Tennessee defensive back Cameron Sutton celebrates stopping Utah State on 3rd down during the Vols' season-opener football game against the Aggies on Sunday, Aug. 31, 2014, at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville.

KNOXVILLE -- With Tennessee set to start spring football practice Tuesday, the Times Free Press is taking a position-by-position look at the Volunteers as they continue preparations for the 2015 season. The preview wraps up the defense today with a look at the secondary.


* Cam Sutton (Jr.): If opponents didn't learn in 2013 not to throw to Sutton's side of the field, surely they know by now. Sutton, a super-competitive film junkie, finished last season with 37 tackles, four for loss, three interceptions and a team-high 16 passes defended. Those numbers didn't land him on any All-SEC teams, though.

* Brian Randolph (R-Sr.): The veteran safety finished third on the team and third among SEC defensive backs, behind only Alabama's Landon Collins and Auburn's Johnathan Ford, with 88 tackles last season. He also broke up five passes, intercepted two and recovered a fumble. Some outlets gave him a third-team All-SEC nod.


* LaDarrell McNeil (Sr.): The former four-star recruit was a pleasant surprise last season. He started all but one game at safety and finished fourth on the team in tackles with 76, chipping in two interceptions and 1.5 tackles for loss, after he'd just about been written off after a rough sophomore season. McNeil had 25 stops in the season's final three games.

* Todd Kelly Jr. (So.): The All-SEC freshman team selection was productive despite not playing a full-time role at safety. Kelly finished with 33 tackles and three interceptions, the most among SEC freshmen. His toe-tapping pickoff against Vanderbilt rescued the Vols in that game.

* Emmanuel Moseley (So.): The North Carolina native had a first-team cornerback spot locked down all last offseason before losing it in August and regaining it midway through the season. He finished with 18 tackles and six pass break-ups and played on special teams, too. Moseley and his family emerged unscathed from a scary car accident last weekend.

* Rashaan Gaulden (So.): As a freshman last season, Gaulden showed promise as one of Tennessee's top special-teams players, making five of his seven stops while on one of multiple coverage units.

* Malik Foreman (Jr.): After playing in nine games as a freshman, Foreman played in every game in 2014 as a cornerback, kick returner and coverage man on special teams. Vols coach Butch Jones mentioned Foreman as a player who could get some looks at running back this spring.

* Evan Berry (So.): Will the younger of the Berry twins stick in the secondary? After a strong season returning kickoffs -- Berry was second in the SEC in kick-return average (29.5 yards) -- there's some thought he again may get some looks at running back.

* Devaun Swafford (Jr.): As a freshman walk-on in 2013, Swafford started twice and played heavily at the nickel cornerback spot, and he spent last season as a backup safety and special-teams player after earning a scholarship.

* Lemond Johnson (Jr.): An every-game contributor on special teams as a freshman in 2013, Johnson saw action in just four games (Utah State, Arkansas State, UT-Chattanooga and Kentucky) last season.

* Max Arnold (R-Sr.): The fifth-year walk-on was a backup safety in 2013 and played in every game, primarily on special teams, last season.


* The under-appreciated Justin Coleman, a 38-game starter who played nickel corner in 2014, is Tennessee's only shot at avoiding some dubious history. Tennessee last did not have a player selected in the NFL draft in 1963. Coleman did his best to keep the run going with strong showings at the East-West Shrine Game and NFL combine.

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Tennessee defensive back Justin Coleman intercepts a pass in the end zone against Vanderbilt Saturday. Coleman is looking forward to the first bowl game of his career.

* Geraldo Orta, a special-teams fixture, was a fourth-year junior last season, but he will not continue his career.

* Michael Williams, a five-game starter at cornerback who made 23 tackles last season, was suspended from the team for the last three games of the 2014 season amid a police investigation into an alleged rape and sexual assault, and he and teammate A.J. Johnson since have been indicted on two charges of rape and pled not guilty.

* D'Andre Payne, a former four-star recruit, transferred closer to home to Maryland after his freshman season.


* At 6-foot-2 and 185 pounds, Stephen Griffin, who enrolled in January, is probably going to start out at safety.


* Junior college transfer Justin Martin could be an immediate-impact arrival for Tennessee, which also signed corners Micah Abernathy, a high school running back, and Darrell Miller in 2015. Safety is a big need for the 2016 class.


Tennessee is returning plenty of experience, and much of it is in the secondary. The Vols are bringing back 333 career starts on offense and defense, and six returning defensive backs have combined for 95 starts. Safeties Brian Randolph and LaDarrell McNeil, both once All-SEC freshman team picks, essentially are fourth-year starters, and Sutton has started every game of his career.


Who replaces Coleman at the nickel corner spot? Tennessee often struggled with slot receivers last season, particularly down the stretch. South Carolina's Pharoh Cooper (233 receiving yards) did most of his damage out of the slot, as did Kentucky's Javess Blue (131) and Missouri's Jimmie Hunt (106).

Those issues weren't all on Coleman, who led the team with four interceptions, as opponents sometimes got favorable matchups against Tennessee's safeties. The third corner spot is an important position in Tennessee's defense and in today's world of spread offenses, and it's a necessity the Vols find an answer there.

Gaulden may have the best skill set for the position with his physical play and instincts, but it would be new to him. Swafford played the position in 2013 and may be a factor there, and Foreman, his high school teammate, is another possible option. Martin likely will get a look there, too, when he arrives.


The nickel spot may not be the only position up for grabs in the secondary going into the 2015 season. The Vols have three safeties who have shown they can get the job done, but only two of them can play at a time. Randolph is locked into one of those positions, and his value on the back line is obvious.

That would leave McNeil and Kelly battling for the other spot, much as they did last season. The expectation was Kelly's physical talent and intangible abilities would help him win that job, but McNeil made clear improvements and held onto that spot most of the season, though Kelly did well when he did get on the field.

Having two good options such as McNeil and Kelly is a perfect example of the competition Tennessee wants to have at all positions in its program. Kelly was one of the premier prospects in the Vols' 2014 class, and his development should be one to watch. Can he beat out McNeil, though?

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