If Butch Jones marks progress by bricks and inches, he has plenty of both to be excited about in the secondary. Last year the Vols went from 114th to 27th in passing yards allowed and from 7.6 to 7.2 yards allowed per attempt. Improving from 2012 wasn't necessarily hard work, but it was a first step in moving the Tennessee defense from a liability to a strength.
The Vols graduated Byron Moore and the part-time secondary services of Brent Brewer, but return an enormous body count back there. We've made this argument before - "There are so many options, surely we can find four guys who can play!" - but this time you feel more confident in both who's coming back and who's coming in. Cameron Sutton unexpectedly became Tennessee's best corner as a true freshman, and Brian Randolph returned from an ACL tear to snag four interceptions. There is little doubt those two will be in the starting lineup come August 31.
Along with them the Vols return Justin Coleman and LaDarrell McNeil with starting experience, plus Malik Foreman with significant playing time under his belt. And then there's the former walk-on duo of Max Arnold and Devaun Swafford. That's eight defensive backs, plus guys like Riyahd Jones, Michael Williams, Geraldo Orta, and Lemond Johnson who didn't get much or any action last year but are still on the roster. (Edit: JaRon Toney left the program following spring practice)
So what does Butch Jones do with eleven returning defensive backs? He signs seven more.
D'Andre Payne and Emmanuel Moseley showed up this spring and immediately got in the fight at corner, with Moseley earning the starting spot next to Sutton in the Orange & White Game. Then joining the roster this summer were three highly-rated safeties and two Berries.
Picking up so much additional firepower with so many guys coming back is a clear indication Jones was looking for an upgrade in the defensive backfield. Now the question becomes, how soon will we see it on the field?
The Vols might start Sutton, Moseley, Randolph, McNeil, and Coleman at nickel against Utah State. But I think Butch's willingness to play Sutton last year and Moseley this spring means you might get a look at guys like Todd Kelly, Jr. sooner than later. It's interesting to note LaDarrell McNeil was Derek Dooley's third highest-rated recruit (tied with several others) behind Da'Rick Rogers and Cordarrelle Patterson according to Rivals. But he's become a piece the Vols might be looking to upgrade with a younger, faster model this fall. Tennessee loaded up at safety with Kelly, Cortez McDowell, and Rashaan Gaulden, all four stars. How soon will one or all of them get on the field and make a difference?
The only seniors in this bunch are Justin Coleman and Riyahd Jones. The Vols could put something very young on the field by mid-season which could become something very good by the fall of 2015. As young secondaries go there will probably be a learning curve which involves getting burned early, especially with the likes of Oklahoma coming in the first month of the season. But Butch Jones has positioned Tennessee to return to elite talent status by first making receiver and secondary the priority. This is no longer just body count to provide depth, it's young talent with an opportunity to get right in the mix with a couple of established names. It may cost us in the short term as freshmen fight for playing time and learn along the way, but perhaps more than anywhere else on this team, the future is here in the secondary.