The secondary was young in 2013, and the key contributors are all back in 2014, but they'll be joined by a gaggle of talented newcomers. What is the Tennessee defensive back situation looking like hours before the faxes start rolling in? Find out.
Anyone who watched Tennessee play last year could see that cornerback was a problem spot. Cameron Sutton was a bright spot, locking down a starting position and delivering a consistent high level of play as a true freshman. But behind him? Preferred walk-on Devaun Swafford, another true freshman, showed flashes of big play ability at the nickel, but he was not able to beat out converted running back--and fellow walk-on--JaRon Toney for a consistent starting spot. Toney did more than is ever asked of most walk-on running backs, but he was obviously out of his depth in parts of SEC play. Justin Coleman started for yet another year at the other corner position and for yet another year struggled with the task.
The Vols needed a talent infusion quickly, and they will get one. While there is certainly hope that sophomores like Malik Foreman and Swafford can develop into solid starters and that Riyahd Jones--who sat out much of last year with injury--can be the contributor he was brought in to be, much will be expected of the newcomers. D'Andre Payne, a 5'9" cover corner and four-star according to all four services is already on campus and will throw his hat into the competition to start opposite Sutton. Emmanuel Moseley, an under-the-radar commitment who chose Tennessee over Charlotte before getting a late offer from NC State, is also on campus. Moseley is also small, weighing just 160 pounds despite his 6'0" frame, but he ran a sub-4.4 forty in high school and should improve the speed issues in the back.
Evan Berry, also a four-star according to all four services, will join them in the fall, although Berry is notably versatile and could also play safety or receiver. Along with Berry will come RaShaan Gaulden, whom most are recruiting as a safety but whom Tennessee sees as a physical corner. Speculation is that the Vols will give Gaulden the opportunity to win the starting nickel position in fall camp.
Safety was a little more stable in 2013, with Brian Randolph and LaDarrell McNeil serving as the starters for all twelve games, but it also needs an infusion of talent, and it will also get one. While no freshmen at the position enrolled in January, Wednesday should see the signing of the two most promising backs in Tennessee's class. Todd Kelly Jr. and Cortez McDowell are both 6'1", although McDowell at 205 outweighs Kelly by 15 pounds, and they are both elite prospects. Both chose Tennessee over Alabama, Auburn, Florida State, and Georgia, among others, and both expect to contribute immediately. While expecting them to take starting jobs from incumbents during fall camp is probably a bit ambitious, both should see plenty of time in the rotation and will be competing for more sooner rather than later. Both are strong in run support, although McDowell is bigger and a better tackler and Kelly is better with the ball in the air. Vols fans should be excited about the future in the defensive backfield, with six new players of which five garnered four stars from at least one service. But Kelly and McDowell are the crown jewels and should provide Tennessee will a feared safety tandem for years to come.
BONUS UNIT PREVIEW: Special Teams.
The suddenly reliable Michael Palardy has exhausted his four years of eligibility and will provide big shoes to fill. Senior punter Matt Darr and sophomore kicker George Bullock are the only scholarship specialists remaining on the roster, and neither has shown the ability to perform at the level Palardy showed in 2013. But the Tennessee coaching staff has not ignored special teams in stocking for the future. In-state long-snapper Wesley Horkey, considered one of the top long-snappers in the country, has accepted a position as a preferred walk-on with the Vols in 2014. And Mississippi punter Troy Waites will also walk-on at UT.
But the only scholarship being offered to a specialist this year will go to Aaron Medley, expected to sign Wednesday. Medley is listed by Kohl's Kicking--a site devoted to kickers and punters--as the #1 kicker and #12 punter in the country, garnering a five-star rating in both areas. They called him "trustworthy and dependable" and ready to compete for immediate playing time. Medley also had offers from Oklahoma and Texas A&M and has kicked a 65-yard field goal in practice with no wind.
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