It’s hard to look at Tennessee’s roster and find holes to fill. For a team returning 17 starters from a 9-win season, the Vols have virtually every position covered — except safety.
Both starters from a year ago are gone, making first-year defensive coordinator Bob Shoop’s back end a relative question mark as spring practice begins. Brian Randolph started all 13 games at free safety last season and developed into one of Tennessee’s most productive players. The Georgia native finished second on the team in tackles with 70 combined with two interceptions. His counterpart, Ladarrell McNeil, returned from a neck injury to start 10 games in 2015, bringing his total games started with the program to 41 before he graduated.
That kind of experience can’t simply be replaced. What Shoop has on his hands, though, is a desirable place to be with a competition between rising veterans and incoming stars who will make the safety battle one to closely watch during spring practice.
The core nucleus at safety includes Todd Kelly Jr., who played in all 13 games and led the team in interceptions with three, along with new additions in Scout four-star Tyler Byrd and Scout five-star Nigel Warrior.
The position group also now features a new addition of a familiar face. Rising sophomore Micah Abernathy switched from corner to the safety spot and has already impressed his new coordinator during the first week of spring practice.
“The guy on the back end who’s really kind of made the strongest impression and has been very productive has been Micah Abernathy,” Shoop said. “I really think through the first two days he’s been the most consistent performer maybe on the entire unit. He’s been productive, very attentive; he pays a tremendous attention to detail and has been very precise in his techniques and fundamentals. He’s been really impressive.”
Joining Abernathy in a new role is Rashaan Gaulden, the former nickelback who missed all of 2015 with a broken foot after playing what Butch Jones called his best football in fall camp before the injury. Gaulden will still compete at the nickel as well, but it appears he can lock down a home at safety if he continues showing out in spring practice.
“I’m excited about Rashsaan,” Shoop said. “Rashaan’s had two excellent days. Todd Kelly probably has the most game experience at safety, but Rashaan’s had two really good practices. Like I said, Micah’s had two really good practices and Stephen Griffin’s had two really good practices.”
Expect the competition to be fierce as multiple players vie to fill the two voids left at safety. From what Shoop has seen, though, that competitiveness is just what Tennessee needs heading into major expectations in 2016.
"I think that's the kind of competition that's exciting in the spring," Shoop said. "Within the framework of the position, watching those guys help one another out but, at the same time competing for a job, is really kind of exciting."