Off The Hook Sports kicks off its 2022 Tennessee football preseason preview on the top 25 impact players for the Vols this upcoming season.
Kickstarting the list at No. 25 is sophomore defensive back Christian Charles.
Sophomore defensive back Christian Charles, a former three-star prospect out of Chestatee High School in Gainesville, Georgia, is one of seemingly dozens of members of the Tennessee secondary vying for reps at an area of need for second-year head coach Josh Heupel.
Charles made the most of his eight appearances as a freshman and was the most productive signee from a razor-thin 2021 defensive class.
Charles has been described as a versatile athlete and contributed well in his time on special teams, setting up a touchdown after splitting through the defense for a punt block against Pittsburgh in week two.
The 6-foot-1 defensive back tallied his first career start against Mizzou two weeks after his strong performance against Pitt after safety Trevon Flowers was declared unavailable pregame. Charles tallied one pass breakup before leaving the game in the first half. He then sat out the next five games with an upper-body injury.
From there, Charles struggled to contribute to the level that he did earlier in the season. All of his six solo tackles on the year came in three early-season games against Florida, Bowling Green and Tennessee Tech. It’s time for Charles to be more impactful on a more consistent level.
Tennessee’s secondary struggled last season and the going isn’t getting much better heading into the 2022 season. Charles pleaded his case in spring practice to fill the roles of departing seniors Alontae Taylor and Theo Jackson, who spent a considerable amount of time at the Star position in 2021. Charles could theoretically shine at this position, which serves as a hybrid between a defensive back and a linebacker in defensive coordinator Tim Banks’ 4-2-5 base.
Alabama transfer Brandon Turnage may also be a good for for this nickel position, as will Georgia Tech transfer Wesley Walker and junior Doneiko Slaughter – so be on the lookout for one of Charles, Kamal Hadden or JUCO transfer Desmond Williams to make a push for the starting cornerback position opposite Warren Burrell.
The Vols’ reeling secondary withstood a rough start to spring camp. Turnage, Hadden and promising sophomore De’Shawn Rucker were all held out of practice with injuries. Burrell was also reportedly limited at times.
The Vols cannot afford any serious injuries in their secondary this season. Tennessee, for all its prowess on offense, struggled to cover elite SEC wide receivers. The Vols had the worst pass defense in the league last year. For that reason, the surprise breakout of a guy like Charles – who has shown the ability to produce in-game before – could be crucial to turning those negative trends around.
Other prospects that will be battling Charles for minutes this season are Ohio State transfer Andre Turrentine and freshman signees Christian Harrison and Jourdan Thomas.
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Secondary coach Willie Martinez had strong praise for Charles at spring practice. Charles garnered a lot of attention during spring camp because of the temporary losses of Turnage, Hadden and Rucker and made the best of his given opportunities.
“He’s grown in his understanding,” Martinez said of Charles in spring practice. “He’s someone that played a lot more offense in high school, rather than defense. He has grown so much in his knowledge of the game from that side of the ball.”
Martinez will be entering his second year in his second stint as a coach for the Volunteers. As secondary coach and assistant head coach, Martinez oversaw stars such as Evan Berry and Cam Sutton while coaching several talented players at UCF with Heupel.
Martinez has experimented with Charles all over the secondary. During his freshman campaign, Charles played snaps at safety, cornerback and star position in place of NFL-bound Theo Jackson.
Martinez and Heupel have both noted Charles’ positive attitude towards practice more than anything. His flexibility in an area of need for the Vols could make for interesting movement among the depth chart.
“He’s done a really nice job over 13 practices being locked in, focused. Obviously, it’s taking those training wheels off from the standpoint of, ‘Hey, you’re going to try a new position.’ He’s done a great job. He has really taken it and run with it and he has been very productive for us.”
Heupel also held Charles’ development in high regard following Spring practice.
“Christian Charles, he’s a guy inside the program that we continue to feel better and better about just because of the performance,” Heupel said. “He’s a great kid and going to be a phenomenal leader inside of our program. He’s got great work habits. “He has completely added or changed his body during the offseason and the lead up to spring ball. You see him getting more and more reps and getting comfortable through that rep progression on the grass.”