Bob Shoop searching for answers at Vols safety

Tennessee has quite the competition going to replace a pair of starters at safety. Read about the Vols who have the leg up on the rest and the talent in the secondary.

Playing safety for Bob Shoop is a three-part equation.

“In the local paper, that’s the want-ad I put out — I’m looking for guys with linebacker toughness, a corner’s skillset and a quarterback’s mentality,” Tennessee defensive coordinator said last week in his first training camp media session.

He’s got options.

With the senior departures of LaDarrell McNeil and Brian Randolph, the Vols’ vacant safety jobs is perhaps the most intriguing position battle this fall on a team that doesn’t feature many.

Backed by his experience, junior Todd Kelly Jr. is the presumed frontrunner to land one of the safety spots. Although he started just two games in 2015, Kelly Jr. played extensively in all 13, finishing fifth on the team in tackles (46) and first in interceptions (three).

Shoop said Kelly has “picked up where he’s left off in the spring.”

Behind him is a tangled web — albeit a talented one.

Redshirt sophomore RaShaan Gaulden earned a majority of the first-team reps in the spring after returning from a broken foot that derailed his 2015 season before it even started. Junior Evan Berry didn’t spend much time at safety last year but turned heads as an All-American kick returner, thus putting his speed and explosiveness on film.

Shoop said Berry is still getting his feet back under him after a limited spring, but the former Penn State and Vanderbilt defensive coordinator already noticed a difference at the onset of camp.

“He’s explosive — it didn’t take a Mel Kiper to make that statement,” Shoop said of Berry. “The guy had three kickoff returns and an interception return for touchdowns last year. He’s really fast and explosive and big and strong.

“Obviously, he wasn’t out there in the spring a whole lot. He’s an example of a guy I thought the first day (of practice) was a little out of control and (didn’t have) a significant amount of attention to detail. His effort was there, but in Day 2, he made some plays on the ball. He’s continuing to get back into the swing of things, and I think he’s a guy that can have a role on our defense.”

In the mix as well are sophomore Micah Abernathy — a 2015 Under Armour All-America Game selection who mainly saw action on special teams as a freshman — and freshman Nigel Warrior, a 2016 U.S. Army All-American who has been one of the most discussed newcomers.

“The rookie Nigel Warrior has done a good job,” Shoop said. “He’s made a good first impression the first two days.

“Here’s a guy who isn’t always going in the right direction, but he’s got a skillset that merits us spending more time with him and helping him get ready for the opening game.”

The safety depth is extensive enough thought freshman Tyler Byrd — a 2016 U.S. Army All-American who thrived at both wide receiver and defensive back in high school and was considered for either at UT — will work exclusively at wide receiver.

Shoop joked in response to a question about Byrd’s transition to offense, saying, “You had to bring that up.” But as a former head coach, he’s able to zoom out and see the big-picture effect a move like that entails.

“Although we certainly think he could be a tremendous safety and a tremendous addition to the secondary,” Shoop said, “it’s whatever is best for the team.”

Little separation has been established through two days of just shorts, and a clearer picture should take shape in the coming weeks. Wednesday’s practice will be the Vols’ first in shells, and Saturday’s marks UT’s first in full pads.

There are plenty of responses to the want-ad.

“There is competition within the framework of the position,” Shoop said, “but again, I think one of the things we can bring to the table — and I said this in the defensive meeting to the unit — everybody who deserves to play will play in the amount that they deserve to play.

“So I’m not averse to playing a lot of guys. And I think over the course of a long season — especially early when you’re playing all these temp, no-huddle teams that are going to run 85 to 90 snaps a game — again, we’re searching for those 25 points. In the third the quarter in a key third down or things like that, we’ll develop packages that get some of those guys on the field.”

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