Tennessee’s Secondary is Key
By Matt Osborne
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For a team which is overwhelmingly inexperienced all over the field, Tennessee must rely on its most experienced position group for exceptional productivity in 2014.
After finishing sixth in the SEC East and missing out on postseason participation for a third consecutive season, the Tennessee Volunteers certainly are facing an uphill battle with the return of just ten starters this fall.
Though head coach Butch Jones undoubtedly has the program heading in an upward direction with his high-intensity brand of coaching and nationally-ranked recruiting hauls, fans in the Volunteer State would still like to see tangible improvement in the win column in his second season.
And while most of the offseason attention has been centered around Tennessee’s wide open quarterback competition, the Volunteers also have no shortage of concerns which they must address on the defensive side of the football.
Remarkably, Tennessee is set to return just one starter, linebacker A.J. Johnson, in the entire front seven of its defense. All of this, unfortunately for fans on Rocky Top, is set to take place less than one year after the Vols finished ranked 13th in the SEC in rushing defense and 12th in the conference in total defense.
With concerns abounding with tremendous frequency along the front seven of the defense, the Volunteers will be forced, for better or worse, to rely upon an experienced secondary for leadership and production, particularly early in the season.
Despite the mass exodus of defensive players following the conclusion of the 2013 campaign, Tennessee is actually set to return its entire starting defensive backfield from a season ago. The return of experienced secondary players is unquestionably a welcomed sight to defensive coordinator John Jancek, especially when considering the fact that the Volunteers finished in the top half of the conference in passing defense last fall allowing just over 211 yards per game through the air.
Due to the fact that his defense will be almost entirely unproven at the defensive line and linebacker positions this season, Jancek has already stated that Tennessee will use its nickel package, employing five defensive backs, more than half of the time. The transition player for the Vols will be senior Justin Coleman, who spent the last two seasons as a full-time starter at cornerback. Coleman will still see some action at cornerback this fall, but will likely spend the majority of his time on the inside serving as the Vols’ starting nickelback.
As Coleman moves inside to provide some much needed experience, Tennessee will now turn to sophomore Cameron Sutton to be its primary lockdown corner on the perimeter. Sutton started all 12 games as a true freshman last fall, earning Freshman All-American honors in the process. Even with his lack of experience, he managed to lead the Vols in pass breakups in his first season on Rocky Top. With a full offseason to digest the game film from his first campaign, Sutton should develop into one of the top pure cover corners in the league.
The starting cornerback position opposite Sutton will be open to competition during summer camp, although freshman Emmanuel Moseley appears to be the early front-runner. Malik Foreman and Riyahd Jones will also be given an opportunity to showcase their talents ahead of Tennessee’s season-opener against Utah State.
The leader of the secondary for the Vols in 2014, once again, will be junior safety Brian Randolph. A native of Marietta, Georgia, Randolph led the Vols with four interceptions last season, while also finishing second on the team in tackles (75). Although he missed spring practice due to shoulder surgery, Randolph is a difference-maker when healthy, displaying a tenacious physicality and above-average instincts in coverage.
Two-year starter LaDarrell McNeil will be the final starter in Tennessee’s secondary, holding down the free safety position. McNeil registered 54 tackles and an interception while starting all 12 contests as a sophomore in 2013.
Though defenses are ideally constructed to minimize the production which the secondary must bring to the table, circumstances have forced Tennessee to curtail its defensive strategy in order to bring its defensive backs into the spotlight.
In order for the Vols to make it to their first bowl game in four seasons, Tennessee’s secondary will have to prove more valuable than it was a season ago. For a team which is overwhelmingly inexperienced all over the field, Tennessee must rely on its most experienced position group for exceptional productivity in 2014.