Vols' defense 'right on schedule' three weeks from kickoff
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Two weeks into fall training camp, the Vols’ defense is “right on schedule,” second-year defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said.
He also understands that Team 121 needs “to keep moving forward” as the season nears Sept. 2.
Part of the progress for Shoop is having first-year assistant coaches Brady Hoke (defensive line) and Charlton Warren (defensive backs) meshing with fifth-year linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen.
“On our side of the ball, I couldn’t be more pleased with the staff and the effort that Thigpen, Charlton and Brady have put in and the GAs and the quality controls and the players for the first 10 or 12 days of camp,” Shoop said.
With the defensive coaching staff meshing, players are becoming more comfortable under their direction.
“It’s a just a comfort level,” Shoop said of his players and assistants. “I’m glad they said that. I feel the same way about them. It’s about relationships and developing them.”
Within the unit, several individuals are standing out:
The secondary is deep, and Rahsaan Gaulden is at the forefront of the nickel packages.
Shoop said Gaulden “has had an excellent camp” and that “he’s probably playing the best football I’ve seen him play.”
Behind Gaulden is Micah Abernathy, Terrell Bailey and Baylee Buchanan.
“Terrell Bailey is right now running the third nickel,” Shoop said. “Baylen Buchanan is behind him. If it were a game situation and something happened, we could put Micah Abernathy there, he’s played there in the past, and then Terrell.
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“Of the three young corners, they’ve all done very well. They give great effort. They’re as advertised as people. (Shawn) Shamburger is the one guy we think has a chance to make some contributions at corner right now. He’s probably a little bit ahead of the other guys.”
As far as the safeties’ progression during camp, “the four veterans have all had their moments” and have “been very good.”
“Probably the most consistent performer has been Micah,” Shoop said.
“Obviously, we didn’t have Micah Abernathy or Evan Berry in the spring, so to have those guys back has been great. They’re both really good athletes and explosive. Micah was a consistent performer for us last year. Todd Kelly has also been very steady.”
Freshman Theo Jackson had his black stripe removed Aug. 11 and has stood out.
“If there’s one guy who has probably emerged that I maybe didn’t expect to is Theo Jackson,” Shoop said. “As a freshman, he has a composure about him and he has a high football intellect. The game is just not too fast for him. He asks 200 level questions in meetings and I think Charlton and I are both really pleased with his progress so far.”
The unit must replace Derek Barnett, Corey Vereen and LaTroy Lewis.
Shoop said “of the inside guys, Kahlil (McKenzie) has had a solid camp, but Kendal Vickers is the leader of that group up front.”
He also has been pleased with Alexis Johnson, saying he “has been pretty good throughout the course of camp, too.”
Defensive tackle Shy Tuttle continues to rehab and inch closer to returning following a knee injury. Quay Picou has also been held out and is also looking to return as Shoop did not specify when he is expected to return.
Shoop says Tuttle “continues to improve every day from a health perspective” and “we’re looking forward to hopefully getting Quay back.”
Freshman Matthew Butler has also raised Shoop’s attention and has “done a pretty good job” going back and forth between defensive end and tackle.
Another freshman who “has done a very good job” is Kivon Bennett, son of former Alabama star Cornelius.
Shoop will determine soon if the pair of freshmen will be apart of this years rotation or redshirt.
“These next few days will be really important to see whether those guys are going to end up being redshirt guys or whether they’re going to be in the rotation.”
Shoop “likes” the depth at the Mike linebacker position. Daniel Bituli not being 100 percent has allowed freshman Will Ignont an opportunity for more reps.
Shoop likes the newcomer.
“Ignont has some of that ‘it’ factor to him,” he said. “He’s highly football intelligent and he’s very confident out there. He’s making freshman mistakes, but at the same time you can see that it’s not too big for him.
“I’m not sure if it will be in 2017, but I think Tennessee football fans have a pretty good player for the future.”
Darrin Kirkland Jr. is still the focal point of the linebacker unit and Shoop says that the junior “has really stepped up to where we would expect him to be.”
Colton Jumper who showed moments of progress last season is having a “great camp” in Shoop’s eyes.