Just two short years ago, we had no idea what the Tennessee secondary would look like. The Volunteers had just lost several contributors after the 2017 season, and Jeremy Pruitt’s first job in regards of roster construction was to fix that.
Quite honestly, it didn’t go well on the recruiting trail that first cycle at cornerback, but Pruitt made it work. He converted Alontae Taylor to cornerback, then signed athlete Bryce Thompson after signing day and moved him to defensive back as well. They immediately became starters and took their lumps to become the players that they are today.
Those unknowns are now entering their junior year, and the Vols now have competitive depth across the board.
“We want to play football, tight close man-to-man,” Tennessee defensive coordinator Derrick Ansley said last week. “We want to deny the football. We want to affect the quarterback with four rushers and play split safety defense as much as we can. To do that, you need really good corners outside that can hold up and win the one-on-ones deep down the field at a consistent level.”
Tennessee also has Warren Burrell, who started game in Thompson’s absence last season as a freshman. Kenneth George Jr. was also tossed into the fire as a junior and ended up starting six games. All in all, Ansley can now go four deep at cornerback and play the matchups.
“With Bryce and Alontae being true juniors now, and basically being two years as full-time starters, that is a luxury to have experience at the corner position,” Ansley said. “We have other guys that have a lot of play time as well. Kenny George, he started four or five games last year and he’s having a really good camp so far. So is Warren Burrell. We have four really good options at that position. So all of those guys are battling right now.
“Nowadays, the secondary is a lot like basketball,” Ansley continued. “You want to be able to match up and put different people in different spots to show off their strengths and put people in a position to make plays. With that being said, we do have a lot of options – a lot of guys that can do different things.”
You can also throw a guy like Shawn Shamburger, who filled in for Baylen Buchanan at the nickel position in 2019. Expect Shamburger to do more of the same in 2020, with Buchanan not being able to go this season due to injury once again.
As a whole, the Tennessee secondary only lost safety Nigel Warrior from last season’s team. Assuming a guy like Jaylen McCollough can somewhat fill his shoes, the Volunteers should be strong in the back half.