Tennessee defensive backs coach Willie Martinez must feel privileged – or at least satisfied.
This spring camp is unlike any other that Martinez has been a part of since joining Tennessee’s coaching staff in 2021. What is the difference? Martinez actually has players to coach, and plenty of them. Transfers and injuries have robbed the Vols of defensive backs for the last two years. Now, Martinez actually has a crew large enough to coach.
“We’ve been able to compete,” Martinez said. “We actually have had a competition open…So it’s been really good. It really has, because we’ve been able to to evaluate a lot more reps of everybody. And we told them we’re going to give them a shot. This is the time where they get the opportunity to show what they got and they got to prove it and it’s got to show up on film.”
Competition doesn’t mean the Vols are without any injury issues in the secondary. Warren Burrell has been held out of spring practice. However, he’s a known commodity. Brandon Turnage has missed significant time. Their absence allows Martinez and Tennessee’s coaches to take a look at a stout group of incoming freshmen, such as Cristian Conyer, Rickey Gibson, Jack Lutrell, Jordan Matthews and John Slaughter. While spring practice once signified the beginning of a mid-term enrollee’s exposure to college football, Martinez was quick to point out that Tennessee’s freshmen defensive backs are no longer considered newbies.
“They’ve been here since December,” Martinez said. “I’ve seen tremendous growth since the time they got here.”
Tennessee, knowing the Vols needed help as soon as possible in the secondary, did everything its coaches could in order to get the Vols’ young defensive backs ready to play. That meant playbooks were distributed and some real practice snaps were had in December as the Vols were preparing for the Orange Bowl against Clemson. Now, the next challenge is finding who stands out among the players and at what position they’re best suited. That’s not always easy.
“We we just want the skill set,” Martinez said. “We want to say to ourselves, if he’s the fifth best DB, then we want to make sure he’s not the backup corner that doesn’t know how to play safety.”
Conyer, Gibson and Matthews have gotten the most repetitions at cornerback. So far, so good.
“It’s worked out really well for us and they’ve been able to compete with the guys that have been here,” Martinez said.
For a team that finished 12th of 14 SEC teams in passing defense, the Vols will take all the incoming talent they can get. While Tennessee may not be dominant in pass defense this season, one reason for any faltering can be ruled out. The Vols have the depth to show vast improvement in 2023.