The Must List: Tennessee Cornerbacks

With the start of fall camp right around the corner, it’s time to look at some picks to prosper at each position.

Over the next few days leading up to the beginning of practice, we’ll examine each position and spotlight a player who the Vols desperately need to perform well as well as one who could elevate the team if he lives up to expectations.

Think of these as the old Chicago White Sox WGN announcers’ “picks to click.”

There’s no denying the atrocity of Tennessee’s defensive backs the past two years under former assistant Willie Martinez. The lack of development had to be a major factor in head coach Butch Jones parting ways with his long-time friend after the ’16 season. Technique adjustments is a major reason why Jones went out and convinced North Carolina assistant Charlton Warren to head to Rocky Top. Now, maybe the defensive backs will turn their heads when the ball is coming. That on-ball defense is an area where UT needs major improvements, and if those basic fundamentals can get fixed, the talent certainly abounds back there. The biggest question is can Warren tap into it?

 

MUST

JUSTIN MARTIN, Senior

A perfect example of that limitless potential that has failed to find the football field with any real success in Knoxville is Justin Martin, the former Overton product who was a coveted defensive back recruit after a season in junior college. Many of the nation’s top teams wanted him, and he chose to come back to his home state rather than go to LSU, Alabama, Texas A&M or a number of other programs that wanted him.

After a decent sophomore season where Martin looked like he’d possibly be able to live up to massive expectations, he suffered through a horrible junior season where the Vols tried to avoid putting him on the field at all. That’s unfathomable for a 6’1″, 196-pound speedy specimen who’d started all 13 games and started six while showing flashes the year before. But everything unraveled for Martin last season. He also was suspended for the Georgia game for a violation of team rules.

If anybody needed a fresh start, it was the Nashville native. Enter Warren, and with only one year left to prove he is an NFL prospect, Martin found a renewed dedication this spring under the first-year assistant. He was one of the stories of camp.

“As we went through the spring Justin Martin was the most improved player in the spring,” defensive coordinator Bob Shoop told GoVols247’s Patrick Brown. “I mean, he had a really, really good spring. He’s grown and matured and developed, and he’s done an outstanding job. We have high expectations for him coming into camp.”

 

Maybe that’s standard Shoop lip service, but if it is, he, Jones and others preached it consistently the past few months. With senior transfer Shaq Wiggins entering the equation to give the Vols an almost certain starter with experience at Georgia and Louisville, and with Emmanuel Moseley entering his senior season with a fresh start, too, considering he may be the biggest culprit in the entire secondary when it came to playing the ball the past two years, it’s possible UT could have a veteran, talented trio. Those seniors must step up.

Martin is a next-level talent. If he plays with the swagger and confidence he displays off the field, the Vols really could have a turnaround season from a difference-making player. His transformation is crucial to this defense.

MIGHT

CHEYENNE LABRUZZA, Freshman

There’s no way the Vols can make it out of the season with just three serviceable cornerbacks. Rashaan Gaulden seems locked into the nickelback position, and Marquill Osborne is virtually a lock to get some playing time at corner and perhaps even nickel, too. Baylen Buchanan is a talented rising sophomore who could make some noise. But when it comes to true cornerbacks, the Vols may have to lean on some freshmen.

Though they weren’t highly rated, the trio UT brought in at the position — Cheyenne Labruzza, Shawn Shamburger and Terrell Bailey — have high ceilings. There has been plenty of buzz thus far about Labruzza, a 3-star prospect from Louisiana who was a very early pledge to UT. Though some of the nation’s top teams came calling for his commitment, and though homestate LSU tried to steal him away late when Ed Orgeron took over as the head coach, Labruzza stayed firm with his commitment.

Truth be told, the Tigers were in on him from the start, but Labruzza fell in love with the Vols, and he could wind up being one of the steals of the entire class.

A big reason for his decision to attend UT was former Vol JJ McCleskey, who trained Labruzza when he was in high school in Albany, Louisiana. Though McCleskey’s son, Jalen, is a rising star at Oklahoma State, the elder McCleskey still loves the Vols, where he was a walk-on-turned-star in the 1980s. He deserves a big assist for getting Labruzza to give Rocky Top a look, where he eventually fell in love. It looks like he may have a similar impact as an underrated prospect that his teacher did.

GoVols247’s Ryan Callahan told WBIR.com that Labruzza could reach the field early.

“It looks like he’s got as good a chance as anyone of coming in and playing right away in the secondary, despite having a knee injury during his senior season that’s forced him to rehab most of the offseason. But no doubt a guy who looks like one of the higher upside players that Tennessee is adding at the cornerback spot and because of the Vols lack of proven depth there, should have a chance to come in and challenge early, even as a summer arrival, for the Vols this year.”

He has looked the part so far after arriving on campus this summer, according to sources. At 6’0″, 188 pounds, Labruzza has great size, and he’s a technician much like former Vol Cameron Sutton was. It’s a cliche to say he’s a student of the game, but Labruzza does seem like one of those kids who continually works to perfect his craft.

With that kind of work ethic, it’s not hard to believe he will get on the field early. There’s no question Labruzza will help on special teams right away, and if the Vols can work him in early, he’ll help in the secondary as well.

  • For a look at UT’s quarterbacks “must” list, click here.
  • For a look at UT’s running backs “must” list, click here.
  • For a look at UT’s wide receivers/tight ends “must” list, click here.
  • For a look at UT’s offensive line “must” list, click here.
  • For a look at UT’s defensive ends “must” list, click here.
  • For a look at UT’s defensive tackles “must” list, click here.
  • For a look at UT’s linebackers “must” list, click here.

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