Tennessee’s secondary is filled with young talent that has the potential to make a big splash this season for the Vols, especially at a position of need.
Though Tennessee had the fourth best pass defense in the NCAA last season, allowing just over 161 yards per game, this could be attributed to the defense’s inability to stop the run, ranking 126th in run defense last year.
Tennessee’s secondary was also largely unable to create turnovers last season, recording just five interceptions total. This has been an area in which head coach Jeremy Pruitt has stressed improvement.
“You’re probably only as good as your secondary,” Pruitt said. “That allows you to put pressure on the other team. We’ve got to make improvement there.”
Besides the young talent, the Vols do have veterans returning to anchor the secondary. The most experienced is likely senior safety Micah Abernathy, who has appeared in almost every game since his freshman season, starting in 22 games in his Tennessee career.
Abernathy’s claim to fame is his tackling ability, recording 159 tackles, four of which were for a loss, in his career. His speed has been criticized before, and he has given up a couple of big plays in his career, but Abernathy is a veteran safety that should play a critical role for Tennessee this year.
The other safety Tennessee has is junior Nigel Warrior, a player that Pruitt recruited at Alabama. The Duluth, Georgia native was added to the 2018 Bednarik Award Watchlist, an award given to the defensive player deemed the best in the nation.
Warrior has made his name at Tennessee as a hard-hitting safety, and a look at his film will tell you why. With just 105 tackles in two years, Warrior does not let a lot of players get past him. His lone interceptions went for a touchdown last season against Missouri. He has the edge needed to play safety in the SEC, and he could be a big contributor for Tennessee this season.
The cornerback situation may be one of the more interesting battles to watch this season, as the Vols have two freshmen that could eventually end up starting outside.
“We’re all trying to get better,” Abernathy said. “We’re all working hard to get better on the field. Just trying to get better every day.”
The first is Alontae Taylor, who entered Tennessee as a wide receiver, and is listed on the roster as a wide receiver and a corner. He was ranked the number 21 wide receiver in last year’s recruiting class, and he played almost everywhere at Coffee County High School before coming to Tennessee.
At Coffee County, Taylor totaled 8,225 yards on offense and 75 touchdowns. Still, the Vols are giving him a look at corner, and for good reason. At Tennessee’s recent open practice and fan day, Taylor had two interceptions, showcasing his versatility.
The other freshman is Bryce Thompson, a longtime South Carolina commit who eventually switched his pledge to Tennessee late after National Signing Day, and he may end up being a late gem for the Vols.
Thompson, as well, made his name known on offense coming out of high school. At Dutch Fork High School, he scored 41 touchdowns in 24 games played, logging 2,300 all purpose yards. Like Taylor, Thompson has made his name at Tennessee at the cornerback position, showcasing obvious athleticism in the secondary.
The other player to likely to see significant time at corner is junior Baylen Buchanan. Though he has only seen 19 games of action in his two years at Tennessee, starting in one, Buchanan has continued to turn heads all fall camp long and has earned himself a solid spot in Tennessee’s secondary.
Tennessee’s secondary will face maybe its toughest challenge of the season as they will face Heisman hopeful Will Grier and the no. 17 West Virginia Mountaineers in the season opener.
“They’re a good offense,” Abernathy said. “They do a lot of things well. Regardless of who it is, we’re going to prepare as hard as we can.”