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Combination of new blood, familiar faces could be key to an improved Vols’ secondary

Tennessee made improving the defensive backfield a priority in the offseason — what does DB coach Willie Martinez think of his group so far?

NCAA Football: Music City Bowl-Purdue at Tennessee Steve Roberts-USA TODAY Sports

Tennessee’s defense was bad last year. There’s no need to go much deeper into that general truth — we all watched it, and the numbers back it up.

But, of course, there were a few considerable, mitigating factors: the lack of SEC-caliber talent on the roster, the attrition from the coaching staff change that exacerbated aforementioned deficit of good players and the the pace at which Tennessee’s own offense runs both likely rank at the top of those factors/ rationales/ reasons/ excuses.

The Vols’ secondary might have been the worst of the bad, considering UT finished 124th in the country (out of 130 total teams, via Team Rankings) in passing yards allowed per game and 11th out of 14 SEC teams in passing yards per-attempt surrendered.

The bowl game against Purdue was a flat-out disaster. Tennessee lost 48-45, despite taking a 21-7 lead into the second quarter. Boilermaker QB Aidan O’Connell, without his leading receiver David Bell, wrought havoc on the Vol DBs to the tune of 534 yards and five TDs, in which he managed a 20-yards-plus, yards-per-completion figure. Two of O’Connell’s touchdown passes came on 70-plus yard scoring tosses, one of which came at the expense of Tennessee freshman DB De’Shawn Rucker.

The Vols were without starting corner back Alontae Taylor, which thrust former Auburn transfer Kamal Hadden into the starting lineup and laid the ground work for Rucker likely getting more snaps than the staff would have preferred.

Via Pro Football Focus, three of Purdue’s five passing TDs were scored on UT defensive backs — that one on Rucker, another one on Warren Burrell and a third scored on Hadden.

Okay, I’ve sufficiently buried the lede, as Tennessee sports has turned me into a tacit masochist. But — there’s good news!

Good news nugget No. 1: Despite losing its two best players — Taylor and Tennessee’s star at the star position, Theo Jackson, the Vols return numerous veterans. Both starting safeties, Trevon Flowers and Jaylen McCollough are back, as are Burrell, Hadden, Doneiko Slaughter, Brandon Turnage and Tamarion McDonald, the latter of which caught the coaches’ attention by excelling on special teams. McDonald had the highest rating of any Tennessee player in PFF’s special teams’ overall grading metric, and he cleared the next closest player — Christian Charles, who was certainly no slouch in his opportunities, as you’ll see shortly — by nearly 10 percentage points.

“T-Mac (Tamarion McDonald) was very consistent in our special teams last year,” Tennessee defensive back coach Willie Martinez said in his media availability Friday.

“And we say it all the time, that if you can make plays in space, and that’s what those four teams do for you, it gives you a chance to be a player on offense and defense, and what it’s done is just built confidence.”

Listed at 6-2, 205, McDonald split his time between the two safety spots last season, but according to Martinez, he was mostly an “[in the] box player,” in high school. Martinez was saying that McDonald played more near/in/around the defensive front, like closer to the line of scrimmage, than out in the wide-open spaces that sometimes come with playing corner and safety.

That experience, and his natural build, has led the staff to moving most of his reps in camp to the star spot — Tennessee’s nickel back position that’s often a hybrid safety/ linebacker and can also be tasked with covering a variety of offensive players, e.g., running backs, tight ends, slot receivers.

“The one thing you love about T-Mac is how good he looks in a body,” Martinez said. “He’s got a great body type. Long.”

“He knows it’s all about field awareness and leverage and making plays in space,” Martinez added. “Obviously it starts with the tackling and then obviously trying to play coverages and whether it’s man or zone coverage. So he looks very comfortable.”

As a junior, McDonald was an incumbent from the previous staff, and Martinez said while they weren’t familiar with McDonald when Heupel, Martinez and the new coaches arrived, the Memphis native has honed the parts of his game critical to playing the star role.

“It wasn’t until we actually saw him and got a chance to work with him, and you could see how much he’s grown here in the last six, seven months, where he’s rally challenged himself to work on his man technique and understands leverage.”

Now, back to Christian Charles — he’s coming off his freshman season, so he’s not a veteran. But, before Charles arrived, Tennessee’s former coach said Charles was a “10.6 - 10.7,” guy, indicating his time in the hundred-meters race was similar to that of former Vol return specialist Evan Berry.

Heupel’s staff identified Charles early as somebody they needed to get on the field, somewhere, so he got plenty of special teams burn early in the year. And, as I mentioned above, he graded out as the second-best player Tennessee had on the field in those situations. Once the season began, it didn’t take long for fans to see why Heupel wanted Charles in there.

Charles shared another similarity with McDonald last season, as he also got most of his non-special teams playing time at safety in 2021. Though he only logged 36 official snaps defensively, he had the fourth-best coverage rating on the team, via PFF’s coverage grades. Apparently the staff took notice, as Charles has made the move from safety to corner in fall camp. Via Martinez and 247 Sports, the key word here is versatility.

“Christian is the type of player that we want to continue to recruit. Meaning he’s very versatile and can play all the positions on the backend. That gives us some flexibility. He’s transitioned very well. He’s obviously made progress from the point of when that transition happened in the spring. Very raw and non-developed, but understanding how to play at the corner position. He’s done a nice job in the offseason, in the summer time, that has really prepared him for camp. He looks like a different player. Much more aware of certain situations. And the situational part is the down-and-distances, how he’s going to lineup, what he’s looking for. It does happen a lot faster out there. And he’s adjusted really well.”

