Vols position preview: Secondary mixes experience with youth

DB Todd Kelly Jr. tries to fire up the crowd. The Florida Gators visited the Tennessee Volunteers in a important SEC football contest at Neyland Stadium on September 24, 2016.

The Times Free Press is taking a daily positional look at the 2017 University of Tennessee football team leading up to the first practice today. Today we look at defensive backs:

Who's back?

First-year defensive backs coach Charlton Warren said in the spring that he would love to be able to substitute regularly in games this fall to keep the Tennessee secondary fresh. There are enough returning players with experience that Warren might have that luxury if the group stays healthy. Veteran safeties Todd Kelly Jr. and Micah Abernathy will be challenged for playing time by talented sophomore Nigel Warrior. Evan Berry, a senior, is returning from injury to provide depth at the position. At cornerback, coaches raved in the spring about the maturation of senior Justin Martin. Emmanuel Moseley, who represented the Volunteers at SEC media days, is back along with sophomores Baylen Buchanan and Marquill Osborne. Rashaan Gaulden figures to be the nickel back after holding down the position for much of last season, and junior college transfer D.J. Henderson is also a part of the mix after redshirting last season.

New faces

This is where it gets interesting. Louisville graduate transfer Shaq Wiggins is entering the scrum at cornerback and bringing another veteran presence to the locker room. Wiggins is SEC-tested, having spent his freshman season at Georgia in 2013, and will challenge for immediate playing time. Freshman cornerbacks Terell Bailey, Shawn Shamburger and Cheyenne Labruzza will be counted on to develop quickly, since the Vols will lose three players from the position to graduation after this season. Maleik Gray, a freshman safety from La Vergne, Tenn., could make an immediate impact. Look for him to contribute on special teams right away and get a chance to play some safety against Indiana State in week two. Theo Jackson is another freshman safety from the midstate area.

Vols preview, SEC football series


This veteran group of defensive backs should be better this year now that it has a season with coordinator Bob Shoop under its belt. Warren's track record indicates that he could play a major role in turning things around. By the end of Warren's second year as North Carolina's secondary coach last season, the Tar Heels had the nation's 12th-best passing defense. Just two years earlier, they had been one of the worst defenses in the country.


Abernathy and Kelly are the only returning secondary members who intercepted passes last year. Both had two picks. The Vols need another player to step up and flash big-play potential while the defensive front adjusts to life without elite pass rusher Derek Barnett. Georgia Tech and Indiana State are unlikely to provide major aerial tests in the first two weeks of the season, but Tennessee could get gashed for big plays if a lockdown cornerback has not emerged by the start of conference play.

Contact David Cobb at dcobb@timesfreepress.com.