KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — There are still more than four months remaining until Tennessee defensive coordinator Bob Shoop has to set his starting lineup. Yet he knows what three safeties are vying for that first call.
Shoop told reporters on Thursday that Todd Kelly Jr., Rashaan Gaulden and Micah Abernathy were his top three at the position.
The two starting spots at safety and playing time will be at a premium between the three because they are currently locked into those positions. Cornerback and nickelback seem unlikely for any of the three because the Vols have primarily worked other players at those two positions. The Vols have two options in their approach to the safety position. They could play left and right safeties or free and strong. The latter would be more preferable.
Kelly is the familiar name at safety. After a standout career at Webb High School (Knoxville, Tenn.), he has gone on to be a playmaker for the Vols even in a limited role. Kelly has only started five games but has six interceptions, four pass breakups and a fumble recovery.
“Todd Kelly has the most game experience and it shows,” Shoop said of the rising junior. “He’s starting to practice … more consistently. He’s starting to do the things we want. He communicates. He understands the package. I think he’s starting to develop some confidence. He’s starting to grow as a player to an upper-level SEC player.”
That’s a bit of a different tune from Shoop, who lauded other safeties earlier in spring practice, namely Gaulden and Abernathy. Shoop recruited Gaulden to Vanderbilt so he knows him well. The rising sophomore has received rave reviews since moving from nickelback to safety at the beginning of spring practice.
“Rashaun is so talented and I’ve always known that about him,” Shoop said. “We’ve had a relationship for a long, long time. He’s fast. He can cover people. He’s got a lot of skills as a corner and a nickel and he’s got the desire to hit like a safety.
“His problem right now is just learning the position, just reps and experience. He’s not always in right place, but he’s always going 100 miles an hour. That’s correctable. We can get that squared away.”
The same can be said for Abernathy. He had a strong start to spring camp before missing a week of practice after his father passed away. He’s returned to campus without missing a beat.
“Micah is a versatile player,” Shoop said. “We’re trying to find a way to get Micah Abernathy on the field. He’s played nickel in the past. He’s played strong safety for us in the spring. In our three-down package, which is essentially our dime, he plays what we call a ‘cheetah’ or a dime so we try to find a way to get him on the field versus four and five wide receivers and he’s really excited about that. He’s a little bit like Rashaan. He needs to continue to get repetition in scrimmage situations and live situations without me or (defensive backs coach) Willie (Martinez) behind him helping him out.”
Shoop said it’s possible that Tennessee’s base defense will utilize five defensive backs, as it did frequently under former defensive coordinator John Jancek. Malik Foreman is a prime candidate to be Tennessee’s nickelback. Whoever ends up playing nickelback will determine much of how Tennessee plays defense.
“Whether than recruiting players to fit a guy’s scheme, it’s identifying that guy’s skill set and putting him in a position where he can be successful,” Shoop said. “So you may tailor your blitz packages, your coverage packages based on who ends up being that nickel. That’s what we’re trying to do is find the best 11 players.”
Gaulden seems destined to be in that final 11, as coaches have continued to praise him. However, he’s not ready quite yet.
“He’s in the right church, just the wrong pew,” Shoop said.
There’s still time. Gaulden has another week of spring practice, summer workouts and preseason camp to find his proper seat.