Throughout the summer, we’ll preview some of the big position battles on Tennessee’s roster for this upcoming fall. Tennessee has many position battles this season, and some battles are just for one starting spot while others affect an entire unit.
We started our series off by looking at who will help Jauan Jennings catch passes in the wide receiver group. Then we looked at who will step up in the defensive backfield now that Cam Sutton is gone. We followed that up by previewing who will be fighting to start alongside Kendal Vickers at defensive tackle. Then we took a look at who will be replacing Derek Barnett, Corey Vereen, and LaTroy Lewis at defensive end this year.
Now we look at the players who are the last line of hope on defense: the safeties.
The Vols are set at one safety position thanks to Todd Kelly Jr. The senior safety enters this season with 16 career starts, including 11 last season. Barring an injury or an unforeseen shakeup, Kelly has one starting safety spot nailed down for 2017.
But who will start at the other safety position opposite Kelly?
Micah Abernathy is the favorite to join Kelly on the field at safety, but he’ll have some strong competition to not only land the starting job, but to keep it throughout the season as well. Abernathy started 10 games as a sophomore last year and quietly put together a very solid season. He totaled 69 tackles, three tackles for loss, two interceptions, six passes defended, and three fumble recoveries.
But as good as Abernathy was last season and projects to be this season, the starting spot is far from a foregone conclusion for him.
Sophomore Nigel Warrior came on strong at the end of last season as a freshman. He even earned his first career start at strong safety when the Vols hosted Missouri. Warrior mostly saw the field on special teams, but his playing time on defense increased later in the season.
If Warrior can show an increased knowledge of the defensive schemes to go along with his already impressive physical tools, he will challenge Abernathy for that starting spot.
Warrior won’t be the only one competing for that job though. Senior Evan Berry will also be in the mix. Berry is much more well known as a kick returner than a safety, but he did make three starts at safety last season and has the ability to perform well on defense.
Berry can shake things up with a strong fall, and both Abernathy and Warrior will have to fight him off if he turns it on in camp.
The rest of the competitors at safety will be freshman and likely will just provide depth for the Vols this year.
Maleik Gray comes in as a highly-touted prospect and has a lot of potential. The former four-star prospect was a consensus top-100 player in the country in the 2017 class, and he won’t sit idly by despite the more experienced players on the roster ahead of him competing for the same job.
Theo Jackson is another freshman who will provide depth at safety this season. Jackson is a potential redshirt candidate for Tennessee, as the former three-star prospect likely has too many experienced and talented players ahead of him in his freshman season. He could also use a year to bulk up some more, as he is listed at only 6-foot-1, 178 pounds.
The Vols have a lot of talent at the safety position in 2017. The hardest part will be figuring out what combo works best on the field together. But fall camp should sort that out, and Tennessee will have plenty of talented options to choose from.