Tennessee junior defensive back Doneiko Slaughter may have the two most wildly different career starts in college football history.
Slaughter's first start occurred in his very first game, when the Volunteers traveled to South Carolina for their 2020 season opener and defeated the Gamecocks 31-27 before a limited crowd of 15,009 due to the coronavirus. His second such opportunity transpired in last Saturday's 52-49 upset of rival Alabama as 101,915 frenzied fans looked on before storming the field.
"It was amazing out there," the 6-foot, 190-pounder from Roswell, Georgia, said this week in a news conference. "It felt like a movie."
Known mostly during his time in Knoxville as a supporting cast member, Slaughter typified the next-man-up mentality against the Crimson Tide. He received the nod at safety, replacing senior Jaylen McCollough, who was arrested Oct. 9 on a felony charge of aggravated assault and sat out last week's game.
The Vols faced Alabama without three defensive backs who started multiple games earlier this season — McCollough and cornerbacks Warren Burrell and Kamal Hadden — and lost a fourth when cornerback Christian Charles was injured late in the fourth quarter.
That not only resulted in Slaughter stepping up but sophomore De'Shawn Rucker making his first career start at cornerback and redshirt sophomore walk-on William Wright being in the game at corner for Alabama's final possession that resulted in Will Reichard's missed 50-yard field-goal attempt with 15 seconds remaining.
"I'm excited about our next-man-up mentality, because we talk about it a lot," Vols defensive coordinator Tim Banks said. "Every coach in the country talks about it. We also talk about, 'You get what you earn,' and a lot of these guys who got an opportunity in the secondary have worked really hard.
"It just so happened this was the game those guys had to play, and I'm extremely proud. Those guys went in there and didn't blink."
Burrell is out for the season, and Vols head coach Josh Heupel did not provide availability updates for Charles, Hadden and McCollough when asked Wednesday. The 6-0 and No. 3 Vols are stepping outside the Southeastern Conference this weekend to host UT Martin (4-2) for homecoming.
Just how much more digging into the roster can be done if another defensive back is sidelined?
"It went deeper with Will Wright going out there and playing extremely well," Heupel said. "We've got multiple guys inside of our program who haven't had a ton of opportunity but we've got great trust in. We have that next-guy-up mentality, and you've seen that in these last couple of weeks on both sides of the football."
The Vols have reached the midway mark of their regular season with the nation's No. 10 rushing defense (yielding 93.3 yards per game) and the No. 129 pass defense (332.0). Banks was asked about both this week and said all 11 defenders are involved in each of those averages.
For Slaughter, this week represents a potential third career start and the opportunity to build off the biggest game in which he has played. He spent his first two seasons at the star position before working at corner this spring and then settling into safety.
"Once you know the star, you really know every base of the defense," Slaughter said. "I can really play every position, honestly, but I love playing safety. I can be in the box. I can help my guys in coverage.
"I can just be all over the field."
That versatility has made Slaughter, who tallied eight tackles against the Tide, a rather quick option when Banks turns to someone for help.
"Neiko is one of the guys we're extremely proud of because of how hard he works and how he never complains," Banks said. "When he gets his opportunity, he goes in and he produces. I tell the guys the more they can do, the more value they'll bring, and he's extremely valuable for us right now.
"He's a plug-and-play player no matter the position."
Had Reichard made his lengthy field-goal attempt and had Alabama been the 52-49 winner, Vols fans likely would be lamenting Tide linebacker Dallas Turner's 11-yard fumble return for a touchdown midway through the fourth quarter following a botched exchange between quarterback Hendon Hooker and running back Jabari Small.
That stunning turn of events gave Alabama its biggest lead at 49-42.
"It wasn't a clean mesh, and the ball ended up on the ground," Heupel said. "It's not just one person's fault, and both of those guys have to play and execute at a higher level on that mesh."
Odds and ends
Tennessee announced plans Wednesday to "Dark Mode" Neyland Stadium on Oct. 29, a night game against Kentucky, with the first-ever orange-and-black checkerboard. ... ESPN's latest Heisman Trophy poll has Hooker first with 61 points, followed by Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud (56) and Alabama quarterback Bryce Young (36). ... Heupel on practice this week: "Obviously we're coming off a big win, but the mentality and approach of our players inside the building has been phenomenal."
Contact David Paschall at firstname.lastname@example.org.