There are just two days remaining until Tennessee takes the field in Charlotte, NC to square off against the Mountaineers of West Virginia and the biggest concern for Tennessee fans is the defensive backfield. All summer we’ve heard how the Vol secondary underperformed in the 2017 season. What is it about this season, if anything, that will be different?
West Virginia, led by Heisman hopeful quarterback Will Grier, is the ultimate test for a secondary with questions to answer. The Volunteers will have a perfect platform in the season opener to show whether any improvement has been made in the off season. Grier is touted as one of, if not the best quarterback in the country. His favorite weapon? 6’4” 209lb David Sills - a snag-happy All-American wideout who returned for his senior year to team up with Grier. It’s to be expected however, as we all know, that BIG 12 teams produce well on the offensive side of the ball, and typically have inferior defenses. That’s not the case in the SEC.
The SEC is known for defensive domination and top defensive recruits from all over the country flock to the SEC to showcase their skills. For Tennessee, some of those recruits have yet to live up to their hype. It will be interesting to see if new head coach Jeremy Pruitt, a guy known for his ability to produce top defenses nationally and lockdown defensive backs in particular, has waved his magical defensive wand over the city of Knoxville.
Meet The Unit:
Safeties: Pruitt’s defensive base package features two safeties. The starters, according to a recently released two-deep depth chart, will be Nigel Warrior (6’0”, 188 lbs, JR, Duluth, GA) and Micah Abernathy (6’0”, 195 lbs, SR, Atlanta, GA). Both Warrior and Abernathy had ample playing time last year and their experience will be vital to the success of the secondary. Warrior, specifically has an opportunity to step up and be the unit leader. He’s a lightning quick, hard-hitting, maniac on the field and as his time to enter the NFL draft draws near, he’ll be out to prove he can play at the next level.
Abernathy has had his ups and downs in his time at Tennessee. He’s had some great performances, but he’s also been burned a time or two. However, the fact that he’s listed as the starter on Pruitt’s depth chart (without an OR next to his name) speaks to the very real possibility that Pruitt’s tutelage has elevated his game.
Where’s TK? I’m sure you’re asking. He’s listed as third string on the depth chart behind Warrior and Shawn Shamburger. Todd Kelly Jr. (5’11”, 200 lbs, R-SR, Knoxville, TN) is not only a non-starter, but he’s been passed up by two underclassmen. This is a bit surprising but is likely due to a “fit” problem.
We’ve all seen how Kelly can play, and if Warrior and Shamburger have surpassed him on the depth chart, it means one of two things. Either Kelly’s game has fallen off or Warrior and Shamburger have stepped up in a big way.
A couple of young guys round out the safeties group in Theo Jackson (6’2”, 193 lbs, SO.) and true freshman Trevon Flowers (5’11”, 184 lbs). Both of these guys are tremendous athletes and will look to carve out as much playing time as they can throughout the season, but look for them to show themselves in the first game as Dana Holgorsen’s spread offense is likely to air the ball out often.
Now who expected Tennessee to be six men deep at the safety position? Not a lot of folks. It’s just as deep at corner! We all heard the stories coming out of spring and summer of Pruitt moving people around. Well, it looks like it may pay dividends as there are a few names on the corners’ chart we didn’t expect to see.
Cornerbacks: It was pretty obvious that Baylen Buchanan (5’11”, 193 lbs, JR) would emerge as one of the starting corners. He’s got time on the field and he’s shown a decent amount of potential in his performances. What wasn’t as obvious was that true freshman Alontae Taylor (6’0”, 186 lbs) would emerge as the starter on the opposite side of the field. Taylor was originally recruited as a wide receiver, but shortly after one of Pruitt’s infamous personnel changes, it was apparent that Taylor was destined for ball-hawk glory.
The guy is just a natural athlete who is raw, and extremely coachable. This was evident in a recent video that was circulating on social media of Taylor snagging balls out of the air like a man possessed. This bodes extremely well for the secondary. Taylor could very well be the piece to this puzzle that Pruitt has been looking for since he stepped on campus. Another freshman will be backing Taylor up in Bryce Thompson (5’11”, 180 lbs). What Thompson lacks in size he makes up for in speed and athleticism. He may not lay any life-threatening licks on anyone this season, but his wheels will be in ample supply when Taylor needs to hit the water bottle. The guy who’s expected to spell Taylor and Thompson is none other than former tailback up and comer Carlin Fils-aime (5’11”, 180 lbs, JR).
You read that right. Yet another position swap and Pruitt has added even more speed to the DB depth chart. Junior Marquill Osborne (5’11”, 190 lbs) and RS senior D.J. Henderson (5’11”, 179 lbs) will be spelling Buchanan as well, completing the 6 man corner crew.
All of these guys have the athleticism to play on Sundays and as many are aware, under the previous regime there wasn’t enough player development. It’s going to be intriguing to see if Jeremy Pruitt’s ability to produce quality defensive backs is all it’s cut out to be. We are going to find out right out of the gate on Saturday in Charlotte.
Perhaps one of the biggest achievements Pruitt’s staff has already accomplished, is that all 12 guys in the backfield are healthy and slated as available to play in game number one; a feat former coach Butch Jones couldn’t achieve in any of his five seasons with the Volunteers.