Coming out of the spring, the 2018 Tennessee football team looks like it certainly has some talent on the roster, but depth at most positions and overall attitude (expecting to win, being willing to compete on every snap, etc.) are the biggest issues. So in late April when evaluating the team and its prospects for 2018, let me start by stipulating a few things:
- I do not expect this team to compete for the SEC East Championship in 2018
- I think a reasonable expectation for Year 1 under Coach Jeremy Pruitt is 6 wins and a bowl game, and given the schedule I think 7 and even 8 wins are not beyond the realm of possibility with some breaks
- Due to the huge upgrade in coaching; the recruiting pedigree of many of the players on the team; and the simple fact that Pruitt has had a bigtime defense everywhere he’s been, Vol fans should have some confidence that the defense will be much improved over the past two seasons
- At the same time, and for many of the same reasons, there should be reason for optimism at the skill positions of QB, RB, and WR/TE
- Related to #2/#3, there are incoming players that should be able to contribute immediately at a variety of positions, including but not limited to graduate transfer RB Madre London (Michigan State); JUCO All-American TE Dominick Wood-Anderson; JUCO DL Emmitt Gooden; LB JJ Peterson; and CB Treveon Flowers
All that said, easily the two biggest areas of concerns heading into the summer are the Offensive Line and Cornerback. And everyone knows the old adage that “the SEC is a line of scrimmage league,” while at the same time many of the offenses in this league – not to mention that of opening game opponent West Virginia – are well suited to exploit a weak secondary. So, where does that leave Vol fans looking for some optimism about the upcoming season? It’s a game of “Ifs” at these two crucial positions, and after looking at the OL over the weekend, below we’ll take a look at the Cornerback position
Secondary Will Depend on Coaching Upgrade, Talent Development
Much like the 2017 Offensive Line, last season’s secondary was simply bad. And like the OL, Coach Pruitt has not just upgraded the coaching talent with new CB Coach Terry Fair, new Safeties Coach Charles Kelly, and himself, but also experimented with a number of position changes to the secondary. He appears to think there is talent there – although there isn’t the number of former four and five-stars that are at other positions – and has also been adamant that he is going to coach the guys to play the press-man to man style he wants to play.
The good news is that from an overall secondary perspective there is some help that the Cornerbacks can get from the Safety position, and Nigel Warrior looks like he is in ready to combine the coaching upgrade he’s getting and two season’s worth of experience to become the kind of future NFL player everyone who watches him for 5 minutes knows he can be. Battling it out for the spot next to Nigel will be two experienced veterans in Todd Kelly Jr. and Micah Abernathy and Theo Jackson. The key for the first two will be returning from injury and bringing his playmaking ability for TKJr and simply stepping up his overall play for Micah Abernathy. Jackson has meaningfully less experience than the two seniors but no doubt possesses better athletic ability, and as his opportunistic interception in the Orange & White game showed he’s got some playmaking ability of his own.
Here are 8 “Ifs” that the Vols will need to see come through for the Cornerback position to be strong enough for the Vols to reach their ceiling in 2018:
- IF Baylon Buchanan can build on his strong spring that saw him stake a claim to a starting CB spot
- IF the Vols can sign Texas A&M Grad transfer Nick Harvey, who would bring talent, production, and SEC experience to a CB room sorely lacking in all three
- IF Alontae Taylor sticks at CB, spends the summer learning the actual craft, and applies his elite athleticism and “dog” mentality to the position
- IF Shawn Shamburger, who Jeremy Pruitt recruited while at Alabama and showed out when he got an opportunity last season, can take a step
- IF Marquill Osborne can use his strong spring game performance as a jumping off point to reach his 4-star pedigree
- IF Carlin Fils-aime and Maleik Gray can continue to make the transition to CB and showcase their athleticism and physicality
- IF the Vols can get any contributions from newcomers Kenneth George, Treveon Flowers and Brandon Davis – guys Pruitt has brought in himself
- IF Louisianans Cheyenne Labruzza and Terrell Bailey, who both had nice recruiting pedigrees but had a quiet spring, can find their way
Like the OL, Tennessee doesn’t need 100% of the above things to happen. That said, landing Nick Harvey would go a long way, as he would upgrade the CB room a ton. From there it needs talent development from specifically the most physically talented among the group, which includes Taylor, Shamburger, Buchanan, Osborne and Gray. Those 5+Harvey could make a better than average CB corps with the right development and coaching. Getting anything from its three newcomers would be a bonus. IF that were to happen I think there is enough talent throughout the rest of the roster that, along with what should be a very strong coaching staff, Tennessee can have a successful season in Pruitt’s first year and serve as a springboard to quickly getting back to competing for championships.