an older guy, they expect me to come in and be great now, but I like the pressure. It makes me play better knowing that I’ve got that pressure.”
Even with experience, there’s still going to be an adjustment period for Moore and every other incoming player. Some will pick it up mentally quicker than others, and some will have the raw athletic abilities and talents to get them by while they learn.
As an example, Wilcox mentioned Brent Brewer, who joined the Vols last summer after four years of baseball. Even though he had to shed the rust of four years off from football, Brewer’s talent and physical maturity was never in question. He took over a starting spot at strong safety and left this spring as one of the Vols’ sure things defensively.
“Brent came in here and had athletic ability and the physical ability to play, but it is a lot,” Wilcox said. “The speed of the game is so different — the multiples and your calls and what the offense does can grow exponentially — so it takes a little bit. At certain positions there’s more multiples than other positions, so we’ve got to be very conscious of that when we find the guys in fall camp that we say this guy’s going to help us early, and we’ve got to make sure we don’t overload them.”
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...