KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee's Justin Coleman just might be the Volunteers most important player.
No, he isn't the most talented player on the team, but injuries and defections have left Coleman as one of the Volunteers' only experienced cornerbacks. Tennessee is in such a tenuous spot at cornerback that freshman Cameron Sutton likely will be starting alongside Coleman in the Aug. 31 season opener against Austin Peay.
Coleman understands how much the Volunteers are depending on him. It's altered the way he heads into his junior season.
"I feel like I've changed my whole mentality of football," Coleman said. "It doesn't feel like just a game to me anymore. It feels like a job, but it's fun at the same time."
Coleman realizes there's more at stake now. He must take a giant step forward as an increasingly vital part of his team's pass coverage.
"He's a big piece of our defense," secondary coach Willie Martinez said. "We're going to lean on him for his experience and his playmaking ability."
Tennessee exited spring practice knowing it would have to replace cornerbacks Prentiss Waggner and Marsalis Teague, who combined to start 62 games before completing their eligibility last season. Other losses have cut into Tennessee's depth even more.
Daniel Gray transferred to Utah State after starting one game as a freshman last season. Eric Gordon, who made seven starts primarily at nickel back as a junior last fall, is no longer with the team. Naz Oliver departed early in training camp. Junior college transfer Riyahd Jones, who opened training camp atop the depth chart at one cornerback spot, has a leg injury that will sideline him for the start of the season.
All those losses put plenty of pressure on the remaining cornerbacks.
"It's hard on the corners," Coleman said. "It's hard on everybody."
JaRon Toney, who made four starts while playing primarily in nickel and dime situations last year, is the projected nickel back. Sutton and freshman Malik Foreman will have to play immediately. And the Vols absolutely need a big season from Coleman.