2020 Spring Position Preview: Defensive Backs

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    Photo by Jake Nichols/RTI

    We get you ready for the start of spring practice for Tennessee’s football team with our position preview series. Up first is a look at the Vols’ secondary.

    Seniors: Baylen Buchanan (RS), Kenneth George Jr. (RS), Theo Jackson, Shawn Shamburger

    Juniors: Trevon Flowers, Cheyenne Labruzza (RS), Alontae Taylor, Bryce Thompson

    Sophomores: Aaron Beasley, Warren Burrell, Brandon Davis (RS), Jaylen McCollough, Kenney Solomon

    Freshmen: Tyus Fields (RS), Kwauze Garland (RS)

    Tennessee loses All-SEC safety Nigel Warrior from their secondary after the 2019 season, but they return every other major contributor in the defensive backfield heading into spring practices.

    At safety, both starting jobs are likely up for grabs this spring and fall. Theo Jackson, Trevon Flowers, and Jaylen McCollough all started alongside Warrior in 2019, but none of them were able to hold on to the starting job completely for one reason or another. For Flowers, it was another injury that cut his season short. Just like his freshman year, Flowers suffered a significant injury that deprived him of valuable playing time. When Flowers has been healthy, he’s been effective, totaling 26 tackles, an interception, and two passes defended in 13 games.

    Unfortunately for Flowers, he’s not been able to play a full season. But if he’s fully healthy in the spring, he has an opportunity to stand out.

    Jackson was a solid contributor, but he wasn’t exactly flashy and had some consistency issues. Jaylen McCollough came on strong to close out the year as a freshman, and he’ll be one of the more intriguing players to keep an eye on this spring. He has all the tools to succeed as a run-stopping safety, and he has a knack for making plays as a pass defender, too.

    Tyus Fields will likely compete at safety as well, and Brandon Davis should also be in the mix. If he remains in the secondary, Aaron Beasley will also get a shot. But Beasley practiced a lot at linebacker during the season because of UT’s lack of numbers there, so it remains to be seen if he’ll stay there or move back to the defensive backfield. Kwauze Garland, who was awarded a scholarship late in the 2019 season, could receive time at either safety or STAR.

    Speaking of the STAR and nickel spot, that’s Shawn Shamburger’s job to lose. Shamburger was quietly one of the Vols’ most effective defensive backs last season, especially as a blizter. Shamburger totaled three sacks, 4.5 tackles for loss, as well as an interception and three passes defended in 13 games and 12 starts.

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    Barring injury or some unforeseen circumstance, Shamburger will be the main STAR/nickel player again for the Vols. But he should still have some competition this spring.

    Baylen Buchanan missed all of last season as he dealt with a spinal issue that threatened to end his playing career. Though nothing has been confirmed by Tennessee, Buchanan’s posts on social media seem to indicate that he’ll be ready to give practice a try this spring. If he can go, he’ll give Shamburger some competition and could be a nice veteran backup option. Tyus Fields could also play at STAR, as could Cheyenne Labruzza.

    On the outside, both Alontae Taylor and Bryce Thompson are penciled in as Tennessee’s starting corners. Taylor struggled at times in 2019, and Warren Burrell pushed him even once Bryce Thompson returned from suspension. But Burrell faded down the stretch, and Taylor started playing better later in the year. Still, Burrell will be a player to watch this spring, and rising redshirt senior Kenneth George Jr. should make some noise, too. George rather quietly produced at a solid level for UT last season, appearing in all 13 games and making six starts. He made 19 tackles, an interception, and three pass breakups.

    Kenney Solomon — who was also rewarded a scholarship late in the 2019 season — has a lot of speed and height, but he still needs to put on some weight. If he can make a big leap from his first year to his second, he could be a surprise this spring.

    All in all, Tennessee’s group of defensive backs should be a strength for the Vols on defense. The secondary returns a lot of experience, and they’re battled tested over the last few years. The younger players have a lot of upside as well, and there’s a unique blend of athletes in this group heading into the spring.

    The Vols’ secondary will receive even more competition in the summer and fall when 2020 signees Keshawn Lawrence, Doneiko Slaughter, and Tamarion McDonald all arrive on campus. Lawrence and Slaughter in particular could provide a challenge to UT’s upperclassmen for starting jobs.