In exactly one season, the Tennessee secondary has gone from a gigantic question mark to a legitimate strength of the program. You really shouldn’t be surprised by that, considering the track record of defensive back whiz Jeremy Pruitt.
In 2018, Pruitt walked into a situation that saw Tennessee lose four defensive backs with no clear plan for succession. To make matters worse, Pruitt didn’t get started on his initial Tennessee recruiting class until early December. While that first class patched up a few holes, it didn’t really address the cornerback spot — which is why Pruitt had to get creative.
A year later, we’re talking about how this secondary might be the driving force of the entire defense.
Stud Corners: Alontae Taylor and Bryce Thompson
Pruitt’s creativity saw a number of position changes during his first spring. None were more notable than Alontae Taylor, who most thought would end up playing receiver. Taylor took to the spot immediately, helping fill a massive void on Pruitt’s year one defense.
Still, Tennessee needed more bodies. Luckily for Pruitt, he was able to land four-star athlete Bryce Thompson after spring practice, immediately moving him to the defensive side of the ball as well.
“It was different, it was extremely different,” Thompson said of the position change. “I never played corner, like at all in high school. I was really offense. It was just a big transition. I’m a big competitor though. We just realized, whatever helps the team, I’m good with it.”
Thompson must be a pretty quick learner. As a freshman learning on the fly, Thompson hauled in three interceptions, while forcing a fumble and totaling 32 tackles — four for loss. Taylor didn’t get the interceptions that Thompson did, but he broke up two passes, while racking up 40 tackles and forcing two fumbles.
Now in year two, both have a full season of experience at the position. How does that change things? It’s simple. There will be an added element of trust within the secondary. New defensive coordinator Derrick Ansley will have the ability to play a little more man coverage, opening up the door for more aggression at the line of scrimmage.
One key question
The injury to senior nickel back or ‘star’ Baylen Buchanan has provided a wrinkle in a secondary that’s otherwise pretty set. Buchanan brings more needed experience to the position, doing a variety of things for the Tennessee defense. The 5-11, 196 pound veteran started all 12 games in 2018. Jeremy Pruitt said that they planned to hold Buchanan out for the first two weeks of fall camp, then “see where he’s at.” Buchanan also missed spring practice.
In his absence, Tennessee has worked numerous defensive backs in his place, including starting safety Nigel Warrior. Buchanan’s status will be one of the bigger stories to follow as we inch closer to the season.
More depth in year two
Another added benefit in the second year under Jeremy Pruitt will be added depth at the cornerback position. One surprise early in fall camp has been Warren Burrell, who signed with Tennessee as a three-star recruit in the class of 2019. Burrell has been working as the third cornerback behind Taylor and Thompson on the outside, likely putting him in a place to play early on in his first season.
Shawn Shamburger enters his third season at Tennessee, still looking for a permanent home in the secondary. He’s spent time at cornerback, safety and the ‘star’ position, but has yet to really settle in with the new coaching staff. Shamburger should solve a number of different depth issues for Tennessee in 2019, filling in wherever he’s needed.
Tyus Fields had ankle surgery in December, which kept the four-star freshman limited this spring. Fields has spent some time learning the safety position, but it’s unclear if that’s where he will stay. With an injury to Baylen Buchanan, Fields may find a few opportunities at the Star position, playing the slot cornerback and hybrid safety role.
Freshman Kenney Solomon and redshirt junior Kenneth George Jr. round out the cornerback depth chart. George appeared in four games, mainly on special teams, before suffering a season-ending injury.
One final thing to monitor is freshman receiver Jerrod Means, who worked with the cornerbacks during the first week of fall camp. With four senior receivers moving on next year, it’s tough to see that sticking.
As mentioned above, Nigel Warrior has a starting spot somewhere in this secondary. The status of Baylen Buchanan may determine where that is though. Warrior has been working at star, but should return to his traditional safety role once he returns. The senior safety started all 12 games in 2018, registering 64 tackles.
Sophomore Trevon Flowers is the likely starter in the free safety role. Taylor and Thompson got all of the attention, but Flowers earned the start to kick off the 2018 season against West Virginia. His season was derailed by an injury though, which forced him to miss five games. The multi-sport athlete is a breakout candidate heading into 2019.
Theo Jackson is next in line and will definitely be in the rotation once again this season. The 6-2 junior played in 11 games in 2018, making one start against Florida. Jackson broke up two passes, while racking up 20 tackles. Expect to see Jackson making plays in the box for the Tennessee defense in 2019.
Cheyenne Labruzza returns as a likely special teams player and reserve defensive back. The redshirt sophomore played in seven games last season and has played a variety of roles in the secondary since joining the Tennessee program.
Next up are two freshmen safety, one of which has already made quite the impact. Jaylen McCollough signed with the Volunteers as a four-star prospect, enrolling early and stealing the show in the spring game. The freshman safety picked off freshman quarterback Brian Maurer twice in the game, opening up plenty of eyes early on. His path to playing time this year is cloudy, but he should be more than ready to enter the rotation in 2020.
Aaron Beasley is also working with the safeties, signing with Tennessee as a three-star athlete. The former 5AA Georgia player of the year is in the same boat as McCollough, projecting as a down the road contributor.