Tennessee’s secondary was dealt a major loss Thursday.
Potential starting nickelback RaShaan Gaulden will miss the entire season after fracturing his foot in practice, Butch Jones confirmed Monday. The sophomore was participating in a punt return cutting drill when he “got tripped up” and fractured his foot.
Gaulden's injury is the third season-ending one announced by the Vols since the start of fall camp, along with offensive linemen Marcus Jackson and Austin Sanders, who were ruled out for 2015 with bicep injuries.
“It’s very, very unfortunate,” Jones said. “I feel for the young man. I love him to death, love his family and (it’s) very unfortunate. But just like Marcus Jackson and Austin Sanders, they’ll do a great job in recovery.”
The sophomore from Spring Hill, Tennessee, played in 11 games last season, recording seven tackles, including five on special teams. Gaulden positioned himself to become the starting nickel corner in spring practice and was also a key piece of the special teams unit.
“Rashaan meant so much to us, not just from a DB standpoint, but just special teams as well,” Jones said. “Last year as a true freshman, that's where he made his impact. Not only now on defense do we have to replace him, but we have to replace the productivity on special teams as well.”
Jones mentioned a handful of potential replacements for Gaulden at nickel, including current starting cornerback Cameron Sutton. Malik Foreman, Micah Abernathy and Justin Martin are also candidates to shift inside when Tennessee switches to a 4-2-5 formation and the three have all put work in at the nickel position during fall camp.
“We’ve repped a number of individuals at nickel and that will be an ongoing process,” Jones said.
Martin has been sidelined in recent weeks with a knee sprain but is expected to be back on the practice field Monday. The junior college transfer’s return will add much-needed depth to the secondary now that Gaulden is gone for the season.
“It’s big to get Justin back,” Jones said. “He was starting to do some really good things before he went down, so to get him back to add to the overall depth at corner, to be able to move some individuals around, that’s really going to help us in moving forward."
But despite Gaulden's injury, his No. 7 jersey will still grace the field for Tennessee every Saturday.
After realizing Gaulden would not be able to play at all this year, Cameron Sutton called his head coach that night and requested to wear Gaulden's number in commemoration of his teammate.
“We talk about being nine strong and power of the position, and these kids have done a good job with that,” Jones said. “They take pride in their performance every time they step on a football field. They support one another.”
Expected to return with Martin Monday are junior wide out Marquez North and redshirt junior defensive lineman LaTroy Lewis. Freshman offensive lineman Jack Jones and redshirt sophomore wide receiver Josh Smith were held out of practice Saturday with muscle strains. Sophomore safety Todd Kelly Jr. was also missing due to an illness.
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