Vols' Willie Martinez not rushing to see who starts in secondary

Tennessee photo by Andrew Ferguson / Tennessee senior cornerback Warren Burrell is trying to move on from last December's Music City Bowl, when the Volunteers allowed 534 passing yards in a 48-45 overtime loss to Purdue.

The Tennessee Volunteers held their 11th preseason football practice Friday and will scrimmage for the second time Sunday.

It's now within three weeks before the Vols kick off Josh Heupel's second season Sept. 1 against Ball State, but Willie Martinez is still very much in camp mode. The second-year secondary coach worked this spring without four key players - Warren Burrell, Kamal Hadden, De'Shawn Rucker and Brandon Turnage - due to injuries, so getting that quartet reacclimated has been an objective.

Tennessee also made its biggest offseason transfer portal splash in the defensive backfield, landing Andre Turrentine from Ohio State and Wesley Walker from Georgia Tech, so forgive Martinez for wanting to take as much time as he's allotted.

"We want to find out a lot about guys we don't know about," Martinez said Friday during a news conference. "We know about some guys who weren't with us in the spring who played last year, and we've really just been rotating. There are not ones or twos or threes.

"We're just trying to get them competitive reps in practice to where we can get matchups and evaluations on each player. It's been good, because we've been able to play more guys and get a lot more reps."

Tennessee ranked last in passing defense a year ago among Southeastern Conference teams, allowing 273.2 yards per game, and that was with a secondary that had cornerback Alontae Taylor and safety Theo Jackson. Taylor was a second-round pick of the New Orleans Saints in April's NFL draft, while Jackson was selected in the sixth round by the Tennessee Titans.

The Vols were 13th in the league in third-down defense, yielding a 42.13% conversion rate, and they surrendered 534 aerial yards and five passing touchdowns in the 48-45 loss to Purdue in the Music City Bowl.

"Stuff like that of course sticks with you," Burrell said Friday of the postseason performance, "but it doesn't do you any good to sit there and dwell on it. Bad things are going to happen. That's life.

"You've just got to pick up the pieces and keep moving forward. We've got a lot of competition going on right now."

Martinez is hoping a deeper contingent headed by seniors Trevon Flowers and Jaylen McCullough will help on all fronts in the months ahead.

"We really want to play more guys," he said. "We're trying to force ourselves in pushing these guys. Ideally, we would like to play three to four corners and three to four safeties, and if we could get four to five at those positions, that would give us a chance to play in this league.

"Obviously, if someone gets hurt, somebody could bounce right in there. It's a next-man mentality."

Martinez said the move of Christian Charles from safety to corner in the spring has provided flexibility, and he revealed that Walker, Flowers and Tamarion McDonald have been rotating at the "star" position. He added that Walker is also working at free safety and strong safety, as is Turrentine.

Walker and Turrentine both played at Ensworth High School in Nashville.

"They've done a nice job. They really have," Martinez said. "They understand the standards and expectations of this program, and they fit in really well in our room. They've got some leadership qualities.

"Dre is young, but they've done a great job."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSPaschall.