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Tennessee Vols National Signing Day Preview: Defensive Backs

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Everything you need to know about Tennessee's recruiting in the defensive backfield.

Throw against Cam Sutton at your own peril, offensive coordinators.
Throw against Cam Sutton at your own peril, offensive coordinators.
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Previewing the 2015 Defensive Backs

The Vols return almost everyone from a deep, talented group of defensive backs, losing only a single major contributor from last year's defensive backfield, much maligned nickelback Justin Coleman. Last year's defensive backfield improved dramatically over 2013, with an improved pass rush helping a quicker, more instinctive back line to make more plays on the ball. With three starters and every important contributor returning from last year, the question is "where will everyone play" and not, "do we have anyone to fill the position" which was the case as recently as 2013.

Returning Players

Name Year Height Weight Position Games Played (Career)
Games Started (Career)
Tackles TFLs Passes Defended INT FF
Brian Randolph RS Senior 6'0 209 Safety 40 38 88 1.5 5 2 1
LaDarrell McNeil Senior 6'1 215 Safety 36 31 76 1.5 5 2 1
Michael Williams RS Junior 5'11 177 Nickel 10 5 23 - - - -
Cameron Sutton Junior 6'1 190 Corner
25 25 37 4 9 3 1
Malik Foreman Junior 5'10 190 Corner 22 0 10 - 1 - -
Devaun Swafford Junior 5'11 184 Nickel/Safety 25 2 5 - - - -
Lemond Johnson Junior 6'1 200 Safety 16 0 - - - - -
Todd Kelly, Jr. Sophomore 6'0 203 Safety 13 3 33 - 5 3 -
Emmanuel Moseley Sophomore 5'11 178 Corner 13 2 19 2 6 - -
Rashaan Gaulden Sophomore 6'1 173 Nickel 11 0 7 - - - -
Evan Berry Sophomore 5'11 199 Corner 13 0 5 - - - -

Players already on campus from the 2015 class

Name Hometown Height Weight Position 247 Position Ranking 247 Composite Stars
Stephen Griffin
Charlotte, NC 6'2 185 Safety 52 0.8565 3

Players expected to sign Wednesday

Name Hometown Height Weight Position 247 Position Ranking 247 Composite Stars
Micah Abernathy Norcross, GA 6'1 187 Corner 24 0.9082 4
Justin Martin Nashville, TN 6'2 190 Corner 2 (JUCO) 0.9069 4
Darrell Miller Cedar Hill, TX 5'10 171 Corner 72 0.8560 3

What to Expect

Cornerback Cam Sutton returned to campus following the Tennessee's bowl win against Iowa and immediately headed to the weight room to get a jump start on off-season strength and conditioning. Perhaps the dynamic junior was motivated by his inexplicable omission from the AP All-SEC Team -- but whatever the case, Tennessee's best player in the defensive backfield didn't spend a single day enjoying the Vols' first bowl win since 2007. Instead, Sutton returned to campus and started grinding for the 2015 season, setting an example for the rest of the Vols' defensive backfield. With three starters and a host of talented young players returning, the theme of the offseason for Willie Martinez and the Tennessee secondary is likely to be competition -- for starting roles, for playing time, and to be difference makers on the field.

Sutton will lock down one of the two cornerback positions and redshirt senior Brian Randolph will almost certainly start at one of the two safety positions. The other safety position will be a battle between senior LaDarrell McNeil, one of the highest rated Dooley era recruits, and rising sophomore Todd Kelly, Jr. Having started 31 of 37 possible games since his arrival on campus, McNeil has the experience and the edge in highlight reel hits, but Kelly has the footspeed and the mental acuity to make McNeil a situational player. The other cornerback position will be an open competition between a number of younger players, with Emmanuel Moseley, Evan Berry, Rashaan Gaulden, and Malik Foreman all potential contestants. For older players like Foreman and Lemond Johnson, this competition is likely the best remaining chance of securing a role as a non-special teams contributor, but rising sophomore Moseley almost certainly has the edge with his exceptional raw speed.

Because of the proliferation of spread offenses in the SEC, Tennessee played with a fifth defensive back, the nickelback, on the field for a significant number of snaps last year, but don't expect anyone to lock down the starting nickelback position until fall camp. Defensive backs coach Willie Martinez and defensive coordinator John Jancek are likely to experiment with a number of different players at the position, with Rashaan Gaulden the likely front runner. If Todd Kelly wins a starting position at safety, it's also possible that LaDarrell McNeil could move down into the nickel -- he is a ferocious hitter and could set the edge against the spread option run game, but he lacks the footspeed to keep up with slot wide receivers in underneath coverage.

The Vols largely restocked the defensive backfield with last year's recruiting class, so incoming players this year are not expected to be major contributors, although Butch Jones has shown an inclination to play young talent early. At safety, Tennessee landed three-star Stephen Griffin from Charlotte, North Carolina. Griffin has very good size for a safety at 6'2, 185, and as an early enrollee, Tennessee coaches have the luxury of trying him at a number of different spots during spring practice.

At cornerback, the Vols received a late commitment from four star Justin Martin, the number two ranked JUCO cornerback in the nation. Martin played at Overton High School in Nashville, Tennessee, but failed to qualify out of high school and enrolled at a junior college, Northeastern Oklahoma A&M. At 6'2, 190 pounds, with great speed, Martin has the measurables of a top-flight NFL cornerback, and he should be able to compete immediately for the cornerback position opposite Cam Sutton. However, there are two reasons to pump the brakes on Martin starting immediately: 1) he may not even make it to Tennessee, as Texas A&M is pushing hard for his commitment (Martin almost committed to current Aggies defensive coordinator John Chavis when he was at LSU); and, 2) JUCO players often take longer to get acclimated to the college environment, especially those that have struggled with academics. Martin is one to keep an eye on for National Signing Day, but if he does indeed end up at Tennessee, expect Martin to shine as soon as he feels comfortable in Knoxville.

The Vols also currently have commitments from two high school cornerbacks: four star Micah Abernathy from Norcross, Georgia, and three star Darrell Miller from Cedar Hill, Texas. Abernathy is a converted running back who is still very raw at the position, but showed flashes of great talent playing cornerback exclusively at the Under Armour All American game. Miller is an undersized but very fast prospect with good leaping ability who played in one of the most competitive classifications of Texas high school football. He reminds me a bit of D'Andre Payne in terms of playing style, but hopefully he has a better attitude than the one-time Vol. Miller is another recruit to watch on signing day as Tennessee coaches may consider pulling his scholarship if a more desirable prospects wants to commit. Neither Miller nor Abernathy is expected to contribute this coming year, but last year no one thought Emmanuel Moseley would be a contributor, either.