It’s natural to assume that three of Tennessee’s legacy players are on the verge of stardom — or at least a starting position on defense. Don’t assume too much.
Linebacker Dillon Bates and safeties Evan Berry and Todd Kelly, Jr., still have plenty of work to do to for each to ensure starting spots in 2016.
Here is Tennessee defensive coordinator Bob Shoop’s impression of those three players, and the Vols’ defense after three practices.
Kelly and Berry seemed like surefire starters after the Vols lost both starting safeties, Brian Randolph and LaDarrell McNeil, from last year’s team. Kelly played in every game last season and started two games. He had three interception and registered 44 tackles. Berry has also played extensively at safety, but is being held out of spring practice with a shoulder injury.
Now, there’s new competition. Before spring practice started, the Vols moved Rashaan Gaulden from nickelback to safety, and so far, he’s caught Shoop’s eye.
“I’m excited about Rashaan,” Shoop said of the sophomore. “Rashaan has had two excellent days. Todd Kelly probably has more game experience at safety, but Rashaan has had two really good practices.”
That competition won’t going away any time soon. Shoop said Gaulden, who redshirted last season because of a foot injury, will play exclusively at safety and not split time at nickelback. Shoop said he’s also been impressed with sophomore Stephen Griffin at safety and particularly so with sophomore Micah Abernathy.
“The guy on the backend that has really kind of made the strongest impression and been very productive is Micah Abernathy,” Shoop said. “I really think through the first two days, he’s probably been the most consistent performer maybe on the entire unit. He’s been productive. He’s very attentive. He pays tremendous attention to detail and he’s very precise in his techniques and his fundamentals. He’s been really impressive.”
Tennessee’s secondary will be rebuilt. Shoop thinks that could be a good thing.
“I feel like a position that could be perceived as a weakness because you lose Randolph and McNeil could be a position of strength,” Shoop said. “Those guys are highly recruited players and they’re competing very well.”
As for the suddenly vacated nickelback position, senior Malik Foreman has the inside track.
“I’m excited about the nickel because there we’ve got Malik Foreman,” Shoop said. “I think the second half of the year (he) really stepped up.”
The cornerback position opposite of senior Cameron Sutton is up for grabs. Justin Martin and Emmanuel Moseley couldn’t secure the position last season as sophomores. Now, mid-term enrollee Marquill Osborne is getting his shot. Shoop said Osborne has shown flashes of ability, but struggled at times as more of the defense has been installed.
“He’s got a skill set that’s really kind of unique,” Shoop said. “(Defensive backs coach) Willie (Martinez) told me he’s miles ahead of where guys have been that played that position in the past. That’s really exciting.”
As if that’s not enough competition, more is coming from two four-star prospects set to arrive this summer.
“When you get (cornerback) Tyler Byrd and (safety) Nigel Warrior here,” Shoop said, “it’s going to be even more competitive.”
Dillon Bates’ career hasn’t exactly gone as planned. The sophomore and son of former Tennessee standout safety Bill Bates, redshirted in 2014 after suffering a shoulder injury. He played in every game last season, but has yet to start at linebacker.
“He’s certainly got the pedigree,” Shoop said. “He’s a legacy and the game is important to him. … (He’s a) guy who wanted a fresh start. When you have the Will (weakside) linebacker with the experience that Jalen does, we’re looking to assess that situation behind him.”
Bates is competing with junior Cortez McDowell for the backup weakside linebacker spot. So far, McDowell is garnering the most praise.
“I think he’s had two really good days,” Shoop said. “He’s the one that’s stepped up in that backup linebacker corps.”
Shoop said he’s also excited about seeing junior Colton Jumper, sophomore Gavin Bryant and sophomore Quart’e Sapp in full pads. All three linebackers ended the season in backup roles.
“Those guys are getting a fresh start and a new opportunity,” Shoop said.
Despite the many injuries the Vols have to work around, Shoop said he’s still pleased with his group of defensive linemen.
“Up front we have great leadership,” he said. “(Senior defensive tackle) Danny O’Brien has done a good job. He’s one of the more experienced players. (Sophomore defensive tackle) Kahlil McKenzie is a big, giant person. Once we get in pads he’ll get to show what he’s capable of doing.”
Those are the only Tennessee defensive linemen that are healthy for spring practice and expected to play significant roles for the Vols this fall. Three of Tennessee’s top defensive linemen will be limited or held out of spring practice with various injuries, most notably defensive tackles Kendal Vickers (undisclosed) and Shy Tuttle (ankle), as well as defensive ends Derek Barnett (shoulder) and Kyle Phillips (shoulder). The Vols will also be without backup defensive lineman Andrew Butcher (knee).
It’s not just injuries keeping the Vols out of spring practice. Tennessee is still awaiting further developments concerning junior college defensive tackle transfer Alexis Johnson, who is facing aggravated assault and false imprisonment charges. Johnson has pled “not guilty.”
All the absences open the door for several defensive linemen fighting for playing time. Shoop said sophomore defensive end Austin Smith and redshirt freshman Darrell Taylor have already shown impressive athletic ability.
“Austin Smith, we’ve talked about being an explosive and fast athlete,” Shoop said. “Darrell Taylor, I’m looking forward to seeing him in the first day in pads and how physical he can be because he’s really a pretty talented kid.”
Shoop also commended junior defensive lineman Dimarya Mixon and sophomore defensive tackle Quay Picou, who recovered a fumble and returned it for a touchdown during a recent practice.
“I think up front it’s been good,” Shoop said.
Some defensive ends could get opportunities to play at defensive tackle on third-and-long situations. Shoop said he likes to get his best four pass rushers on the field in obvious passing situations. He said he wants to generate mores sacks. The Vols had 30 last season, tied for fifth in the SEC.
As a new coach, Shoop said there’s a fine balancing act between giving a player a completely clean slate and basing evaluations off of video study and reputation. However, with all of the injuries, Shoop doesn’t have much of a choice.
“It’s frustrating in the fact that you’d like to be working with all your parts,” Shoop said, “but exciting to me in that…watching some of the guys I’m less familiar with has really been a great opportunity for me and a great opportunity for them to get more reps in practice.”