After arguably the best season in his Tennessee career, Rashaan Gaulden tweeted Wednesday afternoon that he was declaring for the NFL Draft, leaving Tennessee short on experienced defensive backs.
— Rashaan Gaulden (@Gmoney_7era) January 3, 2018
Despite the Vols’ defensive woes and injury numbers during the 2017 season, Rashaan Gaulden was one of the best defenders in orange and white. The redshirt junior forced four turnovers by way of an interception and three forced fumbles, and he even recovered three loose balls.
Rashaan Gaulden, here for your turnovers. pic.twitter.com/2WXAomukHQ
— FOX Sports Knoxville (@FOXSportsKnox) October 29, 2017
INTERCEPTION! Gaulden picks it! 3:57 to go. pic.twitter.com/1Kr2cpoU1o
— FOX Sports Knoxville (@FOXSportsKnox) September 16, 2017
Gaulden’s explosive play and drive from his nickel position made him a fan-favorite this season, and his play will likely set him up for an early or mid-round draft selection.
However, Gaulden’s departure means Tennessee’s secondary will enter Jeremy Pruitt’s first season as head coach with a multitude of inexperience in the secondary. The Vols will have just one senior — Micah Abernathy — in the secondary, and only three juniors with any playing time in 2017.
On a positive note, safety might not be a position of too much concern for Tennessee. Abernathy and rising junior Nigel Warrior should compete with Todd Kelly Jr., who received a medical redshirt after a knee injury, for starting spots. Rising sophomores Cheyenne Labruzza, who played in four games before missing the rest of the season with a knee injury, and Theo Jackson (11 games) should fill in behind them, with redshirt freshman and former 4-star athlete Maleik Gray in the mix.
After that, though, things get thin for the Vols. Starters at corner and nickel are gone; Shawn Shamburger, Baylen Buchanan and Marquill Osborne should be in early contention for starting spots.
Redshirt freshman Terrell Bailey is Tennessee’s only other scholarship defensive back. Look for Tennessee to try Jackson and Gray at corner in an effort to help that depth.
Passing defenses have been a thing of beauty under Jeremy Pruitt: his Florida State defense in 2013 was best in the country against the pass, holding opposing quarterbacks to under 50 percent completions on the year. At Georgia, Pruitt took a Bulldog defense struggling to limit big plays and led it to a No. 17 overall defense that ranked among the top ten in turnovers in passing defense.
His prowess at Alabama under Nick Saban is well-noticed, but the point goes on.
However, he’s going to need players in the secondary to coach. Right now, the Vols would have trouble fielding a secondary that could rotate enough to stay fresh for four quarters.
On top of that, no defensive backs signed with Tennessee during the early signing period.
To Pruitt’s credit, Olaijah Griffin, a 4-star cornerback from California, has shown Tennessee plenty of love recently. Elite 5-star athlete Isaac Taylor-Stuart is planning to make a visit to Knoxville before February’s signing day. Nikko Hall, a safety/defensive back out of California, is also giving Rocky Top a look.
Tennessee fans shouldn’t expect the moon from Pruitt in year one, but it’ll be interesting to see what he does with a young secondary, especially considering his “aggressively simple” approach to helping defenses play hard and not think too much. There’s still time to find a few more pieces to the puzzle.