SEC Country is breaking down each Tennessee position group as the Vols prepare for spring football practice.
Wednesday morning’s breakdown features Tennessee’s 2016 defensive backs.
Notable departures: Safeties Brian Randolph and LaDarrell McNeil
Major players: Cornerback Cameron Sutton and safeties Todd Kelly Jr. and Evan Berry
Analysis: Tennessee’s coaches, most notably defensive backs coach Willie Martinez, have shown the ability to get the most out of their defensive backs. Former Vols like LaDarrell McNeil and Justin Coleman once struggled, but proved to be competent contributors under Martinez. Now, the Vols have to rebuild their secondary. They should have more talented players to mold. However, the defense will likely be more aggressive under first-year Tennessee defensive coordinator Bob Shoop. That should make things interesting.
Tennessee’s two starting safeties from last season, Randolph and McNeil, have departed. However, two well-known Vols seem ready to assume their roles. Both Kelly Jr. and Berry have significant playing time in the secondary. Kelly Jr. has a bit more time in the defensive backfield and has shown a penchant for being in the right place at the right time. Berry has showcased his athletic ability by becoming one of the nation’s best kick returners. However, there will be other candidates as well. Returning players Stephen Griffin, Micah Abernathy and Rashaan Gaulden are all possibilities at safety. However, Gaulden seems a natural fit at nickelback, a position the Vols utilize extensively.
Sutton will have one of the cornerback positions locked down thanks to his decision to return to Tennessee instead of entering the NFL draft. The other cornerback position is a bit more curious. Emmanuel Moseley and Justin Martin battled for playing time throughout last season, but neither could lock down the position. The Vols brought in junior college transfer D.J. Henderson to provide immediate depth. Freshman Marquill Osborne is also highly thought of. Both enrolled in January so they’ll benefit from spring practice. Senior Malik Foreman could also be a factor.
Key question: Who ends up where?
Bottom line: The Vols have some players that are natural safeties, some players that are natural cornerbacks and a handful of players that Tennessee’s coaches will have to find the right position for in order for them to flourish. There’s more talent than before, but there’s much more uncertainty and one of Tennessee’s best leaders, Randolph, will no longer be the last line of defense.
Wednesday afternoon preview: Running backs