Tennessee secondary coach Willie Martinez has quite a few pieces to work with this spring camp.
In comparison to the past two years in Knoxville that saw Martinez’s group struggle with depth and injuries, it’s clear to see the emphasis that Tennessee has put into the secondary over the last few years. The Vols have been stockpiling skill players on the defensive side of the ball, and it’s starting to shine through.
According to Tennessee’s spring roster, the Vols boast 25 players at the defensive back position. Many of those players are young, fresh, and exciting prospects that are poised to contribute to Tennessee at some point in the future. Six of those players, though, are newcomers that Martinez is quite enthusiastic about. Five of them are high-ranking recruits from the 2023 cycle while the sixth player is a former BYU and Vanderbilt player from the transfer portal.
Those players include Jordan Matthews, Rickey Gibson III, Cristian Conyer, John Slaughter, Jack Luttrell, and transfer cornerback Gabe Jeudy-Lally.
Tennessee did have the five class of 2023 guys on campus and with the team during bowl practices in December, which was beneficial for their early growth moving forward. Still, though, Martinez is carefully evaluating their progress during the first few months of being a college football player.
“It’s really not just been the last, obviously this is our ninth practice, but they’ve been here since December,” Martinez said about Tennessee’s newcomers in the secondary on Wednesday. “I’ve seen tremendous growth from the time they got here, because we actually gave them the playbook at that time, we actually gave them some reps during those practices, to the time now since they got back to school… They’ve come a long way. They really have. They’ve matured, they’ve become very confident, managing their time with school. The schedule, that’s the hardest thing to understand when you’re a young player but they’ve grown a lot since December.”
With many of the freshman players still getting their legs underneath them, Martinez says that there hasn’t been a ton of cross-training happening (between the safety and corner positions). Martinez and the coaching staff are just trying to get the newcomers comfortable and knowledgeable on the field before really tapping into some more levels of versatility.
“We’re not doing too much with the young players, you know what I mean?” Martinez said on Wednesday. “Meaning John Slaughter and Jack Luttrell have just been working the safety positions and the STAR position. And then the three corners – Rickey [Gibson], Cristian [Conyer], and Jordan [Matthews] – have just been playing the corners.”
“We’ve done that on purpose,” Martinez continued on to say. “Give them an opportunity to compete, know what to do, and again, it’s worked out really well for us. And they’ve been able to compete with the guys that have been here.”
Gabe Jeudy-Lally brings experience with him to Tennessee. The Austin, TX native played four games for Vanderbilt in 2019 and then played seven games for the Commodores in 2020. Jeudy-Lally then played 12 games for Vanderbilt in 2021 and played 10 games for BYU during the 2022 season.
“We wanted somebody that had experience,” Martinez said about Jeudy-Lally. “Would fit into our culture that we’ve built here. Gabe is a professional. I mean, you just said it, he’s been at two places where he has played a lot of football. We wanted that experience, we wanted somebody to come in here with the skill set, but also could challenge for the starting spot and push these guys… He has been accepted and he’s done a great job of buying into our program and all the players.”