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Tennessee’s secondary is a puzzle but the Vols’ pieces are loaded with potential

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It’s no secret that Tennessee’s secondary has been the one woeful, sore spot in coach Josh Heupel’s great Volunteer rebuilding project. Despite the optimism surrounding the Vols’ program under Heupel, there’s little reason for optimism about Tennessee’s defensive backfield heading into the most important season of Heupel’s career. 

Perhaps we’re not looking hard enough.

Let’s start with the Vols’ experience level – or lack thereof – in the secondary. Well, there’s practically none. Sure, the Vols have players that have logged some significant time in the defensive backfield. However, the Vols lost their entire secondary from last season, 10 total defensive backs and at least eight defensive backs with experience that likely would have played into the rotation had they remained at Tennessee.

Poof, that’s all gone.

“It will be a transition, but at the same time, I know we’re super excited about it because we feel like we got some really good, young talent,” Tennessee defensive coordinator said. “We feel like we got some older guys starting to hit their stride. And, obviously, we’ve got a couple of transfers. So, we think the sky’s the limit back there.”

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It’s unclear if Banks meant “the sky is the limit” for the Vols or their opponents. All joking aside, Tennessee could be better in the secondary this season than last year thanks to better talent, but the experience issue isn’t going away. Mistakes are most often made by young players with little experience, not older players with a ton of experience in the SEC.

There are several players that are vying to fill the role of departed defensive back. 

Middle Tennessee State transfer Jakobe Thomas has wowed coaches with his play and leadership, which is impressive as a newcomer. Oregon State transfer Jermod McCoy is also expected to hit the defensive backfield running. Cornerback Rickey Gibson has had a fantastic offseason by all accounts. 

“I love the direction Ricky Gibson is taking right now and just the confidence that he’s playing with,” defensive coordinator Tim Banks said, “but it’s going to be a challenge to figure out who the best four or five defensive backs are, particularly at the corner spot.”

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The Vols return Andre Turrentine, who has seen playing time at safety and cornerback. After transferring from Ohio State before the 2023 season, he is expected to assert himself, snag a starting position or he’ll be considered a bust soon. Then, there’s highly touted freshman Boo Carter, who is seeing most of his work at strong safety. 

Clearly, no position has been won in mid-March. However, indications are that things are going quite well, that the Vols could be more athletic in the secondary than they’ve ever been under Heupel. The Vols may not have experience, but they have options.

“I think it’s going to be highly competitive,” Banks said. “Right now, we’re moving guys around…We’re really working hard to build some depth in the secondary.”

That means players like juniors Christian Harrison and Jourdan Thomas are receiving practice time at multiple positions. 

Hook’s Take

The Vols lost a ton of players from last season, as noted above. However, the Vols were eight in passing defense last season and that was a high-water mark for Tennessee under Heupel. Clearly, the Vols would have liked to have some of the departed players back for another season, but that doesn’t mean they wanted them all back.

The Vols are more athletic in the secondary than they’ve ever been. Tennessee has players with experience even if that doesn’t mean playing time in orange. This secondary is full of new faces, but I’d rather have the unknown than a group of players that have proven they can’t play at an elite level in the SEC.

Bird in hand or two in the bush? I’m hunting in the bushes compared to what the Vols have had in their possession when it comes to defensive backs in recent years.

Here is a way-too-early prediction of what the Vols will look like this fall in the defensive backfield.

FS: Turrentine

SS: Carter

Nickelback: Jakobe Thomas

CB: Gibson and McCoy

X-Factor: Jourdan Thomas

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