KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee free safety Nigel Warrior possesses the sort of athleticism and physicality that stands out on the field.
Coach Butch Jones and defensive coordinator Bob Shoop noticed it on the recruiting trail, when the Vols won a recruiting battle for Warrior over the likes of Alabama, Auburn, LSU and Ohio State.
“He has very good closing speed and can make the one-on-one tackles,” Jones said at his news conference Monday, commenting on Warrior’s team-high seven tackles in a 55-0 victory against Tennessee Tech.
“He brings another element of physicality to the secondary — he can close and break and drive on the football,” Jones said. “It comes down to his overall comfort level with the defensive scheme. He’s competing for a starting spot.”
Tennessee (6-3, 2-3 SEC) plays Kentucky (5-4, 4-3) at noon Saturday at Neyland Stadium with its SEC East Division hopes on the line.
A season-ending knee injury to Evan Berry created the opening in the starting lineup, as SEC Country first reported on Monday.
Berry had started the past two games after Micah Abernathy suffered a hamstring injury against Alabama on Oct. 15.
Shoop said that Warrior, regardless of if he starts or not, will be a part of the plan moving forward.
How much a part of the plan depends on how quickly the Tennessee legacy player — he’s the son of former Vols great and NFL star Dale Carter — can become assignment-sound.
Warrior gave up the winning points in the 24-21 loss to South Carolina on Oct. 29, blowing an assignment that enabled a Gamecocks receiver to get behind him for a touchdown.
“He’s a work in progress,” said Shoop, who’s nationally renowned for his work with safeties. “ He’s very talented, and he’s going to be a great player, but there’s some things I see that maybe you don’t … missing an assignment, not covering a guy, not being in the right position, which against South Carolina hurt us, but against Tennessee Tech didn’t.”
Shoop could have other options, whether it’s gambling on Abernathy’s hamstring or juggling the secondary once more if cornerbacks Cam Sutton and Malik Foreman return to the mix this week, along with sophomore safety Stephen Griffin.
But the Vols’ defensive coordinator clearly recognizes Warrior’s ceiling and is hoping the freshman can grasp the complex concepts required to master the free safety position.
“To play high-level defense I think there’s a certain amount of attention to detail and precision, and right now he’s still learning those things,” Shoop said. “He certainly has a good skill set, I’ve said that since camp. His level of investment has improved each week. I’m excited, I saw great progress over the last couple weeks.
“He didn’t do everything well; got a pass inference penalty, didn’t cover a guy one time,” Shoop said. “But four weeks ago he makes a mistake and didn’t know he made a mistake, and now he makes a mistake and comes to the sideline and says, ‘I shoulda done this,’ so we’re making progress.”
Shoop said Warrior was recognized with the team’s “Orange Swarm Award,” which goes to the defensive standout, and he’ll be closely monitoring Warrior’s progress and understanding of the defense this week.