KNOXVILLE -- Rashaan Gaulden's welcome-to-college-football moment was also a painful one.
While making the first tackle of his career on special teams during his Tennessee debut against Utah State last September, the cornerback broke his hand.
"That," Gaulden said with a tone of disbelief after Saturday's scrimmage inside Neyland Stadium, "was my welcome to college football."
The Volunteers welcomed the 6-foot-1, 173-pound Gaulden a little more warmly.
With an eye toward this season, Tennessee's coaches turned Gaulden into an understudy of sorts to then-senior Justin Coleman, who's currently preparing for the NFL draft after starting every game at the nickel corner position in 2014.
Intentionally, with the target of grooming Gaulden to fill the void in 2015, the Vols paired the two defensive backs together at pretty much every opportunity.
"It was from fall camp all the way to the end of the season," Gaulden said. "We were together in the hotel rooms. I just got to see his mentality. He's a dog, so I'm trying to get that dog-like mentality like he had.
"I feel I have that dog-like mentality, and now I'm just trying to get the technique down like he had. I'm trying to be better than him."
Gaulden possesses the blend of speed and physical style needed to play closer to the line of scrimmage and defend slot receivers, who typically are smaller, quicker wideouts.
During his senior season at Independence High School in Franklin, Tenn., Gaulden made a whopping 193 tackles in 13 games for an average of nearly 15 stops per game.
Gaulden also earned All-America status in track after his 4x400-meter relay team -- a foursome that included former Tennessee receiver Vic Wharton, 2015 Vols defensive back signee Justin Martin and Finis Stribling, currently a redshirt freshman at Missouri -- finished fourth at the 2013 U.S. Track and Field Junior Olympics.
Tennessee coach Butch Jones said the Vols "right away" pegged Gaulden, who chose the home-state program over scholarship offers from Ole Miss, South Carolina, Kentucky, Duke, Washington and others, as a candidate for the nickel spot Coleman was vacating.
"Rashaan is a very talented individual," Jones said. "He can run; he's very explosive; he can hit; he can cover. The big thing for him with being a young football (player) is just the overall discipline of that position. Within the nickel position, there's so much that goes into it.
"You have to be able to play zone coverage and re-route wideouts. You have to be able to play man-to-man coverage. You have to be able to set the edge of your defense. You have to understand the different blitz checks and blitz patterns.
"It's a mental part of it, and Justin was able to handle, I think, because Justin obviously (had) his skill set but also his maturity level. Rashaan has that same skill set. It's just the maturity level of continuing to retain information and being disciplined. We've been very pleased with Rashaan Gaulden's progress."
Tennessee, down to four healthy scholarship corners this spring, is interchanging Gaulden and All-SEC junior Cam Sutton between the nickel spot and one of the outside positions as secondary coach Willie Martinez tries to build depth and flexibility in his unit.
"He's really a tremendous talent, and he's just got to continue to learn and grow," defensive coordinator John Jancek said last week. "If Rashaan's playing nickel, then obviously Cam's out at corner. But we know that we have to have a plan if something happens to Rashaan. Who's going to be the nickel? That's going to be Cam.
"When you bring a guy in -- we still have three corners that we're bringing in that'll be true freshmen -- it's a lot easier, for a guy to learn the outside than it is the inside, to learn the nickel position, so we're trying to take advantage of the time that we have right now to get Cam ready to go."
Gaulden is appreciative of his coaches having him shadow Coleman, and after getting his feet wet with a role on special teams as a freshman, he believes he's ready for a bigger role on Tennessee's defense.
"I was wanting to learn," he said. "For Coach Martinez to put me behind someone like Justin Coleman, I took great care to that. I thank him for giving me that opportunity. You (often) don't get to learn from guys like him."
"I think my physicality helps me at the slot position. I can keep up with the receivers. I have pretty good speed. It's a tough position, but you have to have a lot confidence out there, just confidence that if you get beat, you have to snap and clear and be ready to go the next play."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.