KNOXVILLE – When the season opener comes around, Tennessee will trot out 11 starters on defense it can feel pretty good about in terms of experience.
Based on the initial depth chart released before spring practice, six defensive starters are seniors, three are juniors and two are sophomores.
But behind a veteran starting unit, there is plenty of youth, and with that youth comes plenty of questions. That’s why finding depth is one of the big objectives this fall for new defensive coordinator John Jancek
“You’ve got to have depth to consistently have great energy and effort on the field – that’s critical,” said Jancek, who is making his return to the SEC after last coaching at Georgia in 2009.
Cornerback and linebacker are two of the spots with the biggest concerns. The Vols lost five corners – Prentiss Waggner, Marsalis Teague, Eric Gordon, Deion Bonner and Daniel Gray – from last year’s roster, while veterans Willie Bohannon and Herman Lathers moved on at linebacker.
The massive losses at corner forced the Vols to put two true freshmen – Malik Foreman and Cameron Sutton – as the backup corners on the initial depth chart behind starters Justin Coleman and Riyahd Jones. Jones is relatively new himself after the junior college transfer enrolled last semester and went through spring practice.
“They’re going to play – that’s the reality for us,” Jancek said of his freshmen corners.
And thankfully for Jancek and the Vols, some of the early reviews have been positive.
“I’m really encouraged by Cam Sutton,” coach Butch Jones said on Sunday evening following UT’s first practice in shoulder pads and helmets.” He’s got a high level of consistency. He wants to learn, he’s like a sponge – he takes it in. Malik Foreman is progressing as well.
“But I think it’s their level of understanding the intensity and the preparation. Playing corner, you have to have a different mindset. Everybody remembers a corner when somebody’s running away from them. They have to have that competitive edge on every snap.”
Linebacker is a slightly different scenario, with the Vols boasting plenty of upperclassmen, but its still a position where the backups are largely unproven.
It’s the final go-around for a host of veterans such as converted safety Brent Brewer, John Propst, Channing Fugate, Greg King and Raiques Crump, all of whom are fighting to back up the projected starting group of A.J. Johnson, Curt Maggitt and Dontavis Sapp.
“Guys are stepping up,” said linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen. “Channing Fugate is stepping up and doing a good job. John Propst, to me at the end of spring really came on and showed us he’s a guy we can count on.”
There are some deep spots as well. Safety has three returning starters in LaDarrell McNeil, Byron Moore and Brian Randolph. They’ll be able to go two or three deep on the defensive front with players who have logged SEC experience. But building championship-level depth will be a work in progress for Jones and Jancek over the next couple of season.
“For us to get our program back to where it needs to be, we need to have great depth at every single position,” Jones said.
They’re not there yet.
High praise for Marquez North: Coaches and upperclassmen have been somewhat reserved about their praise of any specific freshmen, but Marquez North is playing well enough to change that.
"He's doing big things out there," Brewer said of North. "He's a big receiver with a lot of speed, so I'm pretty impressed with him.”
Jones added: “In three very short practices, and in a very small time, [North] has proven he is going to be one of our play makers. He is dynamic, he is strong, he is physical, he can run, and we need him offensively.
“What you see is when your players bring him up, it is a level of respect right now that they have for him. He is extremely intelligent; he knows every single receiver position on the field already. We are very excited about him."
• Tight end Justin Meredith (hamstring), linebacker Justin King (unspecified) and linebacker Christian Harris (knee) were all held out on Sunday.
• Brewer said he is working at both the SAM and WILL linebacker positions. After bouncing between safety and linebacker the past couple of years, the senior said he is locked in at safety and is playing around 225 pounds – up five pounds from last year.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga