A look at the Tennessee secondary

By Mark Nagi

Tennessee had the top offensive football team in the nation last season, leading the country in total offense with 525.5 yards per game, and in scoring with 46.1 points per game. They also set eight new Tennessee single season offensive records on their way to the Vols first 11-win season in 21 years.

In Josh Heupel’s system, UT has become an offensive juggernaut.

Defensively, there is still a lot of work to do, especially in the secondary. Tennessee allowed 289.5 passing yards per game, a woeful 127th ranking nationally. Finding some answers this Spring is extremely important to success this Fall.

“We have kind of been moving everybody around to give them an opportunity,” said Tennessee defensive backs coach Willie Martinez. “We want the competition. We have to be better. We have said that from the get-go here. It’s been really good because we have been able to evaluate more reps from everybody. We told them we were going to give them a shot, and this is the time where they will have the opportunity to know what they have. They have to prove it, and it has to show up on film.”

“It’s fiercely competitive in our room but we all love each other,” said Tennessee defensive back Christian Charles. “There’s no animosity in our room, there’s no hate on each other. If someone makes a play, everybody’s happy for them. The competition is fierce, but we all love each other, and we all want to help each other learn and become as great as possible as soon as possible.”

The Vols would need to be more aggressive when the action is live.

“When the ball is in the air, we have to go get it,” said Tennessee defensive back Tamarion McDonald. “It’s really as simple as that. We have to get better at our pass defense, no balls over our head. So yeah, when everybody is in the air it has to be ours, that’s it.”

There was a time when incoming freshmen didn’t arrive on campus until June. Today, almost all newcomers fresh from high school get acclimated in December or January before the next football season.

The Vols are looking to prospects like Jack Luttrell and Jordan Matthews to make an impact sooner than later.

“I’ve seen tremendous growth from the time they’ve got here,” said Martinez. “We actually gave them the playbook at that time (December 2022). We gave them some reps during those (Orange Bowl) practices. From the time that they’ve gone back to school in the latter half of January and the months of February and March, you take the nine practices and they’ve come a long way. They have matured, become very confident and have managed their time with school. The schedule is the hardest thing to understand when you’re a young player. They’ve grown a lot since December, and they’re doing a good job too. There are not ones, twos, or threes. We are mixing everybody in there and giving everyone an opportunity. They’ve done a really good job.”

Tennessee has moved Doneiko Slaughter to cornerback, a move that might prove to be the most important one of Spring practice.

“It grew on me like you’d expect it to,” said Slaughter. “I’m fine with whatever corner position. I feel like the boundary corner is more physical now since I got used to it. I view it as a positive since it helps you learn the defense better. You stay consistent on knowing what other guys are doing on the field, so you know where to help. Staying versatile will help your game at all times. There’s no negative to that.”