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Tennessee is plenty athletic in rebuild Vols’ secondary

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It remains to be seen if Tennessee’s overhauled secondary will be better this season than it has been in the past. However, one declaration has been made.

The Vols will be more athletic in the defensive backfield.

“We have an athletic group,” Martinez confirmed on Monday during Tennessee’s press conference following the first practice of the third week of spring camp. “The team is really fast. They’re young. They’re inexperienced, but they have a great attitude in the effort part, the preparation. We just have to continue to grow and mature as an inexperienced group, mixed with a couple of veterans.”

That’s kind of scary isn’t it? Tennessee’s secondary hasn’t exactly lit it up in three seasons under head coach Josh Heupel. In fact, there have been times in which the Vols looked lost in the secondary. Now, Tennessee has less experience in a few positions in which one mistake can result in a big play for the opposition.

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The defensive back facelift will be led by three transfers: Jermod McCoy from Oregon State, Jalen McMurray from Temple and Jakobe Thomas from Middle Tennessee State. McCoy and McMurray are slated to play cornerback Thomas is expected to play safety. 

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“Not only did they get developed, but they also were producing too on their team,” Martinez said. “They had great experience. Obviously, there are different conferences, and they’re all coming from different ones. It’s the development part, and it’s no different than one of our guys who was a third-year player who has the talent and skillset and maybe did not have the right training in the beginning prior to coming here. But then, they bought in to the culture, and they’re better players.”

There are other players that will figure into the equation, such as Andre Turrentine and Jourdan Thomas, who are expected to compete at safety. Turrentine, who transferred from Ohio State picked off an Iowa pass in the Citrus Bowl for his first career interception. Meanwhile, Rickey Gibson III seems to have an inside track on a regular position at cornerback after logging his first start there against the Hawkeyes.

“He’s a lot more confident,” Martinez said. “He’s smart, but he’s more comfortable in the package itself. He knows what his strengths are. He knows the things he needs to work on…His attention to detail is there. He’s still developing, but he’s very confident…and he’s being a really good leader.”

The challenge for Martinez is twofold. He must make sure that his young players are ready, but can’t overload them – especially the newcomers – with too much information.

“You want to let them play,” Martinez said. “We don’t think we’re complicated on defense, especially if you’re on the edges with your corner. The safeties have a little bit more on their plate where they have to make all their checks. 

“Obviously, you don’t want them to sit there and be processing through the whole process. I think they’ve done a really good job. We have a lot of time with them. We’ve had it since December….For the most part, they’ve really handled the package pretty good. We actually threw some more at them today and there weren’t that many busts at all. 

Tennessee returned to the field after having four days off for Easter.

“To come off the break that we had,” Martinez said referring to the positive reviews on Monday, “I think that was pretty impressive.”

So, the initiative is to rely mostly on newcomers in the secondary. However, Tennessee didn’t have much of a choice. After losing eight players from last season’s defensive backfield, the Vols were forced to completely rebuild. Now, it’s up to Martinez, who has been criticised routinely during his time at Tennessee, to build a secondary in his own image. Apparently, he has the pieces. Now, he just has to build a competent crew to be able to handle Saturdays in the fall. Clearly, there’s no going back now.

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