As the season opener at South Carolina inches closer, Tennessee has at least one answer at safety. Derrick Ansley said as much Monday while speaking to the Knoxville Quarterback Club.
“Trevon Flowers moved to strong safety,” the second-year Tennessee defensive coordinator said, “trying to fill the void that Nigel Warrior left last year.”
Warrior’s void is a big one after his breakout 2019 season, finishing with 64 tackles, four interceptions and seven passes defended as a senior leading the Vols’ secondary. The 5-foot-11, 195-pound Flowers in six games last season recorded 17 tackles, an interception and a pass defended. He had nine tackles in seven games in 2018.
Still, the bigger decision rests at at free safety.
Senior Theo Jackson, redshirt junior Cheyenne Labruzza and sophomore Jaylen McCollough are candidates, while a new name was added to the list by Ansley on Monday: Warren Burrell, the sophomore who played nine games at corner for Tennessee last season.
“Warren Burrell has taken some reps there,” Ansley said of the free safety spot. “ … So we’re still trying to figure that spot out.”
There’s not much to figure out at other spots in the backend of the Tennessee defense.
Bryce Thompson and Alontae Taylor are the veteran options at corner, with Shawn Shamburger manning the Star position.
“A lot of playing time, experience for the guys in the back end,” Ansley said. “Alontae Taylor and Bryce Thompson, those guys man the corner, along with Kenneth George, another guy played a significant role last year and will play a significant role this year. So those three guys at that position.”
Thompson picked off three passes and recorded 32 tackles, including 2.0 tackles for loss and a sack, in 10 games last season, with five passes defended. Taylor had 33 tackles, a 1.0 tackles for loss, 0.5 sacks and a pick in 12 games.
Shamburger was just as impressive, if not more so, at the Star last season, with 47 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, 3.0 sacks and a pick.
“(Shamburger) has done a nice job in camp,” Ansley said.
And there’s more promise at the position in the future, too, thanks to freshman Doneiko Slaughter.
Tennessee flipped Slaughter, a three-star prospect in the 2020 recruiting cycle, from an Arizona State commitment. The move has paid off so far.
“He’s also gonna be able to get in there and play some of that Star position,” Ansley said. “Excited about him.”
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And then there’s Key Lawrence, the former four-star, Top-100 prospect who spent his freshman fall camp floating between spots.
“(Lawrence) has done a really nice job playing safety in camp, playing corner, his athleticism shows a lot,” Ansley said. “So we’re going to find him a home. He’s a guy that can play winning football as well.”
“Not saying he’s like Eric Berry,” Ansley added, “but he’s kind of got that skillset, as far the ball skills, so we’re just trying to figure out where is the best place for him and the best place for the team for him to be successful. So he’s got just as a good of a chance to play this year as anybody.
“We’ll always play the best player. If that means playing three or four freshmen defensive backs, we’ll keep doing that if he’s the best player.”