Perhaps the biggest question heading into the 2022 season for Tennessee is what the cornerback depth chart will look like after losing Alontae Taylor to the NFL Draft. Veteran Warren Burrell is back and healthy, and figures to fill one spot, but what about the other — and the STAR role without Theo Jackson around?
That’s what Willie Martinez and the defensive staff are working through right now. The Volunteers aren’t short on pieces, either. Veteran transfer Wesley Walker brings some much needed experience, while he and a host of others are battling for their spot in the pecking order.
Making matters a little more pressing for the fans was the performance in the bowl game, where Tennessee was routinely torched deep by Purdue. The Vols have made that a point of emphasis in the offseason, and Heupel updated the position over the weekend.
“I think they’ve done a better job of the 50-50 balls down the football field, being calm and not panicking, playing the football and the wide receiver,” Heupel said of his cornerbacks progressing through camp. “They’ve done a good job in their fits in some of our pressures and things that we’ve done.”
JUCO product Kamal Hadden got his feet wet last season, and could find himself as a starter this fall. However, he’s been battling through injuries so far in camp. Thankfully for Tennessee, Hadden was back out on the practice field on Tuesday morning.
“Kamal, I anticipate being able to get some reps here over the next four-day block,” Heupel said on Sunday. “It’ll be good to see him back on the field for us. He’s handled himself in a really mature way while he’s been nicked up and hasn’t been able to be on the field. Been purposeful in the way he’s approached meetings, practice, essentially has a plan of coaching guys during the course of practice. I think his engagement has allowed him to continue to grow.”
Hadden was/is the likely favorite to start opposite of Burrell, just as he did in the Music City Bowl with Taylor prepping for the draft. Tennessee needs Burrell to take a step forward in a big way, with some big shoes to fill. De’Shawn Rucker is another guy factoring into that rotation.
“Warren Burrell has had a really steady, good camp,” Heupel continued. “Rucker coming back healthy, I feel like he’s playing his best football right now as well. There’s a ton of competition right there at that position, and that’s some young guys that have gotten here, guys that have been around this program for a couple of years, too, so excited to see that continue to play out. Obviously I want to see the tape from those guys, too.”
Brandon Turnage and Dee Williams are two more guys in the mix at corner, while Walker and Tamarion McDonald handle reps at the STAR position. Christian Charles shifted out to cornerback during the spring, so there’s another option.
This staff did an outstanding job filling out the numbers in the secondary. Now it’s time to piece the entire puzzle together. It’s going to be interesting to see where everyone lands in the opener against Ball State, and you can probably expect a few different combinations to hit the field as they try to maximize the group.