6. Free safety
Strong safety is probably set with Nigel Warrior. The son of legendary Vols cornerback Dale Carter Jr., Warrior is one of the guys who was able to emerge onto the scene last year, joining Trey Smith as one of the few bright spots on the roster.
But at free safety, it’s going to be a battle between two seniors. Micah Abernathy was the starter there last year and is a returning veteran. However, he struggled significantly at the position at times last year and in 2016.
Meanwhile, Todd Kelly Jr., who was reminiscent of Warrior his first two years of playing safety on Rocky Top, returns for his final season after redshirting his senior year, last year, due to injury and then a hectic offseason. Who’s going to get the job?
On paper, it belongs to Kelly. He’s a more proven player than Abernathy and has a ton of talent, which he demonstrated before all the issues hit the defense in 2016 and then he got hurt in 2017. However, will he be himself coming back from injury?
Also, Abernathy, although inconsistent, has shown flashes of talent. And he was laboring under a system last year that just didn’t gel. Butch Jones brought a random collection of staff members on defense to work with Bob Shoop as coordinator, and it clearly just didn’t work out.
With the move to a 3-4 this year and the issues in the secondary from the spring, the veterans at safety will be a big deal. As a result, somebody needs to step up between Abernathy and Kelly. And they need to emerge this preseason before the Vols face their brutal opener against the West Virginia Mountaineers.