2015 Defensive Preview: Tennessee Volunteers – Defensive Backs

In this series, we are going to take a look at the talent on the Tennessee Volunteers’ roster headed into the 2015 season. The Volunteers are poised to be one of the more improved teams in the country this year, and their success or failure will be largely determined by their defense. The unit saw a lot of improvement last year, but must be even better in 2015. This post will examine the Vols’ defensive backs, while we’ll take a look at the linebackers and defensive linemen in the coming days.

For more on how the Vols will use their defensive talent, you can read here and here.

CORNERBACKS

At cornerback, the conversation starts with junior Cameron Sutton. He is as close to a shutdown corner as you will find at the college level, and offenses generally shy away from throwing at him. Sutton is a long, athletic corner who likes to play receivers tight in press man coverage. In the Vols scheme, Sutton is often left on an island with a receiver and he can more than hold his own. Sutton has the speed to defend deep passes and the physicality to break up the shorter ones.

Here are a few clips showing Sutton in press man defending receivers on deep routes.

And here is Sutton being physical with receivers and using his hands to break up some quick passes

Sutton also can play off coverage, though he isn’t asked to do that as often. In these clips, Sutton plays off the receiver, but shows his instincts and quickness by jumping each route and using his hands to knock the ball down.

Adding to his value, Sutton is a force as a tackler in the flat. Any back or receiver catching a screen or quick pass in front of Sutton must beware. Sutton likes to go low to bring down unsuspecting backs and receivers, but he’s more than capable of the big hit.

Sutton has played only outside corner during his first two years in orange, but in spring practice he spent some time at nickel back. In fall camp Sutton was back outside, but should be able to move inside to nickel if the matchup dictates it.

Sutton is perhaps the most important playmaker for the Vols. He can effectively shut down one side of the field. Some teams have decided to test him more than others, and have usually been unsuccessful. Only 43.3 percent of passes were completed when Sutton was in coverage (29-for-67), which is an outstanding percentage. Pro Football Focus rated Sutton as the third best corner in the nation going into the 2015 season, and specifically noted his coverage ability. Vol fans should enjoy watching Sutton in 2015, because it wouldn’t surprise me one bit to see him drafted in the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft.

Sutton’s counterpart is a young player on the rise. Sophomore Emmanuel Moseley spent his true freshman year as a rotational player but in 2015 he has secured the starting spot across from Sutton. Moseley is another long, fast corner who likes to play press man. In the first start of his career, Moseley stood out against Kentucky. He had two big pass breakups and didn’t give up any big plays.

The first came on a trick play where the receiver ran a double move but Moseley recovered and knocked the ball down.

The second was a play where Moseley was playing tight man coverage and made a touchdown saving pass breakup.

Perhaps the most impressive stat Moseley recorded all season was this: In 195 coverage snaps, Moseley allowed just nine completions. That percentage was the third best in the SEC, according to Pro Football Focus. Now obviously that’s a limited sample size, but it looks like the Vols have another very good corner on their hands in Moseley. The young corner added some weight and has shown improvement in practice this fall. With Sutton on the other side, opposing quarterbacks will likely look to Moseley often, so he will have plenty of opportunities to make plays.

At the nickel corner spot, the Vols must replace the departed Justin Coleman. First in line to do that is sophomore Rashaan Gaulden. As a freshman, Gaulden was a very good special teams player for the Vols and showed off his athleticism and ability to make tackles in the open field.

Gaulden impressed in spring practice despite an injured hand, and he looks to start at nickel. It’s hard to know what to expect without seeing much film of Gaulden on defense, but the coaches were very impressed by his toughness and playmaking ability in the spring. Gaulden was actually recruited as a safety, so he is a bigger, more physical corner who fits well at the nickel spot.

Pushing for playing time is junior college transfer Justin Martin. The new addition stood out during the early days of fall camp, but suffered a sprained knee and missed some practice time. Martin is expected to get playing time at corner as the top reserve.

Junior Malik Foreman also returns. Foreman is perhaps the fastest player on the entire team, and has flashed upside since joining the Vols, but has never put it all together on the field. At the very least, he provides solid depth.

Rounding out the two deep is true freshman Micah Abernathy. The four star recruit has shown some talent during fall camp and is getting a look at nickel. More than likely, he’ll see action on special teams and see a bigger role on defense in future years.

