Tennessee’s pass defense was abysmal in 2020. The Vols gave up 265 yards through the air per game —good for 11th in the SEC. Opposing quarterbacks completed 68.2% of their passes, the second highest percentage of any SEC school.
The Vols’ secondary returns most of its main pieces from last season— and even the 2019 unit that ranked fourth statistically in the SEC. New and former Tennessee defensive backs coach Willie Martinez is trying to untap the potential of one of the most experienced position groups on Tennessee’s roster.
With the season opener versus Bowling Green two weeks away Martinez has been pleased with his unit.
“From my standpoint, from the secondary standpoint, it’s experience,” Martinez said. “I think having good leadership in the room and I think if it’s not player-driven, you’ve got no shot. I think they are doing a good job of that as a collective group on the backend. I think the whole defense is.”
Gone from last season’s secondary is corner Bryce Thompson. The three-year starter recorded eight career interceptions and was one of Tennessee’s most talented defensive players.
Keyshawn Lawrence didn’t earn many snaps last season but was a talented freshman and transferred to Oklahoma in the offseason.
Tennessee brought in help via the transfer portal, adding Alabama corner Brandon Turniage and Auburn defensive back Kamal Hadden.
“They’ve been really good, both of them, as far as having the knowledge of how to execute our defense,” Martinez said. “That’s been good. One is obviously ahead of the other, he’s got more experience as far as a standpoint of playing in this conference, and I would say that’s Turnage. Kamal, even though he was at an SEC school (Auburn) this spring, that does help a little bit… But I’ve been really pleased to be honest with you. They’ve been really competitive. Obviously, they’re mature, they’re older and I love their skill set.”
Hadden, and particularly Turniage, seem likely to factor this fall but don’t seem to be likely starters.
At corner, Warren Burrell appears poised to earn a starting spot after playing snaps off the bench his first two seasons in Knoxville.
“Warren was our best defensive back, and most consistent, along with Theo (Jackson) in the springtime,” Martinez said. “They were here the entire spring, obviously summer, and he’s just really added to that in camp. Warren has been very consistent.”
Alontae Taylor is back after three seasons as a starter and is perhaps the most reliable player on Tennessee’s defense.
If Taylor could up his play to another level in his senior season it changes the outlook of the Vols’ secondary.
It would be unfair to blame all of Tennessee’s pass defense struggles last season on the cornerbacks or even the secondary as a whole. The Vols’ pass rush was mediocre and their linebackers struggled mightily in the passing game.
Still, there are no guarantees Tennessee will be better at either of those two spots this fall— especially at linebacker.
That makes it important that Tennessee gets better play at safety where the trio of Theo Jackson, Jaylen McCollough and Trevon Flowers struggled last fall.
All three are back this season and a year older. McCollough especially should benefit from an offseason of development. McCollough seems poised to start alongside Flowers, who Martinez has been thrilled with.
“We’ll start off with (Trevon) Flowers,” Martinez said. “Flowers has had a really good camp, very consistent, making a lot of plays. He’s been the guy that’s really been the most consistent here in all the practices. Again, taking today, the same thing. Tank (Jaylen McColloush) has been solid. He’s got to clean up some stuff.”
Tennessee failed to find a reliable nickelback last season after returning starter Shawn Shamburger struggled.
Jackson, Doneiko Slaughter and Turniage among others have worked at that spot this fall as Tennessee looks to shore up its middle of the field pass defense.
“At the STAR position we are really using a lot of guys and it starts with Theo (Jackson) and Doneiko Slaughter,” Martinez said. “Brandon Turniage has taken reps there. Jaylen McCollough, I mean we are really rotating the whole back end. We want everybody to learn and the great thing about it is we have enough guys that have some experience that can do it and be confident.”
Tennessee’s defensive backfield has the experience and potential to be an above average SEC secondary. However, even with veteran depth the unit hasn’t consistently played at a high level.
The Vols hope Martinez coaching and a year of extra experience can turn the tide.