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Tennessee defensive back Rashaan Gaulden was out four months after suffering a serious foot injury last year, and the timing meant missing all of last season. Now he's determined to make an impact for the Vols as they work toward a breakthrough in 2016.

KNOXVILLE — Rashaan Gaulden might be the only Tennessee football player taking three history courses this spring.

That means he's probably writing more papers than most of his teammates, but Gaulden's interest is genuine and entrenched.

The third-year defensive back can trace his fascination with studying history and pursuing a degree in the subject back to his freshman year at Brentwood Academy, when a class taught by Jack Pittman piqued his curiosity.

"Just the way he broke down the subject, it really influenced me to seek history," Gaulden recalled this month. "Ever since, I've just run with it and I've learned more and more."

Many of the players in Tennessee's tide-turning 2014 signing class — a haul that included current stars such as Jalen Hurd, Derek Barnett, Evan Berry and Todd Kelly Jr. — have started writing their own histories and putting their imprint in the program.

Gaulden is still waiting for his chance.

He suffered a foot injury in August that wiped out a potential breakout season. Now with a renewed sense of determination and a new position to play, he is more focused than ever on his opportunity to showcase his talent and make a difference for the Volunteers.

"I'm very eager," Gaulden said. "I've always had that itch on my shoulder to where no matter what kind of adversity I went through, I was going to come back twice as strong as (when) I went down before. Right now I'm trying to prove to them that I haven't lost a step since my injury."

Painful memories

Though he long ago moved past the injury, Gaulden can vividly recall how it happened.

During a two-on-two blocking drill in a punt-return period at practice, a teammate rolled up on his foot. Gaulden was diagnosed with a Lisfranc injury, in which bones are broken and/or ligaments are torn in the midfoot. The six-month timetable for recovery meant his season was done before it started.

"I was devastated, just like anybody else would be," Gaulden said. "I was just sitting after my MRI and they told me (it was the) worst-case scenario. I ruptured my ligament and tore up my foot pretty good."

There was no shortage of support for Gaulden, who had been named the team's most improved defensive player the previous spring, when he was still a cornerback.

Secondary coach Willie Martinez kept Gaulden as involved as possible last season and made him feel important. Gaulden's roommates, particularly Barnett and Kelly, checked on him when the Vols returned from road games. Cameron Sutton drove Gaulden to the hospital after the injury and wore No. 7 all season in his honor.

"When we got the news, Derek and I made sure we took care of him," Kelly said. "He took it pretty hard. I let him know that he got to redshirt and sit back and watch the entire season, and I said, 'Make sure you learn from this experience, and when you get it back next year, let's get it rocking and rolling.' Now I'm glad he's back there (at safety) with me."

Gaulden couldn't make it to some games last season due to the pain in his foot, and watching was hard.

"It was pretty tough seeing your teammates out there giving everything they have for the team and tearing their bodies up for the team," he said, "and not being able to be a part of that."

Following the surgery, Gaulden used a knee scooter to get around campus, and that mode of transportation "had its moments," he remembered with a laugh.

It's nearly impossible to go anywhere on Tennessee's campus without going uphill at some point, and Gaulden said his right leg got stronger by having to propel himself up those hills. Stairs required him to carry the 40-pound scooter while hopping on one leg.

It wasn't fun, but it didn't deter Gaulden from wanting to come back stronger.

"Even when he was down, he still stayed in his playbook, still stayed around the program, still did everything with the team," Sutton said recently. "Now he's getting his opportunity and he's making the most of it out here in spring practice. He's another guy that I'm really excited to see what he's going to do in the season."

Ready to attack

Gaulden returned to the field for Tennessee's Outback Bowl practices in December, less than four months after surgery.

"I just wanted to attack it," he said, "and get over some mental barriers and be able to get back out there and help the team."

Tennessee most needed help at safety, where the Vols lost veterans Brian Randolph and LaDarrell McNeil. That's Gaulden's natural position, the one he wanted to play all along. Yet he came to Tennessee weigning 160 pounds, too light to be a safety in the Southeastern Conference.

"He's 176 pounds but thinks he's 205," said Bob Shoop, Tennessee's first-year defensive coordinator. "He throws his body in there with velocity. He's reckless in a good way."

Shoop was the defensive coordinator at Vanderbilt when he gave Gaulden, then a high school sophomore, his first unofficial scholarship offer in 2011; the two stayed in touch even as Shoop went with head coach James Franklin to Penn State. Though recruiting often is built on relationships, it's rare for players to remain in contact with coaches whose programs they don't pick — but Gaulden emphasized the respect he and his family had for Shoop.

In their first conversation after Shoop was hired in January, the coach told Gaulden he wanted him to be a key part of the championship defense he wanted to have at Tennessee.

"When I got injured, a week later he sent me a message telling me to keep my head up," Gaulden said. "It's just crazy how everything comes around and now he's my coach. He always tells me he waited five years to coach me, so that's a good feeling and I just want to give him my all."

Gaulden takes pride in playing with what he calls a "fearless mentality" he developed early, and he isn't changing his ways even if it jeopardizes his health or runs the risk of a targeting penalty or two.

"Honestly, the first thing I learned, 4 and 5 years old playing football, was physicality," he explained. "I feel like before any of the basics, besides keep your head up, our coaches would line us up 10 yards apart at the age of 5, you just run into each other and hit.

"Ever since, I've seemed to like it, and I'm never going to abandon that."

Power source

That style was on display throughout the Vols' practices this spring, whether Gaulden was laying out a wide receiver with a big hit or blitzing off the edge. Wherever the ball was, he was close by.

His teammates recognize and feed off the infectious way he plays the game.

"We call him the Energizer Bunny," Kelly said, "because he likes to bounce around and get to the ball."

The catch is getting Gaulden to channel his talent and his energy within the framework of the defense.

"He's not always in the right place, but he's always going a hundred miles an hour, and that's correctable," Shoop said.

"There's guys you watch and you say he just can't do it," he continued. "Then there's other guys you know he can do it, we just need to refine a little bit. It's little things that require a little bit more experience, and he just doesn't have that yet. I'm quite confident he's going to be ready once the games come. There's a difference between a huge mistake and a little mistake. He's in the right church, just the wrong pew."

Gaulden's return to a real game, a moment he's probably thought about hundreds of times since last August, is nearing. However, the injury and missing last season taught him not to look too often at the digital clocks in the Anderson Training Center counting down the days, hours, minutes and seconds to Tennessee's 2016 season opener against Appalachian State on Sept. 3.

"I kind of feel like I got a little bit complacent last year before my injury, and right now I'm just trying to take it one practice at a time, trying to perfect my craft," Gaulden said.

"Some days you go out there and you feel like you're entitled," he added, explaining the complacency he felt last year. "You don't give all you have, and then boom, it can get taken away from you really fast and there's nothing you can do about it."

There's still time, though, for Gaulden to make his own history.

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com

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