Bob Shoop knows what makes a good safety. He's seen quite a few in his 27 years of coaching, after all. Tennessee's first-year defensive coordinator is now tasked with finding the best two to replace starters on the back end who combined for 88 starts in their careers. With Brian Randolph and LaDarrell McNeil graduated, Shoop sees three names as potential replacements heading into the 2016 season.
Todd Kelly Jr., Rashaan Gaulden and Micah Abernathy have all impressed this spring as they compete for the two open spots, prompting a smile from Shoop as he details why the position with the biggest question mark may be the defense's strength in the end.
The most experienced of the bunch is Todd Kelly Jr., who started two games last year and played in all 13 as he gained extensive reps at strong safety. The rising junior led the team with three interceptions and finished fifth in tackles with 44 total in 2015. Confidence is building with the Knoxville native, and it's easy to spot as he patrols the back end of the defense, calculating coverages and speaking up to align the rest of his unit.
"Todd Kelly has the most game experience and he's starting to practice a lot better," Shoop said. "A lot better isn't the right word, but more consistently. He's doing everything he wants. He communicates, he understands the package. I think he's starting to develop some confidence."
The second player that stands out to Shoop is one he's known for a couple of years. The former Penn State and Vanderbilt defensive coordinator recruited Rashaan Gaulden when he was with the Commodores, beginning a budding relationship with his current safety candidate that has blossomed into a friendship. Gaulden, who played mostly nickelback last season before a broken foot in fall camp ended his season, is transitioning back to his high school position now with Shoop at the helm.
"Rashaan is so talented," Shoop said. "I've always known that about him. We've had a relationship for a long, long time. He's fast, he can cover people, he's got a lot of skills of a corner and a nickel, and he's got the desire to hit like a safety. His problem right now is learning the position, the reps, the experience, things like that. He's not always in the right place, but he's always going 100 miles an hour and that's correctable."
The third option at safety currently developing is Micah Abernathy, the adaptable playmaker who Shoop is trying to get on the field at all costs. Abernathy played himself into Tennessee's current dime package and is still competing for a starting job as spring progresses.
"Micah is a very versatile player," he said. "We're trying to find a way to get Micah Abernathy on the field. He's played nickel in the past. He's played strong safety for us in the spring. In our three down package, which is essentially our dime or what we call the Cheetah, we've tried to find a way to get him on the field with four or five receivers, and he's really excited about that."
So what makes a good safety to Shoop?
"If you were putting a want ad in the paper for a safety, I always say you've got to have linebacker toughness ... corner skills ... and a quarterback mentality," he said.
Three players are starting to answer that want ad for the Vols. That's good news for the job openings as Tennessee looks to the future.