By Josh Ward
The following is a series of stories looking at each position group as Tennessee opens spring practice.
Tennessee’s coaching staff had a clear goal for the defensive backfield in 2023: get deeper and faster.
The arrival of several newcomers from the 2023 signing class, along with a transfer at cornerback, should help the Vols meet that goal.
Tennessee will enter spring practice with several new faces. Let’s start with the freshmen: Christian Conyer, Rickey Gibson, Jack Luttrell, Jordan Matthews and John Slaughter are all on campus and ready to compete for playing time.
Slaughter wasn’t as highly ranked by the recruiting services as some of his fellow class members but earned praise from defensive coordinator Tim Banks after going through bowl practice.
“He has what I would consider elite ball skills,” Banks said. “I think he has a very bright future.”
Other incoming freshmen chose Tennessee over SEC rivals.
Conyer picked Tennessee over in-state Kentucky. Gibson chose the Vols over Georgia. Matthews turned down hometown LSU for Tennessee.
Josh Heupel and his staff landed defensive backs they coveted in the 2023 class.
Tennessee has time to figure out the best positional fit for each player – along with determining which guys have a chance to help right away. But there’s already excitement about the competition they’ll create for veteran players.
Add Gabe Jeudy-Lally to the list of players expecting to help immediately. The cornerback transfer from BYU (who played his first three collegiate seasons at Vanderbilt) will have a chance to start immediately for Tennessee.
Jeudy-Lally’s experience playing in the SEC and learning under two different coaching staffs should be valuable with so many young players joining the defensive backfield.
That brings us to the Vols’ returning players in the secondary. They know the players mentioned above are on campus trying to take their spots.
Jaylen McCollough returns for a fifth season with more than 30 career starts. He’ll make it difficult for Tennessee’s coaches to take him off the field.
Where does Doneiko Slaughter fit in? He showed playmaking ability last season lining up at multiple positions in the secondary. Slaughter could help at corner, safety or STAR and figures to be a player who needs to be on the field.
Slaughter’s playing style aligns with the way Tennessee’s defense is designed: aggressively with making a play on the ball always in mind.
Other veterans like Christian Charles, Tamarion McDonald, Brandon Turnage and Wesley Walker will compete for starting positions. And how do Warren Burrell and Kamal Hadden fit in? Burrell has been one of the staff’s most trusted defensive backs as he returns from injury for his fifth year in Knoville.
Two second-year players – Christian Harrison and Jourdan Thomas – have less experience but will compete to play just like the incoming freshmen.
How good will Tennessee’s secondary be this fall? We’re a long way from figuring that out. This spring will help determine which players will play, who has more to learn, and who might decide to transfer elsewhere.
Realistically, all the players mentioned here will not be part of the roster this fall.
That’s why Tennessee needed more competition. The players who help in the fall will improve by competing with their teammates this spring.
Exactly what the Vols’ coaches had in mind.
Here are links to the following position previews: