Tennessee Volunteers Football: What You Need to Know About the Secondary
The Tennessee Volunteers will field a strong group of defensive backs in their secondary in 2012. Who are they, and where do they fit in to a season that's pivotal for the future of the program?
Last week, I reviewed the Volunteers' offensive line, which is behind only the wide receivers as the deepest and most talented bunch. There are still a few questions left to be answered in the secondary, but I put it right behind the offensive line as the third-best overall unit.
The secondary has a great combination of experience and youth, speed and power. Senior Prentiss Waggner is the leader of the group, but don't be surprised if sophomore Brian Randolph begins to take a bigger role by midseason from his safety position.
The newcomers have skill and swagger. They might disrupt the status quo, which wouldn't be the worst thing for a secondary that managed only five interceptions in 2011.
From the Vols true freshmen to the outgoing seniors, here's all you need to know about the UT secondary.
True Freshmen: Looking to Shake Things Up
There was fear that the country's seventh-best safety was going to switch his commitment to Oklahoma State at the last minute during February's national signing day. But McNeil, staying true to his word since August 15 of last year, inked with the Vols.
McNeil was one of two future Tennessee players to be named to the 2012 U.S. Army All-American team (Drae Bowles being the other) and comes in ready to get experience for his future in orange, most likely at safety.
Had he not been suspended half his senior year, Bonner might have been a top five cornerback in the 2012 class. But during a recruiting visit to Georgia, Bonner stole some items from the Bulldogs locker room. Let's hope the Carver standout got all of the Cameron Clear out of his system (via AOL Sporting News).
Bonner's skill can't be denied: In just six games last year, he snagged nine interceptions and forced four fumbles. Had he played the entire year, Bonner would've been one of the hottest names in the country. As it was, Alabama, Florida State and even Georgia still wanted him.
Redshirt Freshmen: Vying for Playing Time
After a quiet recruitment to Tennessee last year, Orta was redshirted as a freshman since the Volunteers already had so many youngsters in the secondary. The report on Orta was that he was a little thin, but an extra year of practice and training has alleviated that.
Orta is consistently listed as a backup across the secondary. Barring an injury, he'll have to really wow coaches in practice this fall, but he plays angry, which you have to like.
Not technically a redshirt freshman, Thomas was a part of the 2011 recruiting class but tore his labrum during weight lifting last year, which pushed him to ultimately be a part of the 2012 class. He's excited to be there and trying to make fans remember his name.
Like Orta, though, he'll be fighting an uphill battle in a deep, talented secondary.
Sophomores: Building on Last Year's Experience
The much-maligned (by me) young safety really came into his own by the end of the season, earning Freshman All-SEC honors and even a few second and third Freshman All-American teams. Randolph was one of the few constants in a 2011 secondary that was in flux due to injuries and position switches.
He has a penchant for the big stage, recording nine tackles against No. 1 LSU, eight tackles at No. 2 Alabama and six tackles with a forced fumbled against No. 16 South Carolina. Randolph will man the safety position the rest of his career at Tennessee if he holds up.
Coleman was expected to do a lot more as a freshman last year in the way of interceptions and returns. He has 4.4 second 40-yard dash speed and is the perfect size for a cornerback at 5'11", 175 pounds. Last season never clicked for him, though, and he only started four games.
With Izauea Lanier being ruled ineligible, Coleman is one of the front-runners to fill in opposite Prentiss Waggner as the No. 2 corner. His speed would be great to see in the secondary.
Juniors: The Wild Cards of the Secondary
First, he was a baseball player. Then, he was a diamond-in-the-rough safety at Tennessee. Next, he was a disappointing starter that ended the season with an injury. After, he was a safety-turned-linebacker because he couldn't keep the weight off. Finally, Brewer has made his way back to safety for the 2012 Volunteers.
The wild ride for this terrific athlete ends wherever Brewer wills it. With Brian Randolph taking the form of a traditional, fundamental safety, Brewer has the freedom to roam the secondary and level huge hits if he can stay healthy and take a step forward this fall.
Vol fans were reacquainted with Gordon when he delivered the knockout punch to pesky Vanderbilt last year in overtime. The Nashville native was once the 16th-rated cornerback in the country, boasting offers from Alabama and Oklahoma, but his time at Tennessee has been a bit quieter.
Gordon is the epitome of a boom-or-bust player. In limited playing time, he has raked in two interceptions in each of his seasons in Knoxville. If Gordon can prove his worth to the coaching staff, he might earn the No. 2 cornerback spot and have the chance to make more big plays.
Seniors: Ready to Lead
Recruited by Phillip Fulmer, brought up by Lane Kiffin and coached by Derek Dooley, Waggner has had every reason to underperform as a Volunteer. Luckily, he hasn't exercised that privilege and instead has been the model of consistency, leadership and team-first attitude while donning his orange.
Waggner has played in every single game during his career as a Vol, including starting each of the 25 games since his freshman year. Returning to cornerback where he racked up five interceptions as a sophomore, Waggner is poised for a big senior year in his finale on Rocky Top.
My bet for the starting No. 2 cornerback on August 31st in the Georgia Dome against NC State is Teague. While he's not the most athletic of the candidates, he is by far the most experienced and is dependable.
As for the rest of the season, it's up in the air. Eric Gordon, Justin Coleman and others will push Teague for playing time, but if Teague can hold them off, the secondary will certainly benefit from having two senior corners.