KNOXVILLE – Tennessee opens spring practice on Saturday. It will be the first glimpse of coach Butch Jones’ initial UT squad and several positions will be up for grabs, starting in the first practice.
Nooga.com will preview each position group leading up to the first practice on March 9.
Gone: Prentiss Waggner (graduation), Marsalis Teague (graduation), Rod Wilks (graduation), Deion Bonner (left team in January)
Returning: Eric Gordon (SR); Byron Moore (SR); Brent Brewer (SR); Naz Oliver (SR); Jaron Toney (JR); Justin Coleman (JR); Daniel Gray (SO); Brian Randolph (SO); Geraldo Orta (SO); Tino Thomas (RS FR)
Early enrollees: Riyahd Jones (3-star JUCO); Jalen Reeves-Maybin (4-star); Lemond Johnson (3-star)
Arriving in summer: Malik Foreman (3-star); Cameron Sutton (3-star)
Key injuries: Reeves-Maybin recently had shoulder surgery. Randolph is coming off a torn ACL last season.
Outlook: The quantity in the secondary is something the Vols can feel pretty good about going into 2013. They return seven players who have been credited with at lest one career start and are bringing in three early enrollees along with two more freshmen in the summer to bolster the group.
The overall speed and talent level of the group is still to be determined, though. This unit struggled to prevent big plays from opponents last season – a problem that must be corrected before 2013.
There’s a little more optimism at safety, where Brian Randolph will return after missing most of the 2012 after tearing his ACL against Florida in Week 3. Known as the “quarterback of the defense” before his injury, the redshirt sophomore should immediately help stabilize the unit once he returns to practice at full speed.
He’s joined by seniors Byron Moore and Brent Brewer along with sophomore LaDarrell McNeil. Moore and Brewer have the experience edge, but McNeil showed some potential in his playing time as a true freshman in 2012. At 6-1, 214 pounds, Brewer is a candidate to be used as a linebacker in some packages.
Cornerback is more of a mystery. Justin Coleman and Daniel Gray have both started in the past, but they have each been burned deep on numerous occasions. That’s a trend that must stop for the Vols. Eric Gordon and Jaron Toney are experienced nickelbacks who are more comfortable covering slot receivers and bring a lot of value when facing teams that utilize the spread offense. Riyahd Jones, a junior-college transfer, brings good size to the corner position at 6-foot, 186 pounds. Junior college players aren’t normally brought in to sit on the bench and develop, so he’ll get a shot at playing early.
Tino Thomas, Naz Oliver and Geraldo Orta have all been slowed by injury during their UT career, but will all look forward to a new start under a new coach.
Quotable: Secondary coach Willie Martinez on improving last year’s porous D:
"You win in this league because you play great defense. The defense has to play at a championship level. It starts there – it starts with getting the right plays and then putting in the right scheme.”
By the numbers:
• Gordon: 33 games (15 starts) 104 tackles, 6 INTs, 10 TFLs
• Coleman: 24 games (13 starts) 69 tackles, 5 pass deflections, 3.5 TFLs
• Randolph: 15 games (11 starts) 77 tackles: 4 pass deflections, FF
• Brewer: 33 games (16 starts) 81 tackles, 3 pass deflections, 5 TFLs
• McNeil: 11 games (7 starts) 58 tackles, FF, FR
• Gray: 8 games (1 start), 6 tackles
• Toney: 16 games (3 starts), 42 tackles, 2 TFLs, 2 pass deflections
Projected initial spring depth chart: Randolph and McNeil might be the first safety duo, but Moore could be listed as a starter there as well. Coleman, Gray and Gordon are likely the top three corners with Jones pushing them early.
Daniel Lewis covers University of Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga