Tennessee secondary coach Willie Martinez talks to freshman cornerback Evan Berry during the Vols' practice on Sunday.Photo by Patrick Brown
KNOXVILLE — It took Willie Martinez barely a split-second to answer the question.
The Tennessee secondary coach is in charge of a group loaded with freshmen, but the former Georgia defensive coordinator already knows one area in which they'll make the Volunteers better.
"Yeah, we're faster. We're faster," Martinez said following Sunday afternoon's practice. "We may not know what we're doing right now, but we've made up for some mistakes with our speed, which is good to see.
"I think, again, you know, we're going to make mistakes, and in this camp, hopefully we can get it to a point where the young guys can be more consistent and be productive at the same time."
Those are welcoming statements for the Vols after the way Oregon, Missouri, Auburn and others exposed Tennessee's defense in the open field throughout last season.
Though Tennessee does have some experience in the secondary, the Vols likely will start at least one freshman -- cornerback Emmanuel Moseley -- and potentially another one at safety if a newcomer there can overtake sophomore Devaun Swafford, a former walk-on who had a hand in a couple of big plays as a freshman in 2013.
The group of new faces Martinez is coaching includes some touted recruits, namely safeties Todd Kelly and Cortez McDowell, Evan and Elliott Berry and Rashaan Gaulden.
Many of those players will help Tennessee on special teams at the least, if they don't break into the rotation defensively. Safety Brian Randolph, corner Cam Sutton and nickelback Justin Coleman appear to be certain starters for the Vols.
"There's no question we're faster in the secondary," defensive coordinator John Jancek said. "But again, they're freshmen. That's the struggle. That's the balancing act."
It has Martinez teaching the same amount, albeit with a different approach. During one drill on Sunday, he was constantly motioning and pointing things out to his players with his arms. He then broke down into a stance and shuffled across the field to demonstrate to Elliott Berry how to execute one coverage.
"They have a lot of energy," Martinez said. "I think the entire team does. You can see the culture's changed, and there's a lot of competition now, and more competition than we've had since a year ago. That's a good thing."
Tennessee's full room of defensive line isn't short on big bodies, but the Vols are fully aware they'll bit a little bit smaller up front defensively this season.
And that's just what line coach Steve Stripling wants.
"I would prefer athleticism over size," he said. "We want to be an aggressive defense, and we want to be able to make plays with our defensive line. To do that, you've got to be athletic. If that gives up a little size, then we'll play with that."
The veteran Stripling is another coach tutoring a handful of young newcomers, and freshmen ends Derek Barnett and Dewayne Hendrix were two he singled out on Sunday.
"I'm fired up," he said. "I've got a big room full of athletic guys. We're young -- I know we all say that, but it's true, we're a young football team -- but we're more athletic and we're gonna have some fun."
Vols land 2016 QB
Tennessee picked up what it hopes to be a big piece of its 2016 recruiting class.
Austin Kendall, one of the top-ranked quarterbacks in the rising junior class, announced his commitment to the Vols on Twitter on Sunday afternoon after spending the weekend on campus and watching Tennessee's practices.
The 6-foot-2, 205-pound Kendall, out of Cuthbertson High School in the Charlotte area, is rated as a four-star prospect by 247sports, and Rivals ranks him fourth among pro-style quarterbacks and 60th overall in the 2016 class. He had verbal scholarship offers from Clemson, Miami, Kentucky, West Virginia and N.C. State, among others.
The Vols have four early commitments for 2016.
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 ...