The Tennessee Football defensive backfield may be starting to take shape. It’s about time.
After being ranked 12th in the SEC in passing yardage per game last season, which correlated to 289 yards per game in 2022, the Vols had better improve at stopping the pass. In case you didn’t know, throwing the football has kind of become the rage in college football. Case in point, Josh Heupel. And he’s not the only one doing it.
Tennessee Football defensive backs coach Willie Martinez has used just about every term in the book to describe his crew since joining the Vols staff in 2021. When he met with the media on Tuesday, he chose words that described players’ energy levels, depth and versatility. Shouldn’t we be hearing about how talented the Vols are after a couple of complete recruiting cycles under Heupel? We’ve certainly heard the same about other positions, even back-up quarterback. So, either Tennessee’s defensive backs just don’t get much public love or they’re (still) just not very good.
Martinez may be playing the coach-speak game, which is fine. If he’s not, then the Vols could be in for another challenging season when it comes to stopping opponents when they decide to throw the football.
There have been other times when Tennessee Football just hasn’t been good at a particular position. The offensive line in 2014 may be the most obvious example as former UT coach Butch Jones had to deal with the aftermath of former UT coach Derek Dooley not signing a single offensive lineman in 2012. However, this case is different. The Vols are certainly signing plenty of defensive backs and have brought a handful in from the transfer portal. Yet, none have panned out as elite playmakers to this point.
The Vols are hoping they’ve landed an elite cornerback in the 2023 class, which included corners Christian Conyer, Rickey Gibson and Jordan Matthews. Conyer and Gibson were considered three-star prospects. Matthews was a four-star prospect. All three participated in spring camp and have had an entire offseason to learn the Vols’ system. Therefore, if they’re talented enough, they should be able to push for playing time rapidly considering how poorly the Vols have played in the secondary to this point under Heupel.
“Consistently, all three of them are making something happen during practice,” Martinez said following practice on Tuesday.
That’s not forecasting a future NFL Draft pick, but it’s something, which is more than the Vols have had to this point. Having a shutdown corner could change Tennessee’s defensive look entirely. Then, the Vols could use their collective efforts in the secondary to cover the rest of the field. If the Vols have a player like that this season, it’s probably going to be Doneiko Slaughter, who is working exclusively at cornerback during preseason camp.
“We’ve been very intentional of just leaving him at corner,” Martinez said. “He could play all the other positions, but like a lot of guys, it’s really good to just let him learn a position. And it’s not easy playing out there. Obviously in the corner – on the edge – not only do you have to have the skillset, which he does, you gotta have also the amount of experience of being out there by yourself, the confidence that you need.”
There is a rare case in which Martinez points to talent as a positive in the secondary. Slaughter has the “skillset” to become a solid player. He showed that last season when he started seven games as a junior, two at safety, before he settled into a starting cornerback against Kentucky. Despite just seven starts, Slaughter led Tennessee in pass breakups with seven. Should he have played more last season?
No one is predicting Slaughter will become Deion Sanders in his prime, but Slaughter has the experience and talent – according to Martinez – to be an improvement on what the Vols have had to this point.
One would like to think that the Vols can settle – and feel good about – two cornerbacks that they consider starters fairly soon. Then, Tennessee can settle on its safeties where there are proven players, but not big-time playmakers based on recent history.
Don’t expect Tennessee Football to suddenly have the best secondary in the SEC this season. However, being in the top half of the conference would be an improvement. That doesn’t seem too much to ask.