Gaulden looks to lock down nickel spot

Rashaan Gaulden started out by wowing on special teams. Now the sophomore has used that platform as a springboard to a potential starting spot in 2015.

RaShaan Gaulden and Jalen Reeves-Maybin don’t have many similarities in looks, position or playing style, but the two Tennessee players are almost identical in their quick ascension up the depth chart.

Gaulden likens the transition he’s taken from special team star to potential starter to that of Maybin, who jumped from turning heads on kickoff and punt coverage in 2013 to leading the Vols in tackles at linebacker in 13 starts last year. Now it’s Gaulden’s turn to set his eyes on earning a starting spot as he grinds through another spring with a year of learning under his belt.

“I’ve seen my transition kind of like (his), playing a lot of special teams and progressing into a defensive role,” Gaulden said after Tennessee’s sixth spring practice Saturday.

“I’m just trying to compete for that spot at nickel or at corner and give our team the best look we can possibly get. It’s been a great transition just coming from the bottom and now trying to find myself and figure out what I want to do.”

Head coach Butch Jones is trying to figure out what Gaulden wants to do as well, which is why he’s had the versatile sophomore bounce back and forth between the corner and nickel positions. During Thursday’s practice, Gaulden did nothing but play cornerback. On Saturday, he stuck at the nickel for the entire day.

Jones has been vocal in his desire for Gaulden to be able to slide between the two, so the Spring Hill, Tenn. native has sought out his older teammates away from the field to strengthen his football acumen.

“I’ve just been looking to a lot of veteran defensive backs like Brian Randolph and Cam Sutton,” Gaulden said. “They’ve taken me in, getting in the film room extras with them and seeing their mentality from starting every Saturday, so I’m trying to move to being one of them in the film room. I’m just trying to fulfill my role on this team.”

It’s a role he’s yet to find, but one that will undoubtedly come as he continues to impress in spring practice.

“Rashaan is a very talented individual. He can run, he’s very explosive, he can hit, he can cover,” Jones said. “The big thing for him with being a young football (player) is just the overall discipline of that position.”

Playing the nickel spot involves a complex diagnosis of offensive formations. It also forces players to be flexible in their skillset, from being able to re-route wide receivers to playing man coverage to setting the edge of the defense.

It’s all something Gaulden is still learning, but the process has been sped up by his enhanced physicality. The sophomore was put through a more stringent strength and conditioning approach in the offseason that has paid major dividends so far.

“I came in here about 165. I’m about 185 now, so that’s a good 20 pounds that I’ve added to my frame,” he said. “That’s helped me with physicality bringing it to this level. It’s been great.”

Josh Dobbs saw that physicality Saturday, when Gaulden was able to get under his pads and press up on the quarterback.

“He’s a real physical guy. He’s not afraid to stick his nose in there,” Dobbs said. “He’s probably got one of the best press techniques. He’s going to jam you when he gets on the ball.”

Jones has been very pleased with Gaulden’s progression so far and has even hinted at him sealing down the nickel spot soon. But don’t expect the hungry sophomore to give up what got him to this position.

Not yet, anyway.

“I still expect to play on special teams because that’s where I started and I still know a lot of those positions,” Gaulden said. “I take pride in special teams, and if I can possibly get a starting position, I’ll take special teams and do my best at whatever role I get on the defense.”

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