Perhaps the greatest testament to just how well things have started for the Tennessee football program this fall is the fact that some quality, established starters are being pushed to the brink by newcomers.
As the coaching staff searches for the best players at each position to help the Volunteers win a championship, some pretty good players are on the outside looking in at the starting rotation.
This week, new defensive coordinator Bob Shoop indicated that Rashaan Gaulden would see more reps at nickelback.
That may be a bit of a shock to some, considering senior Malik Foreman seemed entrenched at the position and Gaulden was coming on opposite Todd Kelly Jr. starting at safety. But sophomore Micah Abernathy is getting more comfortable on the back end, allowing Shoop to look at Gaulden at safety.
The redshirt sophomore was going to start at the position last year before a broken bone in his foot just before the start of the season sidelined him for the year.
A potential shuffle is more of a testament to how well Abernathy has played this fall than how Foreman has struggled, Shoop told the Chattanooga Times Free Press‘ Patrick Brown:
I don’t necessarily like (Gaulden) at safety as opposed to nickel. I like him at both. I like him at safety because I think he’s a great quarters safety. I think he can play man-to-man, I think he’s tough and he’s a blitzer, but let me put it this way: The same skills that are required to be a great nickel are the skills that are required to be a great safety. There’s not really any reason I like him more at one position than the other.
Ultimately it’ll be about getting the best five players on the field. That’s really what it’s about, and if ultimately that means he’s a nickel, Abernathy’s here, Kelly’s there or Foreman’s here, Gaulden‘s here, Kelly’s there—I feel very, very comfortable and confident with all those different scenarios.
The guy who’s played the best and most consistent through the first 10 practices or wherever we are is Micah Abernathy. I think that guy’s a real legit player. First of all, he’s an even better person. He’s an ultimate teammate. He’s unselfish. He practices hard and he practices the right way. He’s focused, he’s intense and he’s intelligent. I think he’s a guy who’s going to have a big year.
That’s the opposite of a red flag.
There’s an extreme comfort with UT’s secondary, and considering cornerback Baylen Buchanan and safety Nigel Warrior were the first two freshmen to shed the “black stripes” from their helmets to become full-fledged equals to their peers on the field, that’s big.
Warrior, especially, could be a major contributor early. WNML radio personality Jimmy Hyams noted just how excited Shoop is about Dale Carter’s son, who was one of the most highly recruited defensive backs in last year’s class:
The Vols could be really good at defensive back this year with Cameron Sutton, Gaulden, Abernathy, Kelly, Buchanan, Evan Berry, Emmanuel Moseley, Marquill Osborne, Justin Martin and others. There is depth, talent and enough versatility that Vols fans should be thrilled with Shoop directing who plays where.
Gaulden told SEC Country’s Mike Griffith this week that he has learned all about position versatility from former UT star Deon Grant. Those conversations could pay big dividends.
A season ago, UT struggled in the secondary against quality opponents. The early returns indicate that the Vols are correcting those issues.
A new offensive wrinkle?
A popular discussion on Tennessee message boards this offseason was just how much the Vols could use the I formation this year with Jalen Hurd behind Joshua Dobbs. After all, added that “new” wrinkle in last year’s Outback Bowl victory over Northwestern, and it was pretty much unstoppable.
Hurd met with the media this week, and though he normally is pretty quiet off the field, he had several intriguing things to say. One of them was the openness about seeing some I formation, and while he was coy when asked, the junior 6’4″, 240-pound bruiser didn’t dismiss it.
No matter where he plays, Hurd believes he can be successful.
“I feel like I can run out of any offense they want to put me in,” Hurd told Griffith. “I want to be the total package.”
The Vols aren’t going to throw out their no-huddle, spread-option offense anytime soon. Dobbs, Hurd and Alvin Kamara have already proved they’re adept at shredding defenses with that scheme. But there’s no reason UT shouldn’t run some I formation, especially considering it has one of the biggest runners in football.
Hurd can dominate in those sets, and if he gets to running downhill out of those deep formations, the Vols can be even tougher to stop. Look for that to be something offensive coordinator Mike DeBord explores further.
Byrd is the word
An exciting thing about Tennessee’s biggest question-mark position thus far in camp is that a new buzz seems to emerge each week around the receiving corps.
Last week, the news centered on junior Josh Malone getting more consistent and Preston Williams showing electrifying ability. Though freshman Brandon Johnson was nursing a sore hamstring this week that limited him, he showed glimpses early in camp and when he arrived this summer.
