KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Ready or not, Tennessee true freshman Nigel Warrior looks to be headed for a pivotal role in the Vols’ secondary moving forward.
Tennessee safeties Micah Abernathy (hamstring) and Evan Berry (ankle) finished Saturday night’s 55-0 win over Tennessee Tech sidelined by injuries, and Warrior was forced into significant action.
“Nigel has great closing speed,” Vols head coach Butch Jones said after the game. “He does a great job of tackling in the open field.”
(Berry started at safety against Tennessee Tech / Mike Griffith photo)
Warrior led Tennessee with seven tackles against the FCS Golden Eagles, including two fourth-down stops.
That represented a marked difference than his performance the week before, when Berry suffered a cut over his eye and Warrior was pressed into action.
Warrior, who has played primarily on special teams, bit on screen pass action and got beat deep for the game-winning points in the 24-21 loss at South Carolina.
The Vols’ injuries in the secondary have been costly; Shoop has had to start eight different combinations in the defensive backfield through the first nine games of the season.
Abernathy has missed the past two starts on account of the hamstring injury he suffered against Alabama, and he appeared to re-injure himself against Tennessee Tech.
Cornerback Malik Foreman has missed the past three games since injuring his shoulder at Texas A&M on Oct. 8.
Jones indicated some of the young players who received repetitions against Tennessee Tech were on the field as much because of necessity as opportunity.
“I think you can also see that our lack of depth revealed itself in this game,” said Jones, who played 10 true freshmen in the win over Tennessee Tech. “We are very banged up and limited in a number of positions.”
There’s a good chance Tennessee will be looking at even more changes, Warrior included, in its noon game against Kentucky next Saturday.
Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop was impressed with Warrior’s athleticism and instincts throughout fall camp, but the safety position is one of the more complicated on defense to learn.
Warrior has certainly proven aggressive enough, as he was ejected at Texas A&M for targeting.
In addition to the secondary, the defensive tackle position continues to thin out.
Sophomore Kyle Phillips became the third straight player to get injured making his first start at the position last Saturday night.
The revolving door at the position began when senior Danny O’Brien was dismissed from the team following the Texas A&M game.
Kahlil McKenzie made his first career start in place of O’Brien against Alabama the next week and suffered a season-ending torn pectoral muscle.
The following week, Shy Tuttle made his first career start at South Carolina only to suffer a season-ending right knee injury.
Phillips was up next, making his first career start in Saturday’s game against Tennessee Tech before he was forced out of the game with an undisclosed injury.
As if that wasn’t enough, sophomore Paul Bain from Powder Springs, Ga., was helped from the field in the fourth quarter with what appeared to be a serious lower body injury.
Sophomore Quay Picou, from Sugar Hill, Ga., or junior Dimarya Mixon (Compton, Calif.) could be next in line to start next to Kendal Vickers in the Vols’ next game.
Here’s an updated list of the Vols’ attrition/injuries:
Updated look at the Vols’ attrition / halftime Tennessee Tech
DEFENSE OUT /Gone CURRENT DEFENSE
Danny O’Brien Derek Barnett
Shy Tuttle Kendal Vickers
Kahlil McKenzie Quay Picou
Alexis Johnson Corey Vereen
Kyle Phillips LaTroy Lewis
Paul Bain Darrell Taylor
Austin Smith Dimarya Mixon
Jalen Reeves-Maybin Darrin Kirkland
Quart’e Sapp Elliott Berry
Ja’Quain Blakely Colton Jumper
Cam Sutton Justin Martin
Malik Foreman Emmanuel Moseley
Evan Berry Todd Kelly
Micah Abernathy Nigel Warrior
Stephen Griffin Rashaan Gaulden
OFFENSE OUT/Gone CURRENT OFFENSE
Austin Sanders Brett Kendrick
Jalen Hurd Josh Dobbs
Alvin Kamara John Kelly
Preston Williams Josh Malone