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.
"(The coaches) basically have been telling me if I slip up, the younger guys are going to see it," Coleman said. "Basically all the responsibility's on me."
Coleman's teammates say he's handled that responsibility well.
"He's a big leader," safety Brian Randolph said. "All the freshman corners can just basically watch what he does, look at film of what he does and try to really copy him. He's a technician. He does mostly everything right."
Coleman understands what those younger cornerbacks are going through. He started four games as a freshman in 2011, including the first two games of the season. After opening last year as a reserve, Coleman replaced Teague atop the depth chart four games into the season and remained there the rest of the year.
Now he has a starting spot locked up. Tennessee coach Butch Jones is eager to see how Coleman responds.
"When you aren't having competition at your spot, you really find out about that person's character and how they really compete because they are competing with themselves," Jones said. "How (do) they compete to be the best that they can? That is the situation that we are in right now. Justin is extremely competitive, but we can't allow him to become complacent. We have to push him harder than anyone on the field."
Coleman doesn't expect complacency to be a problem. He realizes how much his team needs him.
"I'm more experienced than everybody," Coleman said, "so I have to take it upon myself to lead these guys."
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)