2021 Spring Position Preview: Defensive Backs

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    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: Alonte Taylor, Trevon Flowers, Kenneth George Jr. (RS), Theo Jackson (RS), Shawn Shamburger (RS), Cheyenne Labruzza (RS)

    Juniors: Warren Burrell, Jaylen McCollough, Kenney Solomon

    Sophomores: Doneiko Slaughter, Tamarion McDonald, Tyus Fields (RS)

    Freshmen: Christian Charles

    Departures: Bryce Thompson (NFL Draft), Baylen Buchanan (Transfer), Key Lawrence (Transfer)

    Impactful departures

    Tennessee’s secondary suffered two significant departures following the season and in the midst of Jeremy Pruitt being fired when Bryce Thompson announced that he was declaring early for the NFL Draft and Key Lawrence announced his transfer to Oklahoma.

    Thompson was arguably Tennessee’s best player last season and leaves a huge void in Willie Martinez’s adopted secondary. Not only did the Vols lose the current face of the secondary, but it also lost the potential face of the secondary to transfer when Lawrence announced that he was leaving.

    Top priority during spring

    Martinez’s top priority during spring will be to establish life without Thompson. There’s no replacing Thompson’s talent, but the soon-to-be NFL Draft pick was the leader of the secondary, leaving an even bigger void to fill. Replacing Thompson’s leadership this offseason is just as important as replacing him in the starting lineup, and that task begins next Tuesday once spring practice begins.

    The leader in the clubhouse to fill Thompson’s shoes is rising-senior corner Alontae Taylor. The mid-state native has played a lot of snaps for the Vols and has always been viewed as an athlete who has all of the tools to be an elite corner despite playing quarterback in high school. More importantly, he has the leadership skills to not only lead the secondary, but the defense as a whole. Tennessee needs Taylor to have a big spring that carries over into the summer and fall camp.

    Safety play must improve

    Tennessee has talent at the safety position though you probably wouldn’t realize it watching last year’s squad. Priority No. 2 on the list for Martinez this spring is pressing reset on the unit. UT’s safeties need a clean slate for a multitude of reasons.

    Jaylen McCollough and Trevon Flowers are the likely starters on the backend of the defense. McCollough started the final six games of the 2019 season, earning All-Freshman honors from Pro Football Focus. McCollough took a step back this past season due to nagging injuries, though he played in all 10 games and made eight starts at safety. Flowers, who has battled injuries throughout his career, stayed healthy and started all 10 games at safety. He finished the year second on the team with 62 tackles while also ranking third on the team with three pass breakups.

    The two names that will also factor into the conversation at safety is fifth-year senior Theo Jackson and sophomore Doneiko Slaughter. Jackson is taking advantage of the free year of eligibility that the NCAA granted due to COVID-19 and returning for one more season. He’s played a lot of ball for the Vols, playing in 44 games and making 12 starts throughout his career. Slaughter flashes potential and was a staff favorite during the 2020 recruiting cycle. He saw action in all 10 games as a true freshman and made one start at nickle.

    Who will start at nickle?

    Where Tennessee will miss Lawrence the most is likely at the nickle position. Pruitt’s staff probably should have given Lawrence more of a shot at nickle during the season, especially given the struggles it had at that spot. Maybe he’d still be on Rocky Top. But he’s not, thus imploring Martinez and first-year defensive coordinator Tim Banks to explore other options.

    Shamburger will get the first crack at the opportunity, but that’s only if he even participates this spring. The fifth-year senior entered the transfer portal shortly after the season, but then removed his name at a later date. There’s been no official word in regards Shamburger’s status with the team. If he could find a way to be involved and return to his 2019 form, it would be a big development for Tennessee’s secondary.

    If not Shamburger, Slaughter, Jackson and potentially Tamarion McDonald could get a look at nickle. Slaughter and Jackson both have in-game experience in the slot, while McDonald played in seven games and made one start at safety as a true freshman last year.

    The X-Factor

    There are two x-factors in Tennessee’s secondary: Kenneth George Jr. and Warren Burrell. Both have played significant snaps at times over the past two seasons, though consistency has kept them from grabbing a full-time role within the secondary. If the Vols could receive consistent play from either George or Burrell opposite of Taylor, we’re talking about a decently strong starting core in UT’s secondary.

    The newcomer

    Christian Charles is the lone newcomer in the secondary this spring. Charles signed as a three-star athlete out of Georgia back in December during the early signing period under Pruitt. He was slated to begin his college career at defensive back under the former head coach. The 6-foot-1, 180 lbs. athlete was ranked as the No. 603 overall player in the country according to the 247Sports composite rankings.