The Must List: Tennessee Safeties

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.”

Oh, how the Vols need difference-makers on the back end of the defense. Even when Tennessee had some fundamentally sound safeties over the past few years like Brian Randolph and LaDarrell McNeil, they weren’t top-shelf athletes who could close a lot of ground on ball-carriers or passes downfield. Even the veteran manning the last line of defense right now — rising senior Todd Kelly Jr. — isn’t a ball-hawking defender at all. He may even be better-served playing linebacker. So, entering a crucial season and a pivotal need for turning the defense around, it’s time for some of the athletes the Vols recruited to step up. If they do, it could take the secondary to another level.

MUST

NIGEL WARRIOR, Sophomore

Nobody deserves the hype quite like Nigel Warrior, the son of Vol legend Dale Carter who chose the Vols over Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, LSU, Ohio State and virtually everybody else. Though he was far from ready to play as a true freshman, UT put him out there and let him learn on the job.

Boy, were there bumps in the road.

Warrior struggled to learn Bob Shoop’s defense, and he was rarely in the right place at the right time. Though his talent and ball-closing speed were huge assets, Warrior on the field a season ago was a liability. It was cringe-worthy at times.

But that wasn’t the case this spring. Warrior began to blossom and play with more fluidity as the concepts began to come to him. He was pretty much universally lauded by coaches who saw him take some major steps. Now, he’s expected to leapfrog Micah Abernathy into the starting role opposite TKJr. and give the Vols a different level of athlete in their secondary.

He’s the kind of player Tennessee hasn’t had at safety in a long, long time.

At SEC Media Days a few weeks back, UT senior cornerback Emmanuel Moseley told the media that Warrior was going to be “great” and “special,” according to GoVols247’s Wes Rucker. The Vols certainly need for him to be as many big plays as they allowed a season ago in a forgettable 2016.

Though Warrior made way too many mistakes a season ago, he also made plays, finishing the Missouri and Tennessee Tech games with seven tackles. He can close distance in a hurry, and he arrives with a vengeance when he gets there. The Vols desperately need him to improve dramatically on the back end because an athlete like him can be a game-changer who could help Shoop’s unit take a major leap forward in 2017.

If he doesn’t, the Vols are probably going to just deal with his miscues because they need his speed and athleticism on the field. That’s why he needs to be a big-time player and minimize the mistakes.

MIGHT

MICAH ABERNATHY, Junior

Kelly gets a lot of the praise, but Abernathy wound up with a solid season last year, turning into one of the few bright spots on UT’s putrid defense. He just doesn’t make enough drive-ending plays.

Though that last sentence is true, he does it better than anybody else on the Vols defense, and that’s why he needs to be on the field, as a guy who is like a third starter, if nothing else. Think of his role much the way Kelly’s was in his first two seasons when the Vols still had Randolph and McNeil: He may not be one of the first two safeties to trot onto the field, but he’ll get plenty of reps.

As a sophomore last year, Abernathy started 10 of the 12 games and tied for team lead with two interceptions and six passes defended, ranked second on team with 69 tackles and led team with three fumbles recovered. He makes things happen.

So, to say he “might” be a guy the Vols can depend on is a bit short-sighted. He WILL be depended on. What the Vols need for him to do, what he might do and what he’s certainly capable of doing is developing into a really, really good player. This is a kid from a remarkable family whose brother played college football. He was coveted by Alabama, Georgia, Ohio State and others out of Greater Atlanta Christian School, and though he’s been a nice player for UT, he hasn’t had the same incredible impact that he could have.

After a year of learning Shoop’s defense, he should be comfortable. He should be a guy the Vols feel good about putting on the field at any time, whether it be with Warrior or with Kelly. So, that’s not a guy you “might” be able to depend on; it’s a guy who “might” develop into a player the Vols simply can’t keep off the field.

If that’s the case, it will allow Shoop to be creative on the back end, and Abernathy will be a player defensive backs coach Charlton Warren loves to have as his do-it-all defender.

Big things need to emerge from Abernathy’s senior year.

  • 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.
  • For a look at UT’s cornerbacks “must” list, click here.

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