Going into spring practice a year ago, the Tennessee secondary was one of the most talked about units on the team.
Then it was, "How are you going to replace Eric Berry, and who is coming back?"
Now it is, "How are you going to replace Janzen Jackson, or is he coming back?"
This winter saw All-SEC free safety Janzen Jackson, who many regard as Tennessee's best player, withdraw from school for personal reasons with an option to return in the fall. Less than a week later, starting strong safety Brent Brewer was suspended for a run-in with the law.
Since then, Brewer has returned to the team after resolving his legal issues, and the story has now shifted from controversy to the transition of a young secondary, to an experienced one.
"Everybody has to become more consistent," said defensive backs coach Terry Joseph. "I think that was the most disappointing thing last year, where we would have lulls where we couldn't make a play.
Tennessee returns All-SEC corner (or safety, depending on the day) Prentiss Waggner, who has been playing with a club on his injured left hand for the past two weeks. Though no fans want Waggner to have to replace Jackson, the junior could do it capably as he tied Jackson for a team-leading five interceptions last season, taking three of them back to the house for touchdowns.
"He can fill a lot of voids for us," said Joseph. "He's valuable, when (the freshman and transfers) get here, we'll figure it out. But until then, he's our "catch-all" to where I can fill him in wherever we need be. So that's a tremendous value for us to have right now."
Just as traveled of a player is junior Marsalis Teague, who played in his first game as a cornerback against UT-Martin, after making the switch from wide receiver during fall camp. Despite missing time to a toe injury, Teague finished the season leading the team in passes broken up with eight
"(Teague)'s doing better. He's our best corner," said coach Derek Dooley. "But he's been pretty dependable. I think the more reps he gets, the more confidence he'll get, the more aggressive he'll play and the better he'll play."
Seniors Art Evans and Anthony Anderson will be competing along with redshirt sophomore Eric Gordon, and early enrollee freshman Justin Coleman all for the same spot on the corner this spring, a spot that will continue to get crowded once junior college transfers Byron Moore and Izauea Lanier, just two of possibly eight incoming defensive backs, report to Knoxville for summer workouts.
Melvin Goins, the former Vols' point guard, has started a trial run on a road less traveled, strapping the pads back on and returning to the gridiron for the first time since eighth grade.
"I always wanted to play football again," said Goins. "I figured it would be a good deal for me to go out and just give it a try and see if I still have the ability to do it."
Dooley wasn't quite ready to give him all the praise after last Saturday's scrimmage, but he did keep the tone light regarding the trial period.
"(Goins) still does (look like a point guard)," said Dooley. "I'd still pick him first if we were — we do our three-on-three in the offseason, so I hope we don't mess that up."
Though the depth is worlds better than last season, Dooley, the hopeless romantic, isn't ready to sit back and relax.
"I'm (still) worried about the defense. There are young guys on defense. But a lot of those guys played last year in the secondary. I mean our whole secondary is back. We need improvement."
Depth is one of the best problems you can have in football, and now the only question is "Who is going to step up?"