I’m trying to remember a scenario similar to Rashaan Gaulden’s at UT: player makes an impact on special teams as a true freshman, is penciled in as a starter with a ton of buzz going into his sophomore year, then gets injured and is lost for the year in fall camp. This isn’t his fault, but I feel like I’m treating Gaulden’s play in the secondary as a sure thing when we really haven’t seen a meaningful snap from him back there.
At the close of last season it seemed certain safety was going to be Tennessee’s biggest question mark in 2016 with Brian Randolph and LaDarrell McNeil graduating. Gaulden was supposed to be the answer at nickel last season and many of us assumed he would return there this fall. That left Todd Kelly Jr., who made several big plays while splitting time with McNeil last year, and then a huge question mark. You could idiot optimist your way into Evan Berry as the answer (“He’s got that Berry blood in him! Returning kicks and playing safety are basically the same thing!”) but sadly the coaching staff doesn’t use the same evaluation techniques. There are plenty of recruiting stars on the board in Micah Abernathy and Stephen Griffin before we even get to the freshmen like Nigel Warrior. But any of these choices would have represented a more serious question mark for a team looking to win championships.
So what happened with Gaulden is really in part about what happened with Malik Foreman, another good story on a team full of them.
Foreman was also on the field as a true freshman in his and Butch Jones’ very first game against Austin Peay in 2013, a narrative now overshadowed because Cam Sutton has the exact same story. Foreman had an interception and three tackles that day but finished with only seven more in the rest of the 2013 season. We might have thought him passed by in 2014 when Justin Coleman solidified the nickel position and newcomers Emmanuel Moseley and Michael Williams came on the scene. Then Foreman was one of the few warm bodies available to face Bowling Green’s firing squad in week one last year, giving us an overly negative impression of every defensive back’s ability to cover a go route against a MAC team.
Foreman was written off by most of us. But down the stretch last year, he reappeared at nickel with 13 tackles in Tennessee’s last four regular season games. He began to be a presence behind the line of scrimmage with four TFL’s in the same span. And in the Outback Bowl he nabbed his first interception since his freshman debut.
So the questions we thought Team 120 would face appear to have been answered with Foreman returning at nickel and doing it well enough to slide Gaulden over to safety. And despite the previous paragraph, there may still be some in Vol Nation who have more confidence in the unseen with Gaulden than the maturation we saw at the end of last year from Foreman. But surrounded by Sutton, Kelly Jr., and Justin Martin, and a wealth of young talent backing them up, this could still shape up to be one of the better Tennessee secondaries in recent memory despite what we haven’t seen yet.