Waggner faces home state school Saturday

KNOXVILLE - Prentiss Waggner hates to share.

“I consider every ball in the air my ball,” Tennessee’s junior defensive back said. “I just like attacking when the quarterback throws the ball. Basically it’s film study and having a feel for the quarterback and what he wants to do.”

Waggner’s intuition was spot-on last season, when he intercepted five passes to tie for team honors. More impressively, Waggner returned three of those picks for touchdowns to lead all of major college football and set a UT season record.

Waggner turned the trick while splitting time between cornerback and safety.

“Being able to transition from corner to safety is not really showing my versatility,” Waggner said. “It’s knowing the whole defense, so the transition is pretty smooth.

“It’s a lot different because at corner you just get into checks and play certain techniques. At the safety, you basically have to know what the corner has to do and you have to get the corners and nickel corners lined up. I would just call it having a good grip on the playbook.”

Waggner also tied for the SEC lead and was seventh nationally with three recovered fumbles. Again, he found a way to the football.

“I consider myself a ball hawk,” said Waggner, who mirrors his game after former Vols great Eric Berry and fellow Louisianan Ike Taylor. Both are currently in the NFL: Berry with the Chiefs and Taylor with the Steelers.

Waggner finds himself the cagey veteran on Tennessee’s improving secondary unit. What was considered a liability for UT the previous two years now is a strength.

“Guys are feeling a lot more comfortable this year than they were last year,” Waggner said. “We’re not thinking too much. Basically, we’re just reacting.

“I just make sure every young guy on the team knows what he has to do. I encourage them a whole lot, even when times get rough and they get down. I guess you could say I consider myself a leader.”

The Clinton, La., native has been fortunate to compete in back-to-back years against his home-state school, LSU. Last season in Baton Rouge, Waggner recorded a career-high eight tackles to go along with a key pass break-up in the end zone.

And while last year’s near-miss against the Tigers remains fresh in his mind, Waggner knows this season’s tilt is a fresh 60-minute chance at redemption for the Vols.

“It’s going to be a big game for us,” he said. “They’re one of the top-ranked teams in the nation, they play great defense and they’re very physical. We have to bring it every play and hopefully we’ll come out with a victory.”

Junior tight end Mychal Rivera has quietly become one of Tennessee’s most consistent offensive threats this season.

The Valencia, Calif., native currently leads all SEC tight ends and ranks third nationally with 19 receptions. His 248 receiving yards, meanwhile, are good for second in the league and sixth among all NCAA D-I tight ends.

Against Georgia, Rivera became the first tight end to lead Tennessee in receiving yards since Jason Witten did so at South Carolina on Nov. 2, 2002. His 85 yards were also the most by a Volunteer tight end since Witten had 125 on six receptions against Michigan in the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1, 2002.

As impressive as those offensive numbers might be, UT tight ends coach Eric Russell was more pleased with his improvement in blocking.

“Mych has done a nice job,” Russell said. “I know everyone sees the catches Saturday, but the amount of times we ask him to stay in in protection and block their Sam (linebacker) or the defensive end and Tyler (Bray) was protected. He didn’t give up any sacks or any quarterback hits and he is getting better in the run game fundamentally. I think he is working on getting better in the run game every day in practice when he comes out.”

While happy with Rivera’s performance to date, Russell isn’t quite ready to start comparing him to former Vol tight end standouts like Witten, Luke Stocker, Brad Cottam and so many others just yet.

“I am proud of Mych so far,” Russell said. “But Mych isn’t where he needs to be to be considered having reached the standard of what has been through this place. He’s not there yet.”

It is easy to forget that Brent Brewer is just a sophomore. At 23-years old he certainly has the look of an upperclassman, but Tennessee’s starting strong safety is still gaining valuable experience in just his second year back on the gridiron after four in minor league baseball.

While Brewer has been able to avoid the big play that has plagued the UT defense this season, he hasn’t necessarily countered with many of his own either, something which Tennessee defensive back coach Terry Joseph sees as the next step in his development.

“We just need more production,” Joseph said. “It’s one thing to be in the right spot, but it’s another thing to be productive when you are there. He’s in the right spot, but now let’s guy on the ground, let’s get the ball out and let’s be productive instead of just saying, ‘Hey, I’m in the right spot.’”

