Tennessee’s defense has a ton of position battles going on this fall camp. Almost every single position on the defensive side of the ball is open for competition this fall.
Second-year Tennessee defensive coordinator Bob Shoop was asked about a lot of those position battles when he spoke to the media on Thursday, and he provided updates on several of them.
When asked about the competition at the Will linebacker spot (one of the two main linebacker positions the Vols will use in their main nickel defense), Shoop said a veteran linebacker has stood out the most. But he also listed off several other players who are back after injuries and competing.
“Probably based on experience, Cortez McDowel,” Shoop answered when asked who is the leader at the Will linebacker spot. “But Elliot Berry has had a good camp thus far. It’s good to have Quart’e Sapp back. Austin Smith too.
“People talk about all the guys we missed last year, but they also forget about all the non-starters we missed last year too. Both those guys missed the entire year too. So getting both of them back in the swing of things have been very positive. And I’d say all four of those guys have performed really well.”
As Shoop said, both Sapp and Smith missed either all of or almost all of the 2016 season. Sapp played in just two games as a sophomore before being sidelined with injury, and Smth sat out the entire year thanks to injury. But now both are back and providing some much-needed competition at linebacker.
Tennessee’s secondary is also full of competition, but not just at the main two corner positions. The Vols’ nickel cornerback is also seeing some increased competition behind starter Rashaan Gaulden.
“Terrell Bailey is running the third nickel,” Shoop stated. “At nickel it’s mostly been Rashaan, who’s having an excellent camp by the way. Probably playing the best football I’ve seen him play. Baylen Buchanan is behind him. If it were a game situation and something happened, we could probably put Micah Abernathy there because he’s played there in the past.”
At the main corner positions, Shoop has been happy with what he’s seen from all of the corners. But a freshman specifically has stood out to Tennessee’s defensive coordinator.
“The corners have all done very well, put in great effort,” Shoop said. “They’re as advertised as people. (Shawn) Shamburger is the one guy we think has a chance to make some contributions at corner. He’s probably a little bit ahead of the other guys.”
Shamburger was rated as a consensus three-star recruit coming out of high school in the 2017 recruiting class. He was ranked as just the No. 1008th overall player in the country according to the 247Sports Composite rankings, and he was the 111th cornerback in the 2017 class. But so far it appears Shamburger is out-playing his rating, at least in fall camp.
The rest of Tennessee’s secondary is also in the middle of a position battle. Tennessee’s safeties have plenty of talent and experience mixed in, and that’s providing a good dose of competition.
The four veterans have all had their moments in camp and been very good,” Shoop said of the Vols’ safeties. “Probably the most consistent performer has been Micah (Abernathy). We didn’t have him or Evan Berry in the spring, so to have those guys back has been great. They’re both great athletes and explosive. Micah was a consistent performer for us last year. Todd Kelly is steady, he’s been very very steady.”
But one player has surprised Shoop with how he’s performed so far this fall, and that’s true freshman Theo Jackson.
“If there’s one guy that’s emerged that I maybe didn’t expect to, it’s Theo Jackson,” Shoop stated. “He’s got a composure about him, a high football intellect. The game isn’t too fast for him. He asks 200-level questions in meetings, and I think Charlton (Warren) and I are really pleased with his progress so far.”
This isn’t the first time Jackson has received praise so far in fall camp. His teammates have spoken about him before, and he’s impressed during open portions of fall camp as well. Now his defensive coordinator is praising him as well.
The Vols still have several open positions on their defense, and the competition is remaining strong according to Bob Shoop. Tennessee needed that type of intensity this fall, and it appears they’re finally getting it.