Bob Shoop knew Rashaan Gaulden would make a good safety years before the first-year Tennessee defensive coordinator ever donned the Power T logo.
Gaulden caught the eye of his new coach when Shoop was the defensive coordinator for Vanderbilt from 2011-13, and Shoop decided his blazing fast recruit who excels in run support should play on the back end at the college level. Little did he know he would be reunited with his coveted prospect just three years later, moving Gaulden from nickelback to safety — a transition the redshirt sophomore happily accepted.
"It all started with the transition of coach Shoop," Gaulden said. "Out of 10th grade, he offered me as a safety (at Vanderbilt). He felt that that was my niche and that was a comfortable position for me. I embraced that change."
The former nickelback is now making a home at what he calls his "favorite position" on the field. Playing strictly at the nickel last season before breaking his foot and being forced to redshirt, Gaulden is now re-learning the technique that made him one of the best safeties in Tennessee as a recruit at Independence High School.
"One of the main differences is just being the last line of defense," Gaulden said. "In nickel, you get to be in different run reads and you get to be aggressive. From the safety position, I have to learn to be the last line of defense. I have to make that touchdown-saving tackle and just be patient out there."
Gaulden receives stringent coaching from Butch Jones, defensive backs coach Willie Martinez and his teammates like Evan Berry as he looks to use his speed to power a physical personality on the field. That aggressiveness shouldn't be a problem for a guy who prides himself on flying to wherever the ball is during each play.
"You just have to be physically imposing. The physicality, it comes up," Gaulden said. "You have tight ends running down the field trying to block you. You're in the run fits, so you have guards pulling and you have to be able to take on those blocks and you have to be able to succeed. That would be the biggest difference, and also open-field tackling."
The redshirt sophomore is also adjusting to life after a major injury that forced him to miss all of 2015. Gaulden was penciled in as the starting nickelback during fall camp and would have surely made an impact on the defense before going down. After extensive rehabilitation, Gaulden has now pushed the injury out of his mind and learned how to play without fear.
"Coming out here, it's an escape for me," he said. "Even though I did get injured on the gridiron, that's the last thing I'm think about. I come out here, I say my prayer and my brain goes neutral. I'm ready to roll. I'm not even thinking about my injury. I'm just thinking about coming out here and bettering my craft each and every day."
Talks of moving Gaulden to safety simmered last season as the Vols looked to find their best cornerback combination, but Shoop's hire reinvigorated the idea enough to make Gaulden a prime target to take the reigns from former five-year starter Brian Randolph on the back end. While he studies the intricacies of the position, the versatile defender knows it will take time.
But with a defensive coordinator who's always believed in him — even before Gaulden could call him "coach" — the newest addition to the safety room adds a dynamic athlete to a unit littered with talent for Shoop to toy with in 2016.
"I embraced the change, but at the same time, it was a different position that I had to learn as well," Gaulden said. "With the learning, it's an ongoing process. I happen to fill the shoes of one of the most cerebral safeties that we've ever had here in Brian Randolph. That's pretty tough, but I'm willing to take the change and I'm really excited for it."