Alontae Taylor and Theo Jackson are off to the NFL and with that, Tennessee’s secondary’s two most effective players from a season ago.
Taylor — who long flashed potential — put together his most consistent collegiate season and Theo Jackson came out of the suburbs of nowhere to become one of the top nickel backs (or STARs) in the SEC and an NFL Draft pick.
Even with a pair of breakout seasons, Tennessee’s secondary was solid on its good days and putrid — see Kentucky and Purdue games — on its bad ones.
An average secondary losing by far its two most effective players doesn’t bode well for the coming season. What’s the reason for optimism?
It’s a simple one, Tennessee has more capable bodies and will play more players in the back end then a season ago.
“We’ll play more guys than we did a year ago,” Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel said following the Vols’ first scrimmage of the fall Tuesday. “I think that will help us be better in the long run. Great competition here on the back half. I’m looking forward to watching a little bit of that here as they get upstairs this afternoon and watching how they functioned in the scrimmage.”
Tennessee added bodies through the prep ranks (safety Christian Harrison), through the junior college ranks (corner Dee Williams) and most importantly through the transfer portal with Georgia Tech veteran Wesley Walker and Ohio State freshman Andre Turrentine.
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Even more impactful than the newcomers is the number of returning players who seem poised to help the Vols this fall. Kamal Hadden and Brandon Turnage transferred to Tennessee from SEC foes a season ago and after playing scarcely in 2021 seem poised to play a major role this fall.
Christian Charles, Doneiko Slaughter and Tomarrion McDonald have shown potential early in their careers. Now as older players, they could help the Vols.
Then there’s the returning starters Warren Burrell, Jaylen McCollough and Trevon Flower. Can those player turn into high level SEC players as seniors like Taylor and Jackson did last season? If not, can any of the players already named push them for playing time?
The good news for Tennessee is that a number of players in the secondary can play multiple positions.
“We’re deeper in the secondary too,” Heupel said. “You guys have seen that out at practice, just in pure number of bodies that we have compared to a year ago, but (also) athletic movement, traits, skillset, all of that. That group has been purposeful. They compete with each other in an extremely positive way. There are pieces that can move, guys that are playing nickel that can move back and vice-versa. We have some versatility there.
The versatility and depth is certainly important, especially for a Tennessee defense that’s often on the field for 80-plus plays a game due to the Vols’ offensive pace.
The elephant in the room is simple. If the abundance of players I previously named aren’t effective then that depth is much less important. What good is depth if it’s not quality depth?
Tennessee’s secondary won’t answer that question until the season begins and won’t fully answer It until they face a high-level offenses — Pitt and Florida being the first tests.
What is certain is that Tennessee’s secondary has plenty of bodies that are capable of playing a role on the field this fall.