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Set the Quarterback Conversation Aside… What About the Vols’ Secondary?

Tennessee Football
COLUMBIA, MO – November 11, 2023 – Defensive back Jourdan Thomas #25 of the Tennessee Volunteers during the game between the Missouri Tigers and the Tennessee Volunteers at Faurot Field in Columbia, MO. Photo By Kate Luffman/Tennessee Athletics

Let’s put the quarterback conversation to the side for a moment.

Don’t worry. Not only did we break down the pressure and the hype around Nico Iamaleava last week, but there will be a landslide of quarterback content over the next handful of months leading into the 2024 college football season.

Instead, we’ll turn the attention to Tennessee’s defense.

The Vols return three of their four starters on the defensive line after Tyler Baron transferred to Louisville over the offseason. Tennessee will bring back star EDGE rusher James Pearce Jr., super senior defensive tackle Omari Thomas, and redshirt senior tackle Bryson Eason. Tennessee also retained key veteran defensive line coach Rodney Garner despite reports claiming that Auburn made a push following the season.

There’s a little more turnover from a linebackers perspective, though. With Aaron Beasley not running the unit anymore, Tennessee will turn to rising sophomore Arion Carter and returning veteran Keenan Pili. Carter impressed during his freshman season with his speed and physicality while Pili’s season was ripped away due to injury after just one game.

Tennessee also lost linebackers coach Brian Jean-Mary to Michigan in February but quickly filled the vacant spot with longtime defensive assistant William Inge. The 50-year-old assistant coach has been around the sport for a long time and most recently spent the last two seasons with Washington, helping the Huskies reach the national championship this past season. Inge initially followed Kalen DeBoer to Alabama but is set to flip to Tennessee. Inge is a strong hire that will have some solid pieces to work with in his first year.

Then comes the secondary, arguably one of the biggest talking points around this Tennessee team. The Vols lost nearly their entire secondary unit to either professional football or the transfer portal including Gabe-Jeudy Lally (NFL Draft), Wesley Walker (Louisville), Tamarion McDonald (Louisville), Doneiko Slaughter (Arkansas), De’Shawn Rucker (USF), Jack Luttrell (Arizona), Brandon Turnage (Ole Miss), and Warren Burrell (Georgia Tech).

While it’s certainly a long list on paper, it wasn’t all that surprising. Tennessee can also benefit from cleaning up the room a little bit. The Vols have been able to sign talented prospects from the high school scene under Heupel but they were somewhat buried behind Tennessee’s long list of older players. The transition will force Tennessee’s inexperienced players to step up but will also do a better job at building to the future.

The Vols hauled in a trio of solid portal players with cornerback Jermod McCoy from Oregon State, safety Jakobe Thomas from MTSU, and cornerback Jalen McMurray from Temple.

Rocky Top Insider projected a starting secondary of sophomore Rickey Gibson III and sophomore Jermod McCoy at cornerback, junior Jourdan Thomas at the STAR, and redshirt junior Andre Turrentine and junior Jakobe Thomas at the safety spots back in late January. Those projections, obviously, could change over the next few months.

ESPN’s Chris Low also has his eyes on the Vols’ secondary unit. When writing about each Top 25 team’s biggest question mark heading into the 2024 season, Low chose to highlight Tennessee’s defensive backs.

“Tennessee fans can’t wait to see [Nico] Iamaleava as QB1 for the Vols,” Low wrote. “He has tons of talent, but one of the things to watch this spring will be how Tennessee retools its defensive backfield. The starters from 2023 are all gone, and there was also an exodus in the portal. But the Vols like some of their younger players in the secondary and also did their own mining in the portal, including Oregon State cornerback Jermod McCoy. We get our first chance this spring to see Tennessee’s new-look defensive backfield.”

Again, the biggest thing to note considering Tennessee’s secondary is the experience lost from the previous group. But where there’s a lack of experience, there’s a boost in playmaking potential. Despite having only one senior in the Vols’ three-deep depth chart projections across all five positions, Tennessee has playmakers who have been able to sit back, learn, and strike when their opportunities come.

Will it all come together right away? It’s hard to believe that or know this early in the offseason. Spring camp should give us a much better idea on how Tennessee’s secondary pieces are coming together, but it’ll take the month of September to really have an idea of what the Vols have. And then it’s still an ongoing evaluation.

Either way, though, it should be fascinating to watch unfold nonetheless.

Stay tuned to Rocky Top Insider for more on Tennessee football leading into spring camp.

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