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Experts address Tennessee’s defensive backfield. Can the Vols get better in 2023?

Reviews about Tennessee’s defensive backs last season weren’t great. In fact, they were pretty bad – and for good reason.

The Vols ranked 12th in the SEC with 289 passing yards yielded per game. Now, there are certainly reasons for that. Tennessee’s defense was regularly put on the field far more than an average defense because of the Vols’ uptempo offense. Still, Tennessee ranked 10th in the SEC, allowing 7.1-yards per game. And as for the eye test? Well, there were plenty of times the Vols seemed to leave receivers more open than the Grand Canyon.

So how much better can the Vols get in 2023? That depends on who you ask. Off The Hook Sports polled its staff and here are the results in terms of who will be the Vols’ most improved defensive back and who will be determined the overall best defensive back at the end of the season.

Sportswriter/talk-show host Caleb Calhoun

Most improved: Doneiko Slaughter

Best: Wesley Walker

Sportswriter/talk-show host Dave Hooker

Most improved: Christian Charles 

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Best: Slaughter

Sportswriter/talk-show host Jimmy Hyams

Most improved: Charles and Jourdan Thomas

Best: Slaughter

Sportswriter/talk-show host Caleb Jarreau

Most improved: Warren Burrell

Best: Slaughter

Sportswriter/talk-show host Josh Ward

Most improved: Kamal Hadden

Best: Slaughter

Former Tennessee defensive back Fred White

Most improved: Slaughter

Best: Tamarion McDonald

In case you weren’t counting, there were seven Tennessee defensive backs named in the Off The Hook Sports poll. That could be inspiring or disconcerting depending on how you look at it. The Vols have more options, but there doesn’t yet seem to be a bona fide great choice to roam the defensive backfield this fall.

Tennessee’s coaches won’t say so publicly, but they probably aren’t expecting the Vols’ defensive backfield to make a quantum leap this season. However, there’s a difference between being bad and respectable. The Vols haven’t been the latter since coach Josh Heupel arrived on campus in 2021. As for another problem, all of the players mentioned above have been around the program long enough to showcase their skills – and they haven’t nearly enough.

Burrell, McDonald, Slaughter, who was the most mentioned in the Off The Hook staff poll, and Walker are all seniors. Charles is a junior and Thomas is a sophomore. There just aren’t many new, exciting names floating around in the defensive backfield. At some point, it’s fair for fans just to simply wonder how good the Vols’ upperclassmen defensive backs really are. If they haven’t hit their ceiling already, how much more can they even grow?

Looking for incoming relief. Freshmen Jordan Matthews and Rickey Gibson were highly touted, but they still have miles to go before they can be considered All-SEC caliber, if that ever happens at all. BYU transfer Gabe Jeudy-Lally seems to be a utility player that can handle safety and defensive back, but it remains to be seen if he can master one.

There may be a big surprise out of one of those three players, or a big improvement by one of the returning players mentioned above. If not, Tennessee’s offense had better continue to do what they did all of last season: score a lot of points.

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