The Tennessee secondary is a messy puzzle right now. The good news? This staff now has plenty of pieces to try and piece it all together. Alontae Taylor and Theo Jackson are big losses for the Volunteers, which were surprisingly decent on the defensive side of the ball in 2021. However, that Music City Bowl against Purdue shined a light on a big secondary issue going forward.
Veteran Warren Burrell is back. Kamal Hadden returns with Brandon Turnage. JUCO Dee Williams enters the mix, and Christian Charles has shifted to cornerback. Veteran safeties Jaylen McCollough and Trevon Flowers are expected to lead this group.
And now Tennessee adds two transfers to the mix. Georgia Tech nickel Wesley Walker brings a ton of experience to the table. Ohio State defensive back Andre Turrentine brings plenty of upside after spending just one season in Columbus.
“I think both are very coachable,” Josh Heupel said on Monday. “They have a high care factor. They have a good football IQ and understanding.”
Walker has two full seasons of full time action with Georgia Tech under his belt, which is a valuable asset for a group that doesn’t return much experience at cornerback. He’s working at the STAR position to open camp, looking to help replace Theo Jackson.
“Wesley, the amount of time that he’s been in college football, he’s able to take a scheme that he’s ran before and transition it into verbiage that we have,” Heupel said. “That way, not seamless, but it’s been a fluid transition for him. Made a big play out there today.”
Turrentine’s fit will be interesting to follow. He’s running with the safeties to start, which is where he played for Ohio State. Buried on the depth chart, Turrentine opted to come closer to home. Tennessee has two veterans ahead of him, but with four years of eligibility remaining, he’s got a chance to play a lot of football in Knoxville.
“There is a lot of opportunity to earn reps on the defensive side of the football,” Heupel continued. “You heard me, you heard Coach Banks yesterday talk about us having to play more guys, to have competition. We need more guys to show that they’re going to play at a championship level. But those two guys bring some of the football movement that we wanted. And they have a high care factor.”
The secondary is perhaps the biggest unknown as camp opens, and Tennessee now has 30 days to figure it out. How quickly Walker and Turrentine get up to speed is a big factor in this battle as Willie Martinez and Tim Banks establish a core group of 7-8 guys that will play regularly. Tamarion McDonald, Doneiko Slaughter and even freshman safety Jourdan Thomas will also factor in here.
Best guess for now? McCollough-Flowers at safety, Burrell-Hadden-Walker at cornerback — but that’s a pretty wide open battle for playing time at corner.