It seems like the staff is really working to cross-train a number of the defensive backs, and they’re probably betting on Charles’ athletic gifts to grease the wheel for the position switch. It’s worth noting that via VolQuest, leading into Tennessee’s second scrimmage of fall camp coming up this Sunday, Charles is starting opposite Warren Burrell at corner while Kamal Hadden deals with an injury.

While we’re on the athletic gifts topic, aforementioned, rising sophomore De’Shawn Rucker needs a mention. Even though he got toasted worse than a disgustingly-blackened marshmallow in the bowl game, there’s no question he’s got the speed to play the position. Last fall camp, Rucker’s first, him being a freshman and all, he scorched out the fastest MPH mark on the team. At 22.9 miles per-hour, he beat out Jalin Hyatt’s 22.7 and Jaylen Wright and Velus Jones’s 22.3 figures. Obviously, those figures are from last year and who knows how much they may have shifted since then. Either way, Rucker was neck-and-neck with Charles for the most coverage snaps played of freshmen DBs, though his 40.3 PFF coverage rating was the worst of the team (context: Alontae Taylor’s 81.1 figured led UT last year). In Rucker’s defense, he wasn’t an early-enrollee and so he only had fall camp to get his footing. We’ll see if he can fine tune his skills enough to line up with his innate athletic ability.

There’s reason to be cautiously optimistic about the growth of the players who were already here — another year in the system, another year practicing against the break-neck pace of the Vols’ own offense, yadda, yadda — but upgrading the talent in the DB room was a clear offseason priority for the Vols. That brings us to Good News Nugget No. 2:

Tennessee also added two, key bodies to the secondary in the offseason via the transfer portal and a few defensive backs through the 2022 recruiting class. Though it’s early in fall camp, it seems like these guys have injected much-needed raw talent to the position group and very well may help bolster the DB rotation with more SEC-caliber athletes.

“They,” (and novelist Thomas Wolfe) said you can never go home again, but the two portal DBs challenged the notion and left other Power 5 schools to return to Tennessee. Both redshirt-freshman Andre Turrentine and redshirt-sophomore Wesley Walker are from Nashville and played their high school ball at Ensworth (other notable Ensworth grads: Cornelius Elder, Antonio Richardson and Jordan Bone).

Each guy brings a little something different and lies at the opposite end of the live-game experience spectrum.

Turrentine was a four-star prospect who signed with the Buckeyes and went through a full year with their program. Though that staff kept his playing time sparse enough to redshirt him (19 total snaps in four games), I’d say the experience of just being and practicing with a team as talented as Ohio State has plenty of malleable, albeit possibly unquantifiable, benefit.

Walker was a three-star player in the 2019 class — who was recruited by Martinez during Martinez’s first stint here with Buttch Jones — but ended up at Georgia Tech. Now, he has two full seasons of experience and more than 1,000 college football snaps under his belt. Well, I mean, he has the snaps above his belt, too. It wasn’t just his hips and legs on the field, right?

While the two players’ paths here were day-and-night different, Martinez sees some commonalities in what they can add to the position group.

“Athleticism is the first thing that comes (to mind). Versatility. Again, I said it earlier with Christian Charles, they give us an opportunity to be flexible in who we want to move around. Both athletic. Obviously Wes played more than ‘Dre, so that shows. But that’s not a knock on ‘Dre, because he’s made some plays and each day he looks more comfortable in knowing what to do.”

The theme here, again, is positional versatility. Martinez said that the staff has been playing Turrentine at free and strong safety, while Walker is getting reps at both safety spots and the star position, the latter of which is where he played most during his two seasons with the Yellow Jackets.

Dee Williams was the No. 8 overall rated junior-college player in the 2022 class and arrived to Tennessee early, in time to go through spring practice with the team. Martinez said that extra time was critical to Williams’s development and noted that the jump from junior college to the SEC will always have some “growing pains.”

And coming in in January gives him the opportunity to learn, obviously to manage college life on this campus — academically, plus football, how to manage it. He had to learn the playbook. So coming in here, learning it before spring, during spring, after spring, all the walk-throughs we’ve had, he looks like a different player. He can get lined up, knows a lot more about what his job entails. He’s more comfortable. He’s made more plays. He’s more confident and he’s growing. He’s doing a good job this camp.”

Just reading between the lines there, I’m not sure how much I’d count on Williams to contribute in a whole bunch of meaningful, on-the-field ways this season, but given that just six defensive backs played coverage snaps against Purdue in the bowl game, adding a player who even just provides quality depth is something I’m calling a win.

Tennessee’s two other DB signees from the ‘22 class, three-star prospects Jourdan Thomas and Christian Harrison, both arrived in June and didn’t have the benefit of going through spring practice. But Martinez was complimentary of both, despite this fall camp being entirely trial by fire.

I’ll start with JT. JT has done a great job. Really coming off a really good scrimmage, where he really showed what he can do and very comfortable. And with those two guys, again, I can’t say enough good things about them. Just like the ones we were talking about with ‘Dre (Turrentine) and Wesley (Walker), is how important the small details are. They’ve done a great job. Both of them we’re not here at midyear (in January), came here in June. They had to learn it. They knew they were behind reps on the guys that had been here since January. It’s important to them. They’re still growing. We had a little setback with Christian, but he’ll be back here in the next couple days. He’s done a really nice job early on in camp.”

I obviously don’t know how all this is gonna shake out. But we’ll know certainly know more after tomorrow’s second scrimmage. Martinez talked several times about versatility and also mentioned at the end of his presser that the coaches really want to play more guys on the back end this year. I think those two components fit together hand-in-glove.

We’re not too far away from camp and scrimmages being in the rearview, with Tennessee’s first game in 19 days. The DBs likely won’t get tested rigorously against Ball State, but Kedon Slovis and Pittsburgh in week two, might.