Jeremy Pruitt’s first year at Tennessee won’t be an easy one. He could look externally, where he’d find Georgia fresh off an appearance in a national championship game and Florida bringing home Dan Mullen. But before doing that, he and co-defensive coordinators Kevin Sherrer and Chris Rumph will have to look internally. What they find, well…. it won’t be too encouraging.
Three of the Vols’ five starters in the secondary are gone: Corners Justin Martin and Emmanuel Moseley graduate in the spring and Rashaan Gaulden will likely be drafted into the NFL in April.
If there’s any light at the end of the tunnel, it’s that Tennessee has talent returning. That talent just isn’t very experienced. Todd Kelly Jr. provides one returning starter at safety, while Micah Abernathy and Nigel Warrior will likely compete for the other starting spot. Pruitt has made it clear that the Vols are pulling out all the stops to find the best starters at each position, but it’s hard to deny the experience the above three provide.
Todd Kelly Jr. is one of the best athletes on the team, let alone one of the best defenders. Barring an injury or other unforeseen circumstance, he should be at the top of the depth chart at one of the safety positions following spring ball. It’s a well-deserved honor for the most veteran member of Tennessee’s secondary. Safeties coach Charles Kelly should enjoy a healthy Kelly, one of the most vocal leaders of the defense, at the helm.
Abernathy and Warrior will compete for the second starting spot after Warrior’s encouraging sophomore campaign. He was second on the team in total tackles (83) and added 3.0 tackles for loss and a pick-six to his name in 2017. Abernathy wasn’t far behind, filling in at third on the team in total tackles (81) and has been one of the more consistent defenders on the team in the past three seasons.
Past those three, though, things get murky. Theo Jackson and Maleik Gray should rotate in. Jackson played in 11 games last year, but recorded just eight tackles. Gray played in just two games. Tennessee’s former defensive staff loved Jackson, while Gray was one of the top athletes in the country out of high school, so the potential is there. Again, the experience is lacking.
Another option that’ll get some looks is Carlin Fils-aime. Fils-aime, who rushed for 215 yards as the Vols’ third-string running back last year, is one of the three players switching positions for the spring. It seems more likely that he’ll get time at safety than Tyler Byrd, another player switching to defense, would. If nothing else, Fils-aime could provide some spot help in a thin secondary instead of being shorted touches in the backfield again.
You know how the safety depth seems manageable with three players returning with meaningful playing time and some inexperienced athletes to back them up?
Yeah, the Vols’ options at corner don’t look that good.
The good news: Tennessee gets back Baylen Buchanan, who shined as a freshman in 2016 before playing in just six games in 2017 due to an ankle injury. If he returns to 2016 form, it’d be a much needed boost to this cornerback group. On the other hand, Tennessee fans were pleasantly surprised with the emergence of freshman Shawn Shamburger, who recorded 12 total tackles at Alabama and spent plenty of time face-guarding the electric Calvin Ridley. Shamburger had himself a Buchanan-like freshman year. His confidence could be key to competing for the Vols’ No. 1 corner spot.
Only one other returning corner even recorded a tackle in 2017. You read that right. One. Marquill Osborne (5 total tackles) played in nine games, but never really stood out on a defense that didn’t do a lot of standing out. Osborne saw plenty of minutes as a freshman in 2016, but hasn’t lived up to the hype that surrounded his four-star status out of high school. The junior could have a big impact on the consistency of the Vols’ corners against teams with deeper receiving units.
If we were to rank the remaining options at corner, it’s tough to call who’d get the early nod at this point in the depth chart. The options, by upcoming year: Sophomore Cheyenne Labruzza, sophomore Terrell Bailey and junior Tyler Byrd. Jackson or Gray could move from safety to corner for depth help if the staff feels comfortable with a small rotation at safety.
Labruzza played in four games last season at corner and safety while Bailey played even less than that. Byrd is an interesting candidate. After playing both ways in high school (corner/wide receiver), many Vols fans have been clamoring to see him on the defensive side in the ball for a while. Will he be rusty after spending so much time on the offensive side of the ball? His lack of practice time on defense in the past two seasons will put him behind the eight ball.
I’d look for Shamburger and Buchanan to take the top two corner spots out of spring camp with Osborne and Labruzza mixing in at nickel and behind those two. Byrd has a role to play in the secondary, but it’s too soon to say he’ll be the fix to any depth issues.