A fun exercise: if all parties involved are healthy, this could be the best Tennessee secondary since ____________.
Is it an answer involving Eric Berry? Lane Kiffin's 2009 Vols featured Berry as a junior and Janzen Jackson as a true freshman, but Dennis Rogan and Art Evans at corner lack high name recognition value six years later. Berry teamed with Jonathan Hefney as a freshman in 2007, but fellow freshman Brent Vinson and newcomer DeAngelo Willingham struggled early in the year. Maybe 2005 before Jason Allen's injury, when he joined Jonathan Wade, Antwan Stewart, and Hefney. I think the most impressive group in UT's post nationally relevant era is 2003: Jabari Greer, Jason Allen, Rashad Baker, and Gibril Wilson.
So where will Cameron Sutton, Brian Randolph, LaDarrell McNeil/Todd Kelly end on that list? That probably depends on who fills the final spot.
Sutton is one of the most underrated players in the league, a two-year starter heading into a junior season that could very well be his last. Randolph is one of the few seniors on this team who will play a meaningful role, and can anchor the defensive backfield. I have no idea whether McNeil or Kelly will see the majority of snaps at the other safety spot, but either way the Vols should be in good hands there. And even when Tennessee goes into their nickel package, where they could spend a majority of time once again, Rashaan Gaulden is expected to be one of the most improved freshman-to-sophomore players on this team, with coaches raving about his work this spring.
With Butch Jones and company wanting to work their nickel back only at that position (as they did with Justin Coleman last year), who steps into the number two corner role is the largest unanswered question for the secondary and one of the biggest question marks for the team. Last year Michael Williams earned the majority of snaps beside Sutton, with freshman Emmanuel Moseley stepping in after Williams' suspension.
Moseley is probably the assumed answer to this question, and if so how far he has progressed this off-season will be vital for Tennessee's pass defense. A far stronger assumption is that teams will not want to throw Cam Sutton's way, so whoever lines up on the other side should see plenty of live fire.
This is why when the Vols open fall camp next week, one of the most interesting names to watch will be junior college transfer Justin Martin. Rated the best junior college corner by some services, Martin could instantly step into a starting role if he can surpass Moseley in the month of August. We could end up with both guys seeing significant playing time, as with McNeil and Kelly at safety.
But if the Vols can't find a reliable answer at corner other than Sutton, opposing defenses will continue to pick on the other side of the field. Guys like Amari & Pharoh Cooper were able to create mismatches with Tennessee's defense and have career days. While the Vols aren't likely to see anyone as good as Amari this fall, Pharoh will be back for more and if no clear answer is established at corner, other names could follow.
This could be the most talented secondary the Vols have fielded in more than a decade. But that last piece of the puzzle will be incredibly important, whoever ends up winning the job in a few weeks.