With an extremely physical team in No. 1 LSU making the trek to Neyland Stadium this Saturday, Joseph sees an opportunity for a breakout game from Brewer, who established himself as one of the hardest hitters on the UT squad in fall practice.

“Brewer is getting better every week and I think he is getting a little bit more comfortable in understanding what our expectations of him are,” Joseph said. “I’m excited to see him play this week because this is going to be a physical game where a guy like Brewer can make a big impact.”

A pep rally entitled “Rally on Rocky Top” will be held on Friday afternoon (October 14) at 5:15 p.m. at the Gate 21 amphitheater in advance of Saturday’s Tennessee vs. LSU football game, which is scheduled for a 3:30 p.m. kickoff.

Dooley will speak to the crowd, with the Pride of the Southland Marching Band and the University of Tennessee cheerleaders also present. There will also be several giveaways for fans, including autographed items and officially licensed University of Tennessee gear. Two tickets for Saturday’s game against LSU and pregame sideline wristbands will also be featured giveaways, while the first 400 fans at the rally receive a free appetizer card from Texas Roadhouse.

Free parking is available for this event in Lot 9, and there is no charge for admission to this event.

Tennessee Defensive Backs Coach Terry Joseph
(On why Georgia was able to get a step on the UT DBs)
“I think it is a little bit of technique and a little bit of foot speed. Obviously, we knew going into the game (Georgia WR Malcolm) Mitchell was a special speed guy and the way we were playing our defense was our best chance to win the game. It’s a matchup that we felt that we liked going into the game. We have to play better technique and I think at the end we can finish. In the middle of the play, I thought most of our guys were in pretty good position and then probably the last 10 yards of the play is where we got in trouble.”

(On the play of Prentiss Waggner against Georgia)
“I thought he had a good feel for the game plan. He was really disguising it well. We talked all week about getting turnovers and putting his helmet on the ball and he was able to knock one out and really had an interception in his hands but the wideout did a good job of knocking it out. It was probably one of his better games overall.”

(On moving forward with man coverage on the corners)
“It is something we have to play. It’s a part of our defense. As a corner, especially when you play man, there are going to be some times where it is going to be foul balls. If you are going to play man the majority of the time, there are going to be situations where you aren’t in the perfect spot. We are going to continue to play it, but now I think we have to focus more on how to finish, being in different positions and finishing the play. The tough thing about that is that there are about a thousand different positions you can be in at the end of the play and it is hard to coach them all. It’s hard to get the players to react to everyone, because everyone is unique.”

Tennessee Quarterbacks Coach Darin Hinshaw
(On Matt Simms)
“When you see Matt Simms on the sidelines during the game, he is almost always on the field. The guys is always competing, it’s is always going on in his mind and he works his tail off. That’s exactly who Matt Simms is. Now he has the opportunity to go play. He will cross the white lines and go play this game. He came in last week and was prepared, made some plays and got us in the end zone. He has to do that this week. Go out and make some plays, administrate the offense and make good decisions. No turnovers because that is what LSU feeds off of. They feed off of your mistakes and they continue to pound you and then all of a sudden you make a huge mistake and they feed off of it. We can’t do that.”

(On Matt’s understanding of the offense)
“Matt understands the offense really well. He understands football, understands the game and understands coverages really well. He is a student of the game. He is constantly talking to coach Hiestand and coach Chaney and is constantly trying to evolve and get better. That is one thing he has done all summer and all fall camp. That’s one thing you love about Matt Simms. Now it is time to take it on to the football field. Don’t make critical errors, go out there and play sound football, execute the offense and lead us to a victory.”

(On preparing for LSU CB Tyrann Mathieu)
“They have a bunch of playmakers on their defense. I don’t think we are worried about one specific guy. Everybody on their defense is a playmaker. They all make plays and do a good job. We have to go out there and play sound football at the quarterback position, make good decisions and no turnovers.”

Tennessee Special Teams Coach Eric Russell
(On Devrin Young)
“He hasn’t gotten to do as much as we had hoped just getting him the last couple of weeks, but for the limited opportunities he has had, he has a 40-yard punt return, a 20-yard punt return, a 50-yard kick return. A lot of balls we are now getting at least at the 27-28 yard line instead of the 20, so he has added that spark. I don’t think we’ve seen the best of Devrin yet. The more he gets around this and the more involved he gets in our scheme, he will do some good things. We are pleased with him.”