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Tennessee Football: Has one of the Vols’ best DB’s found a home?

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Tennessee couldn’t quite figure out how to use Doneiko Slaughter last season. Maybe the Vols’ braintrust finally has that figured out.

The Vols open the 2023 season against Virginia in Nashville on Saturday and Slaughter, who started five games at cornerback and two contests at safety last season, was listed as the first-team cornerback. Individual absences forced Slaughter to play both defensive back positions a year ago. So, will Tennessee’s coaches be able to keep Slaughter at cornerback this season? Has he finally found his home?

“Very comfortable,” Slaughter said when asked about playing cornerback. “I have been working at corner the whole fall camp, getting my technique better and whatnot, and going through the details of whatever it takes to be a primary player at the corner spot. I still like being in the box a little more and I like hitting, but corner has grown on me.”

Tennessee coaches hope so. No one expects the Vols’ secondary to be great this season after a woeful campaign in 2022, in which they ranked towards the bottom quarter of the SEC in most every defensive passing statistic. However, a lock-down cornerback could change the Vols’ entire defensive philosophy.

Looking for other reasons to be optimistic about the Vols’ secondary? Tennessee should have a deeper, fresher set of defensive linemen and pass rushers to force opposing quarterbacks to get rid of the ball sooner. That should only help the Vols’ defensive backs.

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“Just the chemistry between us I’d say—really growing that brotherhood,” Slaughter said when asked how Tennessee’s defensive has improved during the offseason. “I’d say again ‘Going out, knowing each other’s past, where we’re from, knowing what a guy likes and his intentions for playing football.’ 

“It’s going to be real fun going out there and performing with the guys. Putting it all out on that field and just knowing we all put our blood, sweat and tears into this game.”

Fun. Well, that depends. If Tennessee’s defense, particularly its secondary, doesn’t play better than it did last season, the Vols aren’t going to have very much fun at all. In fact, they may be downright miserable.

Slaughter has been named the starting cornerback for now. However, that’s no guarantee he’ll start every game this season. Tennessee has versatile – but perhaps not – defensive backs to step in and play cornerback if Slaughter doesn’t perform. There are also two talented freshmen, Jordan Matthews and Rickey Gibson, who are surely chomping at the bit to see what they can do in the SEC.

One could argue that Slaughter is the most important player on Tennessee’s team. If he can go from a player that showed flashes of greatness last season to a player that is great consistently, the Vols will already have a much-improved secondary, a better defense and, likely a better team.

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