Juniors: Baylen Buchanan
Sophomores: Shawn Shamburger, Terrell Bailey, Cheyenne Labruzza, Kenneth George Jr.
Freshmen: Alontae Taylor, Brandon Davis, Bryce Thompson
Our fall camp position preview series continues. Our previous installment looked at Tennessee’s safeties. Now we take a look at the Vols’ cornerbacks prior to the 2018 season.
Unlike the other unit in Tennessee’s defensive backfield, the Vols’ cornerback unit is full of question marks. In fact, Tennessee’s cornerbacks might be the biggest unknown on the entire roster.
The Vols lost a trio of starters after the 2017 season. Rashaan Gaulden, Emmanuel Moseley, and Justin Martin are no longer on Tennessee’s roster, and that leaves this unit with no returning seniors and little in the way of proven, consistent play-makers. The player with the most experience is Baylen Buchanan, but he took a step back last season after a solid freshman campaign in 2016.
So the question remains: Who will step up for the Vols at cornerback this season?
Buchanan looked better in the spring than he did during the 2017 season, but can he be relied upon as a full-time starter? He’s played in 21 games at Tennessee so far but only has one career start. He showed promise as a true freshman, but injuries and several other unknown factors kept him from making much of an impact at all last season. Can he take a step forward and be a reliable asset on the outside?
Shawn Shamburger is the only other cornerback on the Vols’ roster with a collegiate start to his credit. He had to make a spot start against Alabama in a tough spot last season, and he held his own against the Tide. Shamburger was a bit of a surprise for the Vols’ defense last season, and he put together a good freshman year. Can he build off that and grow as a sophomore? Or will he take a step back in his second year like Buchanan? Having a different coaching staff should help, especially since head coach Jeremy Pruitt’s area of expertise is at cornerback.
Cheyenne Labruzza and Terrell Bailey both have plenty of upside, but neither has much experience. Labruzza made an appearance in four games last season but didn’t tally any stats, and Bailey failed to make an appearance in any game. Labruzza was considered an underrated gem in the Vols’ 2017 signing class, so he might be a player to keep an eye on as someone who could emerge as the season progresses.
The rest of Tennessee’s projected depth at cornerback will likely come from newcomers.
Kenneth George Jr. is a junior college transfer who was a late addition to Tennessee’s 2018 signing class. He has three years of eligibility remaining and has college experience, albeit at the JUCO level. He has decent size and is quick on his feet, but his attitude is what makes him stand out. He appears to be very competitive and has more college experience than most of the Vols’ other corners. Expect to see him compete for immediate playing time.
Four-star athlete Alontae Taylor started out at wide receiver as an early enrollee in the spring, but Tennessee’s coaching staff moved him to cornerback late in the process. And he seemed to fit in at the position pretty well. There’s a good chance Taylor has found his home at cornerback, and he could compete for early playing time as a true freshman at the position. Unless he moves back to wide receiver, expect to see Taylor factor into the rotation here.
Brandon Davis has a lot of upside and is someone I believe was rated far too low coming out of high school (he was only the No. 158 cornerback in the 2018 class according to the 247Sports Composite rankings). But this year should be able to be a redshirt year for him unless injuries force him into action. And it very well could considering how thin UT’s cornerback group is.
Bryce Thompson was a dynamic four-star athlete in high school, and it was unknown which side of the ball he would play in college. But as of now, he’s officially listed as a defensive back on the Vols’ updated roster. So it looks like his first shot to make an impact will come as a corner, a position he played a lot of in high school.
Another name to watch out for in this group is Maleik Gray. Tennessee’s coaches tried out several different players at new positions this spring, and a handful of players got a shot at corner. One of those was Gray, who originally was playing safety. There’s a chance he sticks with the corners in the fall, and that would give this unit a little more depth.
With very little experience and not much in the way of depth, what exactly can Tennessee’s cornerbacks do in 2017? The Vols’ passing defense numbers look good from last year, but that’s only because teams ran the ball against the Vols’ defense far more than they passed. The Vols’ 2016 passing defense numbers were far worse, and the starters off both those units are gone anyway. How will these younger players respond to their new roles?
Tennessee has question marks across the board at almost every position, but none of the other units present the amount of unknowns and problems that the Vols’ cornerbacks do. Expect Pruitt to focus extra attention on this group in the fall, especially as they prepare to take on the dynamic passing attack of West Virginia in the season opener.