Tennessee preseason preview: Defensive backs

Tennessee preseason preview: Defensive backs

July 30th, 2016 by Patrick Brown in Sports - College

Tennessee's Todd Kelly Jr. prepares to hit South Carolina's Jerell Adams (89). Adams would fumble on the play sealing the 27-24 victory for Tennessee. The South Carolina Gamecocks visited the Tennessee Volunteers in SEC football action November 7, 2015.

Photo by Robin Rudd /Times Free Press.

BY THE NUMBERS

12: Tennessee intercepted only eight passes in 12 regular-season games before picking off four against Northwestern in the Outback Bowl. Missouri and Vanderbilt were the only SEC teams that failed to reach double-digit interceptions. The Vols will be hoping to force more in 2016.

25: Combined pass break-ups for Emmanuel Moseley (10), Malik Foreman (nine) and Justin Martin (six) last season, compared to just six for Cameron Sutton. Opponents will continue to throw away from Tennessee’s star cornerback, so the Vols will need their other corners playing well.

6: Career interceptions for safety Todd Kelly Jr. in two seasons as a spot starter and rotation player. His pickoffs all have come in key moments, too, with Kelly intercepting passes against Florida and Georgia as a freshman, swiping two against Oklahoma last season and forcing timely turnovers in each of the past two wins against Vanderbilt. Kelly, a junior, now will be a full-time starter.

STAR POWER

Cornerback Cameron Sutton headlines a Tennessee secondary oozing potential with a handful of talented yet unproven defensive backs.

The senior team captain takes a professional approach to everything from film study and practice — this past spring he would run to the offense's sideline after the end of a series just to get a little bit of extra conditioning work — to his academics and how he made his decision to return to Tennessee instead of entering the NFL draft.

Sutton has been productive, too, by recording 104 tackles and 11 for loss with six interceptions, three forced fumbles and 26 pass break-ups in three seasons.

He isn't Tennessee's only secondary veteran, though, as corners Malik Foreman and Emmanuel Moseley and safeties Todd Kelly Jr. and Evan Berry have considerable experience.

PROMISING PROSPECTS

For the second consecutive August there will be plenty of excitement surrounding Rashaan Gaulden, and his teammates and coaches are eager for him finally to show how talented he is.

Gaulden was set to start at the nickel corner spot last season when he hurt his foot in the preseason and missed his sophomore season. His return to the field included a switch to safety, where he showed speed, aggressiveness and inexperience. Gaulden made a handful of plays, but he was far from perfect playing the new position.

Tennessee is replacing two veteran safeties who were dependable and experienced in Brian Randolph and LaDarrell McNeil, but some in the program believe the Vols are upgrading the talent there with Gaulden and Kelly set to step into those starting roles.

Justin Martin may be as talented as any defensive back on Tennessee's roster, but the Vols are hoping it will click for the fearless, long-armed corner, and sophomore Micah Abernathy became a favorite of new defensive coordinator Bob Shoop in the spring and can play either nickel back or safety.

Freshman Marquill Osborne was a pleasant surprise during spring practice after enrolling early, and he will help Tennessee on special teams while also pushing for playing time at the nickel spot.

FRESH FACES

Junior college transfer D.J. Henderson joined Osborne as an early enrollee, and high school teammates Nigel Warrior and Baylen Buchanan arrived at Tennessee this summer.

It didn't take long for Warrior to generate some buzz among his teammates and coaches, and though it's difficult to see him carving out a defensive role right away with the safety spot crowded by Kelly, Gaulden, Berry, Abernathy and Stephen Griffin, Warrior at least should play on multiple special teams units.

If he's as talented as advertised, Warrior could push for a defensive role at some point this season.

Buchanan is a cornerback who also will have the chance to help on special teams.

STRONG SUITS

Shoop and secondary coach Willie Martinez have no shortage of options at their disposal.

Through recruiting the Vols have drastically upgraded the speed and athletic levels in the secondary, and those will be on display this season. There's no lack of competition, either. Tennessee has a trusted leader in Sutton, while Kelly spent the spring developing into a leader at safety.

Tennessee is solid at corner with Martin and Moseley complementing Sutton. After a skittish start to the season Foreman closed strong at the nickel spot, and Osborne looks like a future star at the position. Safety is well stocked with Kelly, Gaulden, Abernathy, Berry, Griffin and Warrior.

The Vols should have one of the best secondaries in the SEC this season.

QUESTION MARKS

To become one of the SEC's best secondaries, though, Tennessee must force more turnovers and allow fewer big plays.

The Vols intercepted only 12 passes last season, and four were in the bowl game. They generated 19 takeaways in 2015, while elite defenses at Alabama and Florida forced 27 and 25 turnovers (albeit in extra games). Tennessee also gave up 34 pass plays of 20-plus yards, the 11th-most in the conference.

One competition to watch next month is at the second corner spot between Martin and Moseley. Martin slowly took over there as last season progressed, but he missed a big chunk of spring practice. Moseley had his ups and downs the past two years, but he's had a solid offseason.

Shoop also must figure out the best combination for specific situations. How often is he willing to play nickel or dime packages with extra defensive backs? Might the Vols employ some three-safety looks to get Abernathy on the field?

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com