Vols defensive backs young but athletic; Boo Carter praised again

Tennessee Athletics photo / Cornerback Jalen McMurray (12) defends receiver Chris Brazzell (11) during a pairing of transfer players in Tennessee's first spring scrimmage last Wednesday.
Tennessee Athletics photo / Cornerback Jalen McMurray (12) defends receiver Chris Brazzell (11) during a pairing of transfer players in Tennessee's first spring scrimmage last Wednesday.

The Tennessee Volunteers have a significantly younger secondary this year.

That doesn't have to result in a drop in performance.

"I think the playmaking ability has gone up in our room," redshirt junior safety Andre Turrentine said Monday in a news conference. "It's a highly competitive room right now with guys fighting for a spot, and the playmaking ability has been tremendous.

"Guys are making plays on the ball, and they're knowing what to do."

The Vols conducted their seventh spring practice Monday. They will have Tuesday off before resuming Wednesday and then scrimmaging for a second time Thursday.

Tennessee is having to revamp its secondary after safety Jaylen McCollough and cornerbacks Kamal Hadden and Gabe Jeudy-Lally moved on to their NFL opportunities and a staggering six players entered the transfer portal — Warren Burrell, Tamarion McDonald, De'Shawn Rucker, Doneiko Slaughter, Brandon Turnage and Wesley Walker.

Losing nine players in a position group qualifies for quite the overhaul, but Vols secondary coach Willie Martinez is also filled with optimism for his mostly new room.

"We've got an athletic group," Martinez said. "They're young and they're inexperienced, but they have a great attitude with the effort part and the preparation. They did a great job of preparing for spring ball.

"For the most part, we've got everybody in, and it's just the speed and athleticism that you notice. They've just got to grow and mature."

Turrentine and sophomore cornerback Rickey Gibson III earned their first career starts in the 35-0 smothering of Iowa in the Citrus Bowl along with the departing tandem of McCollough and Jeudy-Lally, and they have joined fifth-year senior safety Will Brooks and junior safety Jourdan Thomas in helping the newcomers adjust.

Three newcomers — cornerbacks Jalen McMurray (Temple) and Jermod McCoy (Oregon State) and safety Jakobi Thomas (Middle Tennessee) — arrived via the transfer portal. McCoy has three seasons of eligibility remaining, while McMurray and Thomas each have two.

"I've always been the younger guy, but this is the first time I've actually been the oldest in the room or one of the oldest in the room," McMurray said. "It's different, but we've got guys in our room who are extremely talented, and we all push each other. It's a healthy competition.

"We're all there for each other."

Kaleb Beasley, Edrees Farooq and the Bradley Central duo Boo Carter and Marcus Goree Jr. enrolled early out of high school, though Beasley suffered a fractured fibula the first week of spring drills.

Carter already has been complimented by defensive coordinator Tim Banks this spring, and he was singled out for his play in last Wednesday's scrimmage by head coach Josh Heupel. On Monday, it was Martinez's turn with some praise.

"Boo is explosive," Martinez said. "You put him in any kind of drill, and he's going to show up. He's so athletic and quick, and he has great instincts. It's just the part of putting it all together and being consistent, and in the last couple of practices, it's really kind of slowed down for him, and you can see it.

"When he's playing the star position, he's getting us lined up better than he did in the first couple of practices. He hasn't really panicked, and he's just a very competitive player who wants to win on every play."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.

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