KNOXVILLE — Tennessee’s football season opener against West Virginia and preseason Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback Will Grier on Sept. 1 is shaping up as an intriguing test of Jeremy Pruitt’s ability to work magic on a secondary.
Grier certainly will test an inexperienced crop of Tennessee cornerbacks as he distributes the football to a deep group of experienced receivers.
That’s why it’s important for Volunteers head coach Pruitt, who likes to work with the secondary in practice, and secondary coaches Charles Kelly and Terry Fair to have a productive set of preseason sessions.
At safety, the Vols have three experienced returners and at least one emerging young player capable of challenging for playing time. Cornerback, however, is a position of mystery as the Vols prepare to hit the practice field Friday.
Cornerback and nickel back are the positions with the least returning experience on the Tennessee team. Sophomore corner Shawn Shamburger started against Alabama last season, and junior Baylen Buchanan started one game in 2016. That is the extent of the starting experience returning at cornerback. Junior Marquill Osborne and redshirt freshman Terrell Bailey will be among the group of challengers for playing time, while sophomores Cheyenne Labruzza and Maleik Gray have played safety and cornerback in practices.
Junior safety Nigel Warrior is poised for another step forward after finishing second on the team with 83 tackles in his first season as a starter. Senior safety Micah Abernathy and redshirt senior Todd Kelly Jr. are back with a combined 38 career starts at safety. One storyline to monitor is sophomore Theo Jackson’s push to challenge for playing time. Jackson caught the eye of the previous coaching staff as a freshman, and he gained momentum heading into his second full season with an interception in the spring game.
Pruitt was able to lure four-star Coffee County prospect Alontae Taylor back into the Vols’ signing class in December, but Tennessee missed on the few high-profile corners still available after the early signing period. One late addition to the class, former South Carolina commitment Bryce Thompson, will start the preseason in the secondary for the Vols. Freshmen Trevon Flowers and Brandon Davis and junior college transfer Kenneth George Jr. also will be new to the mix during preseason practice.
Tennessee has 17 scholarship defensive backs on the roster competing for five positions. With one of the starters almost assured to be Warrior, that leaves 16 players competing for four spots. Pruitt will have plenty of options.
After Grier, the Vols get a break from the prolific passers, but the secondary tests resume in mid-October with games against Auburn, Alabama and South Carolina. Tennessee closes the season against Missouri’s future NFL quarterback Drew Lock and Vanderbilt’s Kyle Shurmur, who has menaced Tennessee in recent years. The schedule is not ideal for an inexperienced batch of cornerbacks.
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