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October 9, 2013Tennessee's secondary was one of the biggest question marks in August.
Brian Randolph was coming off knee surgery. LaDarrell McNeil was jumping up the depth chart past fifth-year senior Byron Moore. Cam Sutton was earning his stripe out of both necessity and skill at one corner, Justin Coleman ― just a junior ― was considered the veteran at the other.
Six games into the schedule, the group has answered those questions from camp with 11 interceptions, tied for the lead in the Southeastern Conference, and the second lowest opponent completion percentage in the league.
And they've managed to stay out of the spotlight, where defensive backs prefer to stay.
"I think we have a lot of confidence," Randolph said after practice Tuesday. "We've made a lot of plays. We just have to make sure we limit the bad plays, the missed assignments, stuff like that."
The Vols are 10th in the league in pass defense, giving up just over 240 yards passing per game. Tennessee has limited opposing quarterbacks to a 53.7 completion percentage, behind Alabama's SEC-best 46.4 percent. LSU is third at 53.9.
"It's not really surprising for us," Coleman said. "We're just doing our job, stopping receivers as much as possible."
"[There's confidence] from all the experienced guys, all the guys making plays," Coleman added. "One person makes a play, it just gives everybody else confidence."
Those plays have been spread around the back end of the defense.
Randolph is second on the team in tackles with 44. The redshirt sophomore has two tackles for loss, three interceptions, a pass defended and four broken up.
Coleman is tied for fourth ― with McNeil ― on the tackles list with 23. He has a tackle for loss, a pick, four passes broken up and five defended.
"I feel like I'm really confident in everything I do," Coleman said Tuesday. "I practice hard everyday, work on my technique. I've got things together."
Sutton, the wild card in training camp, has 21 tackles, a pick, a tackle for loss, five passes broken up and six defended. Most importantly, after injuries to Riyahd Jones and Michael F. Williams, Sutton has filled a major void the Vols had entering camp.
"I feel like Cam, back in August, he really wanted to get on the field more than he wanted to make plays," Coleman said. "Right now he's just making plays for us, doing a whole bunch of good things for us."
"He's a totally different player," Randolph added of Sutton at the midway point in the schedule.
"There's a lot of confidence. You can just tell by the look in his eyes when he's out on the field that he knows what he needs to do and he's going out to do it."
Tennessee's quietly confident secondary held Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray to 196 yards passing. Murray entered Saturday averaging 334.5 yards per game. His previous low, 298 yards, was two weeks ago against LSU.
"When they execute the plays, when they execute the systems, a lot of confidence is born with them," Butch Jones said of his team after Tuesday's practice.
Of the 1,445 yards and nine touchdowns given up through the air, Oregon accounts for 471 yards and four scores.
The Vols gave up 132 yards passing to Austin Peay, picked off Western Kentucky five times and held Florida to 167 yards passing. South Alabama was picked off by Tennessee three times.
"That's definitely what we want to do," Randolph said. "I feel like we could've done some extra things in the [Georgia] game, but we had a lot of confidence going in and had more coming out."