SAFETY

At safety the Volunteers return two tested veterans, as well as two young playmakers. Senior Brian Randolph may be the most reliable player on the team, while senior LaDarrell McNeil is feared for his big hitting ability. Sophomores Todd Kelly Jr. and Evan Berry have as much upside as any player on the roster and will rotate in at safety this fall.

Randolph is not the fastest player or the hardest hitter, but he is invaluable to the Volunteers. The senior is a leader in the program and one of the smartest players on the field. While he doesn’t always stand out, he knows where to be and often helps put others in the right place pre-snap.

Randolph is a very intelligent player, and this makes him an effective zone coverage player. He finished third of all SEC defensive backs with 88 tackles in 2014. Randolph is a very reliable open field tackle, but also provides the occasional big hit, like this bone crushing one in the Taxslayer Bowl.

While Randolph isn’t a flashy player, he is one of the Vols’ biggest keys to success. He is a reliable defender who is seemingly always in the right place, and he will play a key role in 2015. Tennessee just seems to play better when Randolph is on the field.

The other starter is McNeil, another trusted senior. McNeil has gained a reputation for being a hard hitter, often separating an intended receiver from the ball.

Similar to Randolph, McNeil is an intelligent player who is effective in zone coverage.

McNeil showed a lot of improvement last year, going from an inconsistent player to a reliable starter. Now in his fourth year as a starter, McNeil is a leader on the Vols defense. He finished the 2014 year with 76 tackles (fourth on the team), and he’s a consistent tackler on the back end. Like Randolph, McNeil doesn’t always stand out, but he is a steady contributor.

Kelly came in as a highly touted recruit and did not disappoint. Rotating in as the third safety, Kelly made 33 tackles, led all SEC freshmen with 3 interceptions, and started 3 games. While he did make some mistakes, Kelly stood out as a playmaker. He made two of the most impressive plays of the season, intercepting passes at Georgia and Vanderbilt.

The first pick came when Kelly was trailing the slot receiver on a crossing route, but read the quarterback’s eyes, and stepped in front of the outside curl route for a diving interception.

Next, Kelly made a big play in the Vanderbilt game, catching an overthrown pass and dragging his foot along the sideline. Almost no one realized that Kelly had secured the ball in bounds until after seeing the replay.

These plays show off Kelly’s incredible instincts and his nose for the ball. In limited action, Kelly flashed the potential to be the best safety Tennessee has had since Eric Berry.

While he can play the free safety spot well, Kelly is best as an in-the-box strong safety. Kelly is a good tackler, and would not shy away from the big hit. Just as impressive, he showed an ability to make a play on the ball while covering receivers and tight ends in man coverage.

While Kelly won’t likely be a starter and still needs to grow, he is a player on the rise and will see more playing time this year than last. With one more year of development, Kelly can be a star on the defense in 2016.

Finally, Berry is another young player on the rise. While he didn’t play as much as Kelly did as a freshman, he made his impact on special teams, finishing second in the conference with 29.5 yards per kickoff return, and making tackles like this one in the open field.

Berry is probably the best athlete of all the safeties on the Vols roster. He flashed playmaking ability and was one of the most improved defenders on the entire roster this spring. While he still needs to become more consistent and mature, Berry has a bright future for the Vols at safety, and will be a part of the rotation in the fall.

Vols defensive backs coach Willie Martinez expects all four to see plenty of playing time this fall. “We feel good about Brian and about LaDarrell as the starters, but I think Evan Berry and Todd Kelly have had great springs. They’ve earned reps. We feel really comfortable with all four of those guys.”

The two starters are smart, tested, and proven veterans. While they don’t have the athletic or playmaking ability of the sophomores, they will provide the Vol smart, consistent play, which is essential at safety, the last line of defense for the defense.  Kelly and Berry represent a group of young players, ripe with talent and playmaking ability, but not quite mature enough yet. This is a great combination for the Vols. Randolph and McNeil will start and provide steady play on the back end for Tennessee, while Kelly and Berry will see plenty of action as reserves as they grow in their understanding of the game and the scheme. In 2016, they will be expected to start and be reliable playmakers. One more season of growth will ensure that the Vols have a very good safety unit for the foreseeable future.

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