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Tennessee Football: Josh Heupel Shares His Outlook for Vols Defensive Backs

Defensive backs aren’t terribly exciting to talk about. With the exception of Deion Sanders, cornerbacks, in particular, are usually discussed when they make a mistake and give up a big play. Tennessee’s football program has certainly seen its fair share of those kind of deficiencies.

The Vols have struggled in pass coverage since Josh Heupel took over before the 2021 season. In fact, it’s about the only group of players that haven’t exceeded expectations since Heupel took over. To move up the college football hierarchy, the Vols will need better secondary play as soon as possible.

While Tennessee might not have found the next NFL Hall of Famer, like Sanders, it seems as if coach Heupel is more comfortable with his defensive backs this season than ever before, partly because of the depth the Vols have.

Tennessee didn’t have much of a choice to stick with a defensive back last season if he was struggling. There just weren’t many options on the bench. That seems to have changed.

“The guys that we have gotten back that were out early in training camp in the last three to four days have continued to increase their loads,” Heupel said when asked if he had started to settle on some starting defensive backs on Monday.  “We’ve gotten a lot of work with those guys. We feel like we have a pretty clear understanding of who those guys are and how they’ll play and compete. We’ll play a lot of guys on the backend. I feel like we are in a good spot over the next 12 days to be ready to roll.”

It looks as if Doneiko Slaughter and Kamal Hadden will get the starting nod against Virginia in Nashville on Sept. 2. BYU transfer Gabe Jeudy-Lally would likely get the call if one of those two weren’t up to snuff.

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At safety, returning starter Jaylen McCullough is expected to man his old position along with Wesley Walker, who transferred to Tennessee before the 2022 season from BYU. The Vols could go in a number of directions if McCullough and/or Walker get hurt or are ineffective. Andre Turrentine, Christian Charles and Warren Burrell should be at the ready.

Tamarion McDonald is most likely to be the Vols’ nickelback, which is referred to as the “star” position. If something happened to McDonald, the Vols would likely put Burrell in McDonald’s spot if he goes down.

The Vols made some improvements last season in pass defense. Tennessee was ranked 12th in the SEC in 2022 and 14th, which is last, in the SEC in 2021. Obviously, there’s still room to grow.

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