With Derek Barnett, Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Cam Sutton no longer on the roster, junior defensive back Rashaan Gaulden has ascended into one of the centerpieces of Tennessee’s defense heading into the 2017 season.
The hard-hitting defensive back finished third on the Vols in tackles last year, recording 68 stops with six tackles for loss, four pass breakups and a forced fumble. Gaulden missed spring practice recovering from shoulder surgery, but he has quickly found his form and continued his strong play early in the preseason.
“(He's) had an excellent camp," second-year defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said.
"He's probably playing the best football I’ve seen him play.”
As the nickel-back in Tennessee’s base 4-2-5 package, Gaulden is vital in his role to provide run support and cover slot receivers and tight ends. But the Vols have discussed playing a more traditional 4-3 defense against Georgia Tech’s triple-option in the opener, loading the box with a little-used strong-side linebacker — likely Austin Smith or Colton Jumper.
So naturally, where does that leave one of Tennessee’s best defensive players? What will Gaulden’s role be on Sept. 4 in Atlanta?
“You’ll have to watch,” Shoop told me, grinning.
“But certainly, one of the things you do as a coach is you want to put your best players on the field, and Rashaan, we feel is one of our best players. So we have a plan to play him. He’s going to play.”
Considering Tennessee’s uncertainties at cornerback, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Vols opted to deploy Gaulden outside and have him play corner against Tech’s ground-and-pound offense. It would provide UT another capable body to both defend the run and cover limited passing plays.
Is sliding Gaulden to another position a possibility?
“Uh huh,” Shoop nodded.
In a little more than three weeks we’ll find out for sure.
“It’s a challenge. It’s fun. Being a defensive coordinator in college football is arguably one of the toughest jobs in all of sports because of the variety of offenses you have to face with minimal time to prepare. So I like the fact that (Georgia Tech’s triple-option) is the opening game. It gives us more time to prepare for them.”
— Shoop on defending Georgia Tech in Week 1
POSITION BATTLES GETTING SETTLED?
During Thursday’s availability, Shoop rattled off Tennessee’s depth chart at a number of spots.
While competition remains fierce across the board, the Vols' defensive coordinator noted that at middle linebacker, Darrin Kirkland Jr. had returned to form from his early preseason injury and is the starter at that spot.
“He’s really stepped up to where we expect him to be,” Shoop said.
Kirkland’s backup remains Colton Jumper, who Shoop said “has had a great camp and done really well.”
At the weakside linebacker spot, senior Cortez McDowell is the odds-on favorite to win the job after a solid offseason and start to camp. Shoop said it’s good that Quart’e Sapp is back healthy but that McDowell “probably based on experience” is the clubhouse leader for the spot.
Elsewhere, Shoop said the safety battle between Todd Kelly Jr., Micah Abernathy and Nigel Warrior remains ongoing. Abernathy, now a junior, has “probably been the most consistent performer,” per Shoop, but all three defensive backs are expected to play a bunch this season.
Lastly, Shoop confirmed that freshman defensive lineman DeAndre Johnson is Tennessee’s No. 4 defensive end, while the defensive tackle depth chart is still a bit muddled after Kendal Vickers and Kahlil McKenzie until Shy Tuttle returns from injury.