How Tennessee Vols football can solve the cornerback problem


Spring training was no waste of time for Tennessee cornerbacks.

Secondary coach Willie Martinez presented this case in about half a dozen ways as the Vols wrapped up final practices. And he said that despite the fact that only one stock market cornerback was able to practice in full contact due to injuries.

Martinez said injured players have made “major gains” by learning the defensive pattern in meetings and studying movies without practicing on the field.

He said moving players to cornerback has been beneficial as “we want to see who can play in different places”.

And, finally, injured players can critique the play of healthy teammates and “learn from reps you didn’t even take.”

Martinez makes a compelling, albeit optimistic, argument. But the numbers don’t lie.

As bad as the count at cornerback is to start spring training, it’s worse at the end.

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Desmond Williams, a junior college transfer, was the only fully available cornerback on Wednesday, the last practice open to the media. Christian Charles, who moved from safety to cornerback to make up for the low squad, wore a non-contact yellow jersey due to a minor injury.

They were joined by four extras in cornerback drills.

Doneiko Slaughter, who went from star to cornerback at the start of spring training, is now injured.

Returning starter Warren Burrell was sidelined by injury. The same goes for Kamal Hadden, Brandon Turnage and De’Shawn Rucker, who are candidates to replace NFL-bound Alontae Taylor at the other starting cornerback.

UT had the worst pass defense in the SEC last season, giving up 273.2 yards per game. Whether that gets better seems as uncertain now as the Music City Bowl in December, when the Vols were torched for 534 passing yards in a loss to Purdue.

This adds urgency to what the UT should do next to fix the problem. During pre-season training in August, these injured cornerbacks need to make up for lost time. The Vols could also add a cornerback in the transfer gate.

Vols are still watching the cornerback in the transfer portal

Middle Tennessee State cornerback Quincy Riley remains a top target for UT.

Riley, a 6-foot, 181-pound, was a first-team performer at the 2021 All-Conference USA as a ball-hawking cornerback who thrived in press-man coverage. He had five interceptions, the fourth most in FBS, despite only playing nine games.

And he still has three more seasons of eligibility to improve even further.

Riley attended the Vols’ spring scrimmage on Saturday, his second unofficial visit to UT. He told 247Sports he had to choose between UT, Ole Miss and Louisville and planned to officially go to the Vols later in April.

Where will the secondary be when the season arrives

Tennessee defensive back Doneiko Slaughter (0) defends defensive back Christian Charles (14) during a drill during Tennessee's spring football training at the University of Tennessee on Thursday, March 24, 2022.

But what if the Vols don’t land Riley?

It’s plausible that Charles or Slaughter could move to cornerback on a more permanent basis. Tamarian McDonald, who is also injury-limited, could move from safety to cornerback.

But it’s more likely that Burrell, Turnage, Hadden and Rucker will fill the cornerback positions when they return to practice in August. They will simply have to make up for lost training time. And Williams could consider rotation if his extra reps in the spring reap rewards.

The coaches, at least, are very pleased with the progress of returning starters Tre Flowers and Jaylen McCollough on safety. And the challenges of spring practice have underscored the need for flexibility in high school.

“If there are five (defensive backs) on the pitch, we’re going to play the top five,” Martinez said. “The guys who are the most versatile, who understand the pattern the best and who have been productive, they will be the first five out.

“We feel good about some guys who can do that.”

Contact Adam Sparks at [email protected] and on Twitter @AdamSparks.


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