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How Tennessee is Cutting Defensive “Weaknesses” Through Recruiting

Tennessee defensive backs
Tennessee defensive back Brandon Turnage. Photo By Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics

Tennessee defensive backs coach Willie Martinez has goals that are both long-term and short-term for his team. However, in some cases, those two things overlap.

In the short term, Martinez is working on getting his unit ready for each game throughout the week while juggling injuries and depth. The Vols have used three different starting combinations in the last three weeks between the two cornerback positions, the two safety positions, and the STAR position. Christian Charles made his first career start at the safety spot against Missouri, while Brandon Turnage had to take over for Theo Jackson against South Carolina.

In Week 7 against Ole Miss, Tennessee was back to its traditional starting secondary with Jackson and Trevon Flowers back in the lineup. The shuffling in the last three weeks shows just how vital depth is, especially for the defensive backs. But for Tennessee, those players aren’t just locked into one position specifically. For example, Brandon Turnage is a defensive back who can play STAR, safety, or corner, which was helpful for when he was needed at STAR.

“There have been a handful of guys — five to seven guys — that we feel comfortable in moving around and training them,” Martinez said on Tuesday. “Since spring ball, we’ve done that. It allows us — when somebody does go down — it’s not the guy that was backing him up. It’s really the next best player, the next guy that’s most prepared to get the opportunity. That’s happened to us now in the last couple of weeks.”

Tennessee and coach Martinez are approaching the position with more flexibility than others do. While some may have guys more accustomed to specific spots on the field, Tennessee is training its players to have versatility on the field. That’s why looking at the depth chart, it’s not always the second guy on the two-deep. In most cases, it will be the player who has prepared the best.

Tennessee defensive backs
Tennessee STAR safety Theo Jackson (No. 26). Photo by Tennessee Athletics.

In Tennessee’s mind, having versatility is the most significant way to fight any weaknesses. Any given team could lose a position due to injury, suspension, or several other options in any given season. Whereas some teams may struggle to fill a cornerback or safety position, Tennessee wants to approach its defensive backs sort of like wide receivers. No, not in the way of shifting around on a play-by-play basis. Moreso, just the ability to move around when needed.

“From the get-go, most of the places I’ve been at — especially in the latter of my career here — it gives you an opportunity to train guys,” Martinez said. “You want to have guys that are athletic enough to play all of the positions on the back end because you don’t want to have any weaknesses. You don’t want to be a guy that can only play the strong safety and can’t cover that well.”

Tennessee’s coaching staff solidifying that mindset also provides a direction for recruiting, which is where the long-term goals start to overlap.

“So, we’ve recruited that way,” Martinez said. “We wanted guys that can play all of them. When I say all of them, that’s both corner positions, the star, dime, and both safety positions. We’ve been doing that since we’ve been here.”

Currently, Tennessee does not have any secondary players in its 2022 recruiting class. However, the Vols are in talks with some high-level players in that position.

Tennessee Defensive Backs
Tennessee DB Alontae Taylor against Florida. Photo via Tennessee Athletics.

That being said, though, Tennessee has a relatively loaded group of young defensive backs on the roster now. Doneiko Slaughter, Tamarion McDonald, Kamal Hadden, Christian Charles, Tyus Fields, De’Shawn Rucker, and Brandon Turnage are just some of the redshirt-sophomore or younger players that will compete for playing time in the next few seasons. Which only gives more time for each player to be taught the system as a whole.

“He’s just been working and preparing,” Martinez said about Hadden on Tuesday. “Kamal’s no different than Brandon Turnage. Brandon has been working—talking about a couple of weeks ago when Theo (Jackson) was down—he goes in there and obviously has a great game and gets named SEC Defensive Player of the Week. It’s been a work in progress. They’ve been working at it.”

Whether it’s in the short-term getting players ready for the next game or long-term in the type of players Tennessee wants to bring in, an overlap in one specific area is clear. Coach Willie Martinez and Tennessee want to recruit, train, and play their defensive backs at any of the three positions. For the Vols’, that’s the strategy to power through any weaknesses in the secondary.

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