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2020 Preseason Position Preview: Defensive Backs

Photo by Jake Nichols/RTI

Right now, it’s uncertain whether or not the 2020 football season will be played as planned. But we’re moving ahead and providing our position preview series ahead of the start of Tennessee’s fall camp as if things will proceed as normal. First up 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: Warren Burrell, Jaylen McCollough, Kenney Solomon

Freshmen: Tyus Fields (RS), Kwauze Garland (RS), Tamarion McDonald, Keshawn Lawrence, Doneiko Slaughter

Tennessee’s secondary has gone from a very young and relatively inexperienced unit when Jeremy Pruitt took over prior to the 2018 season to one of the more veteran units on the Vols’ roster heading into the 2020 campaign. And that’s even after losing multi-year starter Nigel Warrior to the NFL.

Aside from Warrior, the Vols return all their other starters in the secondary and have a strong battalion of experienced and talented cornerbacks heading into Pruitt’s third year as head coach. Juniors Bryce Thompson and Alontae Taylor project as Tennessee’s starting outside corners once again, and senior Shawn Shamburger emerged last season as a stellar nickel corner/STAR player for the Vols.

Depth behind that trio is the biggest concern, but there are some names to keep an eye on when Tennessee opens up fall camp.

Kenneth George Jr. was a serviceable corner last season, finally getting a chance to see the field and make an impact. George played in all 13 games for UT and made six starts, picking off a pass and breaking up three more while totaling 19 tackles. Warren Burrell pushed Alontae Taylor as a freshman last year, but Burrell’s playing time dwindled as the season went along after a fairly promising start. As a sophomore, he’ll look to build off his first year where he started four games and appeared in nine total contests. Rising sophomore Kenney Solomon also flashed some potential, and his speed could help him find a spot in the rotation or at least on special teams.

Depending on his health, Baylen Buchanan could also play a role at nickel for the Vols this season. Buchanan missed the entire 2019 season as he dealt with spinal problems, but he looks to be on track to be able to play in 2020. If he can remain healthy, he could be a valuable veteran in the secondary.

True freshman Doneiko Slaughter also appears to be an ideal fit as a STAR/nickel player in Pruitt’s system, and fall camp will be pivotal for him to try and fight for early playing time on defense. Tennessee’s coaches really like Slaughter, and he has an opportunity to at least contribute on special teams in his first season at UT.

At safety, things are a little less clear.

With the departure of Warrior, the Vols have an opening that has been plugged by the All-SEC safety the last three-plus years.

The early favorites to start at safety are players like sophomore Jaylen McCollough, junior Trevon Flowers, and senior Theo Jackson. But don’t count out true freshman Keshawn Lawrence, Doneiko Slaughter, or redshirt freshman Tyus Fields.

McCollough came on strong to finish his freshman season with the Vols last year. The former four-star prospect started the final six games of the 2019 season and finished with 33 tackles, three tackles for loss, a sack, and two passes defended on the year. He’ll be one of the favorites to start at safety in 2020.

Injuries have held Trevon Flowers back from reaching his potential at Tennessee. As it stands right now, he’s in trouble of not being able to nail down a starting role thanks to the increased competition in the secondary this fall. Flowers has flashed a lot potential when healthy, totaling 17 tackles, an interception, and two passes defended in 13 career games. But he’s missed half of the season in back-to-back years due to injury, including breaking his leg in UT’s home win over Mississippi State last season. How he bounces back from injury will be crucial for him during fall camp.

Theo Jackson was a relatively forgotten defensive back for the Vols last season, but he was a solid starter and role player throughout the season. Jackson totaled 53 tackles, a tackle for loss, an interception, and three passes defended in 12 appearances (five starts). Athletically, there are more gifted safeties on UT’s roster, but Jackson should be a reliable option regardless of his role, and he has the experience to be able to fend off younger players in the beginning of camp.

The wildcards for Tennessee’s secondary will be Keshawn Lawrence, Tyus Fields, Doneiko Slaughter, and Cheyenne Labruzza.

Lawrence comes in as Tennessee’s highest-rated signee in the 2020 class per 247Sports, and he has the ability to play either safety or corner. Where he ends up could lead to other players moving around the secondary, and Lawrence certainly has the ability to come in and start as a true freshman.

Fields redshirted last season, but coaches like what he brings to the roster. He has a high upside as a defensive back and is capable of playing a variety of roles. The same can be said for Slaughter, who comes in as a true freshman with a lot of versatility and play-making ability. Barring any sort of injury, Slaughter will likely challenge for playing time at some position in thr secondary in his first year in the orange and white.

Labruzza is interesting not only because of his versatility, but also because of his athleticism. He’s appeared in 20 games and largely has been a special teams contributor, but if he takes another step in his redshirt junior season, he could shake things up in the secondary.

Kwauze Garland is a former walk-on who was awarded a scholarship last fall, but it remains to be seen if he can make a move this fall. Incoming freshman Tamarion McDonald had offseason surgery and still needs to learn more about playing in the secondary, so a redshirt seems more likely for him in 2020.

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