Tennessee football position preview: Defensive backs will face fresh competition for jobs

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The eighth in a series of position-by-position reviews of the Tennessee football team with an eye toward the start of spring practice in March.

Justin Coleman warms up before the Kentucky game (photos by Evan Woodbery)

KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — Tennessee is returning all of its starters and more than 90 percent of its snaps at defensive back in 2014, which might normally be construed as good news.

But as the Vols’ defense has struggled at times over the last two years, the defensive backs have taken a heavy load of the blame.

While not all that criticism was fair, Tennessee’s lack of speed and depth were factors at times in 2013. That should ensure that no one’s job is safe in 2014.

Well, almost no one.

Cameron Sutton, who played a team-high 746 snaps on defense as a true freshman in 2013, can probably be safely penciled in as one of the cornerbacks.

Justin Coleman could be an option to shift to nickel if the Vols’ can find another Sutton waiting to blossom among their crop of new players.

Brian Randolph and LaDarrell McNeil could also face added competition. At the very least, all the starters should have backups that coaches feel more comfortable giving playing time.

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Byron Moore was a valuable veteran reserve but the Vols should have plenty of competent replacements available. Tino Thomas never made an impact, even on special teams, and departed the program at the semester break.

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Even if the talent is still ascending to SEC level, coaches won’t be able complain about lack of bodies in the secondary in 2014. In addition to six new recruits, the Vols have at least three solid walk-ons in the defensive backfield. Todd Kelly and Cortez McDowell could both push for quick playing time when they arrive this summer.

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Projecting starters is difficult or impossible beyond this year. I think it’s a good bet that Coleman joins Sutton in the lineup, perhaps at nickel. Even if Randolph and McNeil aren’t unseated by McDowell or Kelly, it would still help to have a third safety in the rotation to split up some reps and apply pressure in practice.

From a numbers perspective, the Vols have the potential for solid depth in the next two seasons. But upgrading talent — and speed — will continue to be the name of the game in the 2015 and 2016 recruiting cycles.

A note on this series: As National Signing Day approaches, we’ll review each of Tennessee’s positions with an eye toward spring football in 2014. I’ll update the spreadsheets as players commit, sign, enroll or leave. Click on the links for previews of the offensive linerunning backsreceiversquarterbackstight endsdefensive line and linebackers.

A note on the statistics: The snap count shown in the first graphic includes only offensive snaps. It does not count special teams. The statistics are unofficial and come from our snap-by-snap database. “YPP” is yards per play, or simply the number of yards Tennessee gained while the player was on the field, divided by the player’s total snaps. “Adjusted YPP” adjusts the average for various factors, including game, situation, formation, down, distance and position. “Impact factor” is the degree to which a player’s adjusted YPP outperformed the average. A factor of 100 is average; above that is better, lower is worse. You should view Adjusted YPP and Impact Factor as “interesting” stats and not necessarily relevant ones. Someone who plays every snap will, by definition, have an Impact Factor of 100. On the other end, the small sample size of many reserves means just one or two plays can significantly shift their score.