KNOXVILLE — Tennessee has the luxury of three experienced senior cornerbacks in a secondary that rivals the offensive line as the team's most experienced position group.
But as the Volunteers' preseason camp enters its latter stages, two freshmen are turning heads in the fight for playing time at cornerback.
Shawn Shamburger and Cheyenne Labruzza became the third and fourth newcomers to have the black stripes removed from their helmets this past weekend. As the Vols close in on their Sept. 4 season opener against Georgia Tech, spots on the secondary's two-deep chart are still up for grabs.
"They're guys that run to the ball," junior safety Micah Abernathy said of the freshman duo. "It's something we all notice. They're hard workers on and off the field, in the classroom, in the film room, anything like that. They're always trying to get in the heads of the older guys. They're going to be good."
Seniors Justin Martin and Emmanuel Moseley appear likely to begin the season as the starting cornerbacks with graduate transfer Shaq Wiggins another obvious candidate for a spot in the playing rotation.
But nothing is settled. Wiggins, who played previously at Georgia and Louisville, has yet to be deemed worthy by teammates of having his black helmet stripe removed. Coaches continue challenging him to acclimate to the Vols' way of doing things, and his transition to the program has seemingly opened the door for a younger cornerback to compete for playing time.
"A freshman that is really starting to step up is Shawn Shamburger," head coach Butch Jones said last week. "He's gaining valuable repetitions and he's getting better and better. Obviously, Justin Martin has also had a very good preseason camp. Having Emmanuel Moseley back has really helped us back there as well.
"We need to find our third corner right now, and Shawn is one of those individuals who has taken advantage of the repetitions that he's getting right now, not just on defense but on special teams as well."
Shamburger, a 6-foot, 191-pound freshman from Colquitt County High School in Moultrie, Ga., was described earlier in training camp by secondary coach Charlton Warren as a player who has "flashed." Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop noted Shamburger is "probably a little bit ahead of the other guys."
"Of the three young corners, they've all done very well," Shoop said. "They give great effort. They're as advertised as people. Shamburger is the one guy we think has a chance to make some contributions at corner right now."
Shamburger and Labruzza joined freshman tight end Latrell Bumphus and freshman safety Theo Jackson as the first of the newcomers to have their stripes removed. The ritual, which has become a staple under Jones, is not always indicative of which players will make an immediate impact on the field.
But based on the praise of his coaches, Shamburger appears as likely as any freshman on the defense to earn meaningful playing time, even if most of it comes on special teams.
"He's an individual that's really stepped up the last few practices and really made his presence known at the corner position," Jones said. "The other night I like how he filled in run support. We challenged him with some deep balls. He was able to play the ball in the air and find the blind spot, which you talk about in turning your head in coverage. He's an individual who is pushing our older players."
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