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Tennessee’s most important players of 2019: No. 6 — Bryce Thompson

This is one is pretty obvious.

NCAA Football: Charlotte at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

If there was any noticeable improvement throughout the 2018 season, it was the play of Tennessee’s young secondary, especially among the cornerback group.

One of those key contributors was Bryce Thompson, a 4-star recruit who found himself on the field as early as the first game of the year. The end result was a team-high three interceptions, seven pass break-ups, and 34 combined tackles. Pro Football Focus placed him on the SEC defensive team of the week three times and graded him as the highest-rated true freshman cornerback among those who played at least 190 snaps. His strong freshman season earned him a Freshman All-American nod from the Football Writers Association of America.

Accolades and achievements aside, Thompson is primed for a major year in 2019. With a full year under his belt and one of the country’s best secondary coaches in Jeremy Pruitt, the stars seem to have aligned for Thompson.

Out of the entire defense, the secondary seems to be in pretty good hands. But if Thompson were to go down, who would take over? More importantly, would they be anywhere as near as effective as Thompson?

In a short answer, no. Tennessee is young and deep at the position, but most of the players that are currently on the roster have very little experience, especially when compared to Thompson’s 11 starts from a year ago.

The Vols have sophomore Alontae Taylor on the other side, but it should be obvious that he can’t play both sides of the field at the same time. If whomever were to replace Thompson can’t step up, it could have perilous trickle-down effects on the rest of the defense.

But what’s even more important, aside from his availability, is if he is ready to take that next step in his development. It’s hard to find many flaws in his game, but he needs to focus on taking the next step, not refining what he can already do.

If Thompson can stay healthy and continue to develop, it will be huge for this defense.

Anything else would be a big disappointment.