KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — During training camp, Tennessee’s coaches and veteran players gushed about Nigel Warrior’s strong start to his freshman season.
Almost immediately, the former ballyhooed recruit garnered praise from defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, who called the rookie “dynamic,” to head coach Butch Jones, who — unprompted — mentioned Warrior as the standout during a preseason scrimmage. Warrior was among the first newcomers to earn the respect of his teammates with the removal of his black helmet stripe.
However, the 6-foot, 190-pound safety has struggled to see the field during Tennessee’s first two months of the season. Warrior has been swimming mentality a bit, adjusting to learning a new scheme and playing special teams for the first time in his career.
But with injuries piling up, Warrior is one of many newcomers with an opportunity to take a leap during the Volunteers bye week.
They certainly could use his him right now.
“Nigel has done some really good things for us,” Jones said Tuesday.
“It’s encouraging to watch him play each and every week.”
During the second-half of Tennessee’s blowout loss to No. 1 Alabama, Warrior saw the first significant snaps of his career, recording five tackles. A week earlier, the safety was ejected for targeting in the loss at Texas A&M.
Jones suggested Warrior, like many freshman, is juggling the difficulties of playing football, going to school and dealing with expectations and stress.
“They’re maturing into being college students,” Jones explained.
“I just go back to my own son and all the things he went through as a freshman here at Tennessee, so I understand what these young men go through. I think everyone matures at a different level.
“It’s all about production, not potential, right now at this level. But I’ve been encouraged by what I’ve seen from him.”
And yet, Warrior’s “potential” could be something Tennessee’s struggling defense could use right now.
The Volunteers have had issues fitting run gaps at the second level, and the safety position hasn’t been a strength in recent weeks, especially against speedy receivers and tight ends.
Warrior is fast with a nose for the football, so a solid week of practice could go a long way in determining a new role for the freshman safety.