It wasn’t announced publicly, but Rashaan Gaulden’s move to safety was first set in motion when Bob Shoop was hired as Tennessee’s defensive coordinator in January.
Shoop knew the redshirt sophomore, who previously played nickelback for the Vols, because he recruited Gaulden as a Vanderbilt assistant before leaving the Commodores to join James Franklin’s staff at Penn State. Shoop offered Gaulden a scholarship to play safety at Vandy, and his assessment of the defender didn’t change when Shoop arrived in Knoxville. Despite choosing Tennessee, Gaulden, who is from Independence High School (Spring Hill, Tenn.), always thought highly of Shoop.
“There’s been no change,” Gaulden said when asked to compare Shoop as a recruiter and a coach. “(I have) a lot of respect for him. A lot of respect for his family. Nothing has changed. He can get on my butt every now and then and I’ll take his coaching.
“He’s a really chill guy off the field. He’s intense on the field but he’s one of those guys you can come in and watch film with him every week and you’ll get something done.”
The change from nickelback to safety is more involved in Tennessee’s system than in other defenses. Since Tennessee primarily runs a nickel defense, the nickelback has been very involved in stopping the run and often plays in the tackle box. Now at safety, that won’t be the case for Gaulden.
“One of the main differences is just being the last line of defense,” Gaulden said. “Nickel, you get to be in different run reads. You get to be aggressive. From the safety position, I have to be the last line of defense. I have to make that touchdown-saving tackle.”
So far, Tennessee head coach Butch Jones has been pleased with Gaulden’s transition and what he can bring to the secondary.
“Rashaan adds a whole different element of physicality, not just on the defensive side but on special teams as well,” Jones said. “He’s getting back now with the overall discipline of being able to play safety…He’s one of our best tacklers on defense and he plays with a high level of physicality and a motor.”
Gaulden, however, admitted that he is far from a finished product, but he thinks that will just be a matter of time.
“Right now, I’m not where I need to be,” he said. “I feel like, down the line, as spring gets done and fall comes up, I feel like I’ll be in mint condition to compete for the safety position.”
The praise surrounding Gaulden and fellow safety Micah Abernathy have some wondering about junior Todd Kelley Jr., who seemed poised to take over a starting safety position after the Vols lost both starters from last season. Kelly may still land a starting job, but there’s certainly more competition than many expected at the end of last season.
“We’ve challenged T.K. with everything, stemming from his leadership, being first in the meetings,” Jones said. “He’s a very cerebral player. He’s very intelligent…Every time we’ve had live situations, T.K. has really shown up and I’ve been very pleased with T.K., not only on the defensive side of the ball, but also in terms of special teams as well.”
However, most of the recent talk concerning the safety position has been about Gaulden, mostly because of his seamless transition.
“I embraced it,” Gaulden said. “I embraced the change.”