Mid-term freshman Emmanuel Moseley (5-feet-11, 165 pounds) of Greensboro, N.C., all but locked up a cornerback spot in April with a strong showing in spring practice. The other first-team corner likely will be sophomore Cameron Sutton, who started all 12 games last season as a true freshman.
Four-star signee Evan Berry (5-feet-11, 196 pounds) of Fairburn, Ga., younger brother of two-time first-team All-America safety Eric Berry, will join the cornerback mix once preseason drills begin. Another four-star freshman, D’Andre Payne (5-feet-9, 176 pounds) of Washington D.C., got a head start by enrolling at mid-term and showing steady progress in spring practice. Sophomore Malik Foreman (5-feet-10, 181) also figures in the corner rotation if he can hold off incoming freshman RaShaan Gaulden (6-feet-1, 178) of Spring Hill.
With 2013 starter LaDarrell McNeil coming off a disappointing spring, his supremacy at free safety will be seriously challenged by two incoming freshmen with four-star rankings – Todd Kelly Jr. (Knoxville) and Cortez McDowell (Locust Grove, Ga.). Sophomore Devaun Swafford, who started two games at nickel back in 2013, also poses a threat to claim the free safety job. Fellow sophomore Lemond Johnson will be pushing for snaps at safety, as well.
Senior Justin Coleman, a 5-foot-10, 190-pounder who has made 25 starts at cornerback, is penciled in as the nickel back for 2014. Still, he must fend off incoming freshman Elliott Berry, who is bigger (6-feet, 206 pounds) and faster.
Ironically, Tennessee could field one of the most mature secondaries in the SEC this fall if some veteran DBs prove to be late bloomers. Senior Riyahd Jones (6-feet, 183) may be a factor at cornerback after missing all but two games of 2013 due to injury. Redshirt juniors Max Arnold (5-feet-11, 195) and Geraldo Orta (6-feet, 186) could figure in the safety mix by elevating their play.
If the Vols’ secondary play is to improve significantly in 2014, however, it probably will need major contributions from freshmen Moseley, Payne, Evan Berry and Gaulden at cornerback, from Elliott Berry at nickel back and from Kelly and McDowell at safety.
Obviously, playing freshmen is dangerous in the secondary, where a busted assignment or a split-second brain freeze often comes at a cost of six points. Sutton started every game last fall, however, and proved that a freshman can handle the heat if he's gifted.
And, make no mistake, this group of freshman DBs is gifted. They may be raw rookies but most have more speed, athleticism and upside than the holdovers, who combined to surrender 2,533 passing yards, 25 passing touchdowns and a 56.5 completion percentage last fall.
With superior intellect, excellent skills and 23 starts to his credit, Brian Randolph should be an elite safety this fall. If he proves to be an elite kindergarten teacher, as well, Tennessee’s secondary could be pretty good by November.