It’s already the weakest unit for Tennessee’s football team on either side of the ball. They are also already in a tough spot with no true No. 1 cornerback and Warren Burrell out for the year.
Now, things may be getting even worse for the Vols’ secondary. Jaylen McCollough was arrested Sunday night, and while we don’t know what will come of it, the charges are pretty serious. We wrote about the situation here.
Without him, Tennessee football will be down its No. 1 cornerback from the start of the season and it’s starting strong safety against the Alabama Crimson Tide. Josh Heupel said there are options to replace McCollough.
“We feel good about the guys that have played at that position,” Heupel said in his Monday press conference. “We have flexibility in the secondary.”
All due respect to Heupel, flexibility usually means they don’t have anybody. This was clear at the start of the year, ironically at No. 1 cornerback specifically.
Burrell wasn’t great at holding that job, but nobody else could do it. Throughout the offseason, we kept hearing about a wide range of options. What was clear is by having lots of options, they had no real option.
That appears to be the case for the Vols here. McCollough won’t win any All-American awards, but even if he’s just mediocre, he may be better than anybody else they have. So who do they turn to?
“The guys have been trained to play multiple positions,” Heupel said of his secondary. “We will see as the week unfolds here, but I have great trust in all those guys.”
Whichever player wins the job may have to start things off against a Heisman Trophy winner. Bryce Young’s health may still be in doubt, but it’s hard to see him missing two weeks in a row.
Heupel noted Young’s arm talent and his decision-making as elite attributes. However, he also touted the quarterback’s mobility.
“The X-factor for him is his ability to move, extend and make plays outside of the pocket and inside the pocket,” he said. “He does a good job of finding the soft spot in the pocket.”
One player who may fill the void at safety, assuming McCollough can’t play, could be Christian Charles. Did Tennessee football trot him out to speak with the media for a reason?
Charles was initially a speedy cornerback for the Vols. However, even with an array of injuries, he spent spring practice working out at safety. Now, he may get the start, and his first start may come against Young.
“You have to be prepared in all facets of the game, whether that’s tight coverage or constricting running lanes to scrambling or things like that,” Charles said of playing a guy like Young. “You have to focus on all facets of your game, nothing can be lacking when playing a quarterback like Bryce (Young).”
Given what happened in the Vols’ first game against a Power Five foe without Burrell, there is obviously reason for concern. They almost blew a 38-21 lead to the Florida Gators, allowing over 450 yards through the air.
You could point to how well the defense played last week against the LSU Tigers. However, LSU gives up lots of sacks, so the Vols could cash in on bringing more pressure. They also had an array of special teams miscues.
Simply put, some factors from that game won’t be at play here. To be fair, Alabama may still be without Young this week. Also, Charles noted one thing that should help him: facing Tennessee football’s receivers in practice.
“Having the best wide receiver core in the country definitely helps you get prepared every week,” he said “You’re not seeing a slouch at all ever at practice. You’re getting a guy’s 100-percent effort every week at practice, and I feel like that prepares us so much leading up to game day, just getting those high-speed, real high-value reps because every rep with any receiver on our team is very, very valuable because they’re all super talented and have a lot to offer.”
Every other defensive back for the Vols is facing those receivers too, though, and that hasn’t stopped the unit from struggling. It simply has too many limitations, and McCollough being out only makes that worse.