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Josh Heupel praises Christian Charles as Tennessee looks for answers at cornerback

Syndication: The Knoxville News-Sentinel Brianna Paciorka/News Sentinel via Imagn Content Services, LLC

The Purdue game left a lasting image in Tennessee fans’ heads — one Boilermaker after another streaking down field after another. The Volunteers didn’t have starting cornerback Alontae Taylor for that one, providing us with a glimpse of what the Tennessee secondary could look like this season without him.

That preview was not pretty.

This spring, Tennessee has been shorthanded at the position, making things tough on the defensive coaching staff. It’s opened up some opportunities those those who were down on the depth chart last season, along with some younger players options on the roster.

“We’re thin right now,” Josh Heupel admitted following a scrimmage on Saturday. “As we rep throughout the course of the day, some guys are having to double up, two or three reps. I feel like those guys who are getting the bulk of the reps are doing a really nice job.

One of those younger options is Christian Charles, who spent his freshman season playing at safety and on special teams. He’s now working at cornerback, and making plenty of strides as he pushes for playing time this fall.

“Christian Charles, he’s a guy inside of our program that we continue to feel better about,” Heupel said. “Just because of the performance. He’s a great kid, going to be a phenomenal leader inside of our program. He’s got great work habits. Has completely changed his body during the offseason, the lead-up to spring ball. Had a great first seven weeks in the strength and conditioning portion of it. And you see him getting more and more reps, getting more comfortable through that progression here on the grass.”

Tennessee also returns Warren Burrell, Doneiko Slaughter, Kamal Hadden, Brandon Turnage and De’Shawn Rucker. They’ve also added top JUCO prospect Desmond Williams into the mix.

However, Turnage, Burrell, Hadden and Rucker have all been unavailable due to injuries or recoveries so far this spring. That has dumped quite a bit on the plate of Charles, who is going into his second season. But it’s also provided him with plenty of reps to develop. He made an impact on special teams last season, and now could utilize his 6-1 frame in a corner role in 2022.

Tennessee will likely add a body or two from the transfer portal following spring practice to address some of those depth concerns.