Perhaps the player with the most upside is former 4-star defensive back Tyler Byrd, whom the Vols flipped from Miami the night before national signing day and moved to offense. He’s picking up receiver quickly and looks like he has the ability to be an impressive talent there.
Receivers coach Zach Azzanni may have stolen a future first-round defensive back from Willie Martinez’s unit, but Byrd can help at a number of spots.
“The kid can play whatever he wants,” Azzanni told Brown, “he’s that special of a player.” UT tight ends coach Larry Scott, Byrd’s lead recruiter, added, “It doesn’t matter where you put him. That kid, with his work ethic and who he is, will be able to master any position you put him at in time.”
Byrd caught a touchdown pass in Saturday’s scrimmage and continues to make highlight-reel plays. Each day, the Vols are feeding him more and more, and he’s absorbing it, DeBord told Brown:
He should be able to find his way into the receiver rotation right away.
The road back for Tennessee defensive tackle Shy Tuttle has been long and trying. But it appears the sophomore, who suffered a nasty lower-leg injury on a cheap shot from Georgia center Brandon Kublanow that ended his season, is making strides.
Nobody expects the North Carolina native to be 100 percent by the time the season opener against Appalachian State rolls around, but Tuttle is getting better each day. The Vols are working him in slowly, but he has been participating in individual drills.
Brown tweeted this week that Tuttle‘s plate is getting fuller with each practice:
That’s big news for a Vols team that doesn’t have much depth on the defensive interior. There are some versatile ends who could slide inside, but beyond Kahlil McKenzie, Kendal Vickers, Danny O’Brien and Quay Picou, there aren’t any viable options. UT needs Tuttle, and it needs him soon.
The progress is some of the biggest news of camp so far. It’d be great if he could get some meaningful reps by the Battle of Bristol.
Given all the hype surrounding his recruitment and the dramatic fashion in which Drew Richmond flipped from Ole Miss to his home-state Vols in the 2015 recruiting class, most UT fans have a soft place in their hearts for the big left tackle.
A lot of folks envisioned that the Memphis native would be the franchise bookend of the future.
But after a redshirt season, things weren’t going to come easy for Richmond, and after an up-and-down spring showed some flashes of brilliance, he’s improving every day.
The Vols have three able tackles in redshirt junior Brett Kendrick, sophomore Chance Hall and Richmond, but Richmond is turning some heads lately, especially in the past week.
When asked about the biggest improvement for the 6’5″, 301-pound tackle, DeBord told GoVols247’s John Brice: “I would just say knowledge, knowledge of the position, whether it’s pass protection, run blocking, all that has improved,” he said.
That’s huge news for the Vols, who need somebody to protect Dobbs‘ blind side.
- First, it was “Brick by Brick,” then “My All” became a nice catchphrase for the Vols last year, coming from the traditional “I will give my all for Tennessee” sign players smack when they come out of the locker room. This year, the team slogan is “Own It,” Jones told GoVols247’s Wes Rucker: “I think ‘Own It’ is very fitting for this football team. When you really think about it, it’s about owning everything. It’s owning the expectations, it’s owning your style of play, owning your conditioning, owning your fundamentals, owning your attitude, owning your academics, owning your personal life. There’s so much that goes into it.”
- Tennessee has been very fortunate thus far on the injury front, but a couple of players who were limited this week may see their development stunted a little. Johnson may fall behind Byrd and fellow freshman Marquez Callaway as he battles through his hamstring injury. Stud JUCO transfer defensive end Jonathan Kongbo has been in a green jersey this week at times, too.
- Shoop continually gushes about the depth UT has at defensive end and doesn’t try to temper expectations at all. While commending virtually all the players in the rotation, he told GoVols247’s Ryan Callahan this week that the depth the Vols have at the position is “unique.”
- The Vols’ new Nike cleats generated some social media chatter this week, per 247Sports’ Kevin Flaherty.
- UT JUCO transfer defensive tackle Alexis Johnson came a step closer to playing for the Vols this week when university discipline charges were deemed unfounded by the school’s judicial panel of conduct violations. Though one of the criminal charges against Johnson has already been thrown out and the other is set to be dismissed in October, he remains suspended from football activities, according to the Knoxville News Sentinel‘s Grant Ramey.
Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee lead writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter @Brad_Shepard.
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Source: Bleacher Report -SEC Football