published Wednesday, March 5th, 2014

Tennessee Vols' secondary looks to build off 2013 improvement

UT defensive back Cameron Sutton (23) sacks Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall (14).
UT defensive back Cameron Sutton (23) sacks Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall (14).
Photo by Dan Henry /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

TENNESSEE SPRING PREVIEW

With Tennessee less than a week from starting spring practice, Times Free Press staff writer Patrick Brown takes a position-by-position look at the Vols heading into Butch Jones' second spring as the Vols' coach.

• Friday: Quarterbacks

• Saturday: Running backs

• Sunday: Receivers and tight ends

• Monday: Offensive line

• Tuesday: Defensive line/linebackers

• Today: Secondary

• Thursday: Five questions

PREVIOUS PREVIEWS

Tennessee Vols continuing four-man QB battle

Marlin Lane has competition in Tennessee Vols' backfield

Newcomers add to Vols' pass-catching options

Tennessee starting process of replacing entire offensive line

UT Vols have much to replace in defensive front seven

  • photo
    Tennessee strong safety Brian Randolph celebrates a crucial interception during the fourth quarter.
    Photo by Patrick Smith /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE — The Tennessee football Volunteers made a large jump, from 114th nationally in 2012 to 27th last season, in pass defense.

And they did it with a secondary that featured two sophomores, a true freshman and a walk-on sometimes on the field at the same time.

After allowing 282.5 yards per game and surrendering 250 yards six times in 2012, Tennessee gave up just 211 yards a game passing in 2013, and only five opponents threw for more than 200 against the Vols.

Yet Tennessee still allowed a lot of big plays, and upgrading the speed -- a glaring weakness that was exposed numerous times for the Vols' entire defense -- in the secondary was a top priority in recruiting.

With everyone from last season back and two January additions, the competition at cornerback should be much greater than it was in 2013, and with incumbent starter Brian Randolph likely to miss spring practice, there will be plenty of opportunities for the returning safeties to stand out before a few touted recruits arrive for summer workouts.

THE CAST

Who's back: Safeties Brian Randolph (second-leading tackler and interceptions leader last season), LaDarrell McNeil (fourth-leading tackler in 2013), Geraldo Orta (six tackles in 12 games), Lemond Johnson (played in 12 games, all on special teams) and Max Arnold (walk-on with 10 tackles in seven games); cornerbacks Cam Sutton (Freshman All-SEC selection), Justin Coleman (46 tackles and 12 starts in 2013), Malik Foreman (10 tackles in nine games as a freshman) and Riyahd Jones (played in just two games due to calf injury); and nickel backs Devaun Swafford (walk-on with 17 tackles and two starts) and JaRon Toney (37 tackles in six starts).

Who's gone: Safety Byron Moore, who made 25 stops in 12 games with no starts, was a senior, and Tino Thomas transferred to Northwest Mississippi Community College after playing in three games on special teams as a redshirt freshman.

Who's new: Cornerbacks D'Andre Payne, the Gatorade player of the year in Washington D.C., and Emmanuel Moseley, who played quarterback and cornerback for a state championship team in North Carolina, enrolled in January.

Coming soon: Tennessee's impressive haul at safety -- including consensus four-star prospects Todd Kelly Jr. and Cortez McDowell and 247Sports.com four-star Rashaan Gaulden -- arrives in the summer, as does speedy athlete Evan Berry, who probably will start his career at corner.

IN THE MIX

Tennessee secondary coach Willie Martinez will like having some options at cornerback, something the Vols didn't have last season. The lack of depth heading into last season meant the Vols were probably starting a first-year player alongside Coleman, and Sutton seized that spot early in preseason practice and delivered a fantastic freshman season. Jones was lost for most of the season with a calf issue, and Foreman was up and down, which one would expect from a freshman. Payne and Moseley have joined the mix heading into this spring, and both players have added nearly 20 pounds already to their skinny frames. The duo should add competition to the position and give the Vols' defensive staff some more options. At safety, offseason surgery on his nagging shoulder injury will keep Randolph out and open up reps for Orta and Johnson ahead of the summer influx of freshmen.

ONE TO WATCH

Here are two to watch for Tennessee's secondary: Foreman and McNeil. Though Sutton pulled it off without a spring practice last season, it's hard to envision Payne or Moseley swooping in and nabbing a starting spot right away. The Vols considered moving Coleman to the nickel spot, where they struggled mightily last season, but never made the move. The development of Foreman -- and possibly the speed of Payne and Moseley -- could afford Tennessee that option, and despite his inconsistency in practice last season, the coaches were encouraged by his progress toward the end of the season. McNeil started 19 games the past two seasons, but based on how he played at times last season, his starting spot is far from guaranteed. He'll have a big experience advantage over the incoming freshmen, but the process of fending off those newcomers starts now for the former four-star recruit.

BIGGEST QUESTION

What's in store for Sutton's sophomore season? Aside from receiver Marquez North, no Tennessee freshman had a better season than Sutton, a three-sport star in high school who made an early impression on coaches and teammates and quickly won a starting job. The 6-foot-1, 180-pound Georgia native showed his instincts and nose for the ball and finished his rookie year with 39 tackles, four for loss, one sack, two interceptions, seven pass breakups and two fumble recoveries. Tennessee's coaches raved about his demeanor and maturity, and he's a budding star for the Vols. Still, an outstanding freshman season doesn't always translate into the same kind of sophomore season. It's important for Sutton and Tennessee that the Freshman All-SEC selection continues his development, and the Vols' coaches and the added competition in the meeting room and on the field ought to ensure that happens.

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.

about Patrick Brown...

Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...

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