KNOXVILLE — Justin Coleman's welcome-to-college-football moment came quickly last year.
Shortly after becoming the first Tennessee defensive back to start as a freshman since Eric Berry in 2007, Coleman experienced what it felt like to be on the wrong end of a big pass play.
Montana's Jabin Sambrano burned him for an 80-yard touchdown.
After Cincinnati got him for a long gain, Coleman's starting cornerback spot was gone, just like that.
"It was probably a little freshman thing going on," he said Saturday afternoon after the Volunteers' second training-camp practice. "I can say I learned from my mistakes. I learned that if you get beat, there's just another down to play."
UT's corners have put last season in the past. The same group that allowed 16 pass plays of 25 or more yards returns with new coach Derrick Ansley, who's teaching more press-coverage techniques. After nine-game starter Izauea Lanier was ruled ineligible for the season in June, the competition was thrown into an even higher gear.
"It was a big blow because in the DB room we're all such a family," said fifth-year senior Prentiss Waggner, likely one of UT's starters. "His character on the team was always fun to be around. Practices were never boring with Izauea.
"It's definitely a sense of urgency. All summer I've been getting those guys ... ready to go, and I think they did a good job of responding. They're definitely going to get better in camp."
That's exactly what coach Derek Dooley is ready to see. None of the group really emerged from the pack in spring practice, and speed may be the position's biggest concern. Yet the Vols' third-year coach believes the pieces have improved.
"There's a lot of guys out there who have some skill sets, and they're all getting a lot better," Dooley said. "You look at it between Prentiss and Justin Coleman, and then Marsalis [Teague] and Eric Gordon, there's just a lot of improvement. They're engaged, they're working hard, they're practicing the right way, and I'm just anxious to see what they're going to look like about 15 practices from now."
UT's corners might not see a better receiving corps this season than the one they'll battle against every day in practice. Working against Justin Hunter, Da'Rick Rogers and Cordarrelle Patterson — all 6-foot-3 or taller and talented — can only help. Coleman battled Hunter on consecutive end-zone fade routes in last year's spring game, but Rogers got him on a double move for a long gain in April.
The 5-foot-10, 182-pound Coleman eventually regained his starter's spot last season, starting the Middle Tennessee State and Arkansas games. The Razorbacks blitzed UT to 49 points and 14 yards per completion, and Coleman was on the wrong end of Jarius Wright's highlight-reel juggling catch. Yet Dooley said Saturday that Coleman's struggles weren't so bad.
"I didn't see him fade the way you guys saw it," he said. "He made a couple of plays, but there were a lot of things we saw that you guys didn't see when the ball wasn't coming his way. It just happened that there were a few times they threw it when he made some of those mistakes.
"The younger you are and the more you're out there, the more likely you're going to get tested. What I've been proud of is he's really taken on [wanting] to be the starting cornerback. He's got a lot of good position skills, he's got excellent height-weight-speed and he's got all the tools to be good."
The Vols always have liked Coleman's physical skills and competitiveness. It's what helped the former four-star prospect out of Brunswick (Ga.) High School earn that starting spot. Now he's trying to do it again, this time for good.
"I feel I've gotten a lot better," Coleman said. "From strength to speed to coverage. Everything's gotten better.
"It's always a fight. Everybody wants to play. Everybody wants to start."
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 ...