There are plenty of position groups for Tennessee coaches to concern themselves with this summer. Who will become the breakout star at wide receiver? Which linebacker will win the starting job alongside Jalen Reeves-Maybin? Who will the five guys be on the offensive line?
Those are all very real questions the coaching staff will have to address in the months leading up to fall camp. But when it comes to the secondary, the biggest difficulty so far has been figuring out a way to divide up the playing time between a core group of playmakers who have all shown flashes of brilliance in the spring.
“I thought our guys made a lot more plays. I thought some guys stepped up. I’m just talking as a group,” defensive backs coach Willie Martinez said.
“There’s a lot more playmaking and a lot more competition. I thought the guys did a great job of pushing each other. I think that we’ve done a good job in the standpoint of developing. We feel more comfortable with the depth.”
Martinez began fostering that competition he spoke of at the beginning of spring when he purposefully limited the reps of starting safeties LaDarrell McNeil and Brian Randolph to give backups Evan Berry and Todd Kelly Jr. more experience. The result was a quantum leap in production and football acumen for the backups that has vaulted the safety position into one of the deepest and most gifted groups on the team.
“We’ve limited the reps of LaDarrell and Brian for that reason and (they) have taken advantage of that,” Martinez said. “Obviously Todd and Evan got more experience and they made a lot more plays. Stephen (Griffin) made some nice plays too. We wanted to do that so we could build some depth.”
At the corner spot, Martinez possesses an All-SEC potential lockdown starter in Cameron Sutton, whose versatility enables him to switch between the corner and nickel spots. Sutton is the unabashed star of the cornerbacks, notching 16 passes defended and three interceptions last season, but he’ll have good company on the other side in fellow potential starters Emmanuel Moseley and Malik Foreman.
“We’ve got great competition there,” Martinez said. “Obviously Cam played well at corner, and Malik Foreman has done a great job of pushing Emmanuel and Cam.”
RaShaan Gaulden is currently penciled in as the starter at the nickel position despite a hand injury that required surgery and has sidelined him since the middle of spring practice. Gaulden turned in an impressive spring at his new spot before the injury and has become a coaching gem for his physicality and mental development.
“We feel pretty good at the nickel position,” Martinez said. “Rashaan has had a really good spring and Cam has really come on. There’s been a ton of plays there too.”
There really isn’t a spot in the secondary that Martinez doesn’t feel “pretty good” about, although he understands the age-old adage about always having room for improvement. After an extremely productive spring by the secondary, though, that room has gotten considerably smaller.
“The communication is not where it needs to be, but the understanding of it, they were a lot better,” Martinez said. “I think that the style of play that we’re trying on defense, with great effort, I saw a lot of that too. I saw a lot more consistency. It’s not where it needs to be, but it’s definitely improved.”
Martinez describes Vols secondary