Tennessee’s secondary is seeing the return of a large amount of talent from a group that played well in 2019 and took advantage of a down year for quarterbacks in the SEC.
The Vols’ secondary struggled early in the season with highly-touted sophomore Bryce Thompson suspended for three games and his replacement, Warren Burrell, struggling at the start of his freshman season.
The early struggles culminated in the Vols’ loss to BYU when a busted assignment, primarily from Alontae Taylor but also the whole defensive backfield, allowed the Cougars to miraculously tie the game in its final seconds.
The group slowly got better as the year got on and no one deserves more credit than Nigel Warrior, the one key member of the secondary that won’t be returning in 2020. Warrior earned All-SEC honors in his senior season, recording 70 tackles and four interceptions while also breaking up nine tackles.
Warrior looked like a completely different player in his senior campaign and his play and leadership had a huge impact on the Vols mid-season turnaround. Replacing him will be a tough job as the Vols have a lack of experienced depth at safety.
Sophomore Jaylen McCollough is expected to take over Warrior’s starting spot after starting beside him in the final games of the 2019-20 season. McCollough has earned a reputation as a smart player, and will likely be a key part of linking the fron and back halves of Tennessee’s defense this season.
The Georgia native recorded 33 tackles and a sack as a freshman.
Who starts beside McCollough is a question Tennessee will have to answer in the shortened off-season. Former Overton High School standout Theo Jackson played the most of any safety besides Warrior on the roster a year ago.
Jackson recorded 53 tackles and an interception but struggled to show consistency and keep a starting spot in his junior season.
Jackson’s main competition will likely be junior Trevon Flowers. The high school baseball star has flashed as a ball hawking, center fielder-type safety in his first two seasons in Knoxville, but both have ended early due to injuries.
Flowers recorded 17 tackles, seeing sparse playing time in the season’s first month before breaking his collarbone on an interception return against Mississippi State. Flowers clearly has talent, but whether he can stay healthy and put it all together is the question.
The x-factor here could be if incoming freshman Keshawn Lawrence, the nation’s 80th ranked player according to the 247sports composite, makes an impact as a freshman.
Tennessee is extremely deep at cornerback, returning every contributor from a year ago.
After missing the first three games and spending the next couple knocking off the rust, Thompson had a strong sophomore season. The South Carolina native recorded 32 tackles, a sack and three interceptions a year ago and is expected to start across from Taylor.
Taylor had an up-and-down sophomore campaign finding a way to recover from his catastrophic mistake against BYU. Taylor is extremely talented, recording three pass breakups and an interception as a sophomore; if he can put it all together this season, he could be an early selection in next year’s NFL Draft.
Perhaps the most overlooked member of Tennessee’s defense is Shawn Shamburger. After spending much of 2018 in Jeremy Pruitt’s doghouse, Shamburger emerged as one of Tennessee’s most reliable defensive players a year ago, starting at nickelback.
Shamburger was fifth on the team with 47 tackles while also recording three sacks, 4.5 tackles for loss and an interception. Pruitt and defensive coordinator Derrick Ansley found a nice role for Shamburger and used his talents as a blitzer to make plays in the run and pass game.
Kenneth George Jr. and Burell provide the depth at the corner spot, both playing and showing some ball skills last season.
Tennessee’s cornerbacks could be the biggest factor in the Vols’ defense making a jump from 2019 to 2020. There will be question marks as to how the Vols can get to the passer, and if Pruitt and Ansley can trust their corners in man-to-man defense, it would go a long way to making that question disappear.