KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Deon Grant said he could feel the angels lifting him when he made his TD-saving interception in Tennessee’s 20-17 overtime win over Florida in 1998.
Now, it seems, Grant wants to lift UT sophomore Rashaan Gaulden and the Vols’ other defensive backs to another level with the 2016 season fast approaching
Gaulden wears the same No. 7 that Grant once graced at UT, when he helped lead the 1998 team and won 1999 SEC Defensive Player of the Year honors en route to a successful NFL career.
“Me and Deon have a really good relationship … and I told him I’d rep his number for him,” said Gaulden, who missed the 2015 season after suffering a broken foot last August.
“Me and Todd Kelly got to pick his brain and he gave us tips on what to do in different situations in the game, single high safety, double high safety. He gave us pointers.”
Of course, things have changed since Grant and Fred White were the “Thunder and Lightning” of the UT 1998 secondary, with White filling the box most often and Grant in centerfield.
New UT defensive coordinator Bob Shoop has preached flexibility on the defensive line and in the secondary, a counter to how spread offenses are creating matchups with RPOs (run-pass options).
“Having that versatility,” Gaulden said, “you never known what position they will throw you at in a key situation.”
Offenses don’t know either, and that makes it much harder for them to dictate matchups.
Kelly, Gaulden and Micah Abernathy can line up at either of the safety or the nickelback positions.
“Rashaan Gaulden can play a lot of different positions and, keeping him healthy, he has a chance to be a real good player this season,” Shoop said. “I said it all the time, what position does LeBron James play? He can play the point guard, he can play shooting guard, he can play small forward, the power forward and the center if he has to.
“That’s what I tell Rashaan, Micah and guys like that, the more positional versatility they have, the better they’re going to be.”
Mike Griffith covers Tennessee for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s SEC Country and lives in Knoxville.