Defensive secondary is still Tennessee football's biggest lingering issue

Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel with defensive backs Boo Carter (23) and Jakobe Thomas (30) during
Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel with defensive backs Boo Carter (23) and Jakobe Thomas (30) during / Brianna Paciorka/News Sentinel / USA

Tennessee football had to go through the transfer portal to retool its defensive secondary after a max exodus in December. Josh Heupel and the Vols were able to bring in some pieces to put together the secondary for the 2024 season, but it's still Tennessee's Achilles heel. 

ESPN ranked Tennessee at No. 16 in its top-25 rankings, which would put them eighth in the SEC standings. The Vols are currently behind Georgia at No. 1, Texas at No. 4, Ole Miss at No. 6, Missouri at No. 7, Alabama at No. 9, LSU at No. 12, and Oklahoma at No. 14. With the new scheduling format, Tennessee is scheduled to play three of the teams ahead of them in the rankings this season. 

ESPN's Chris Low identified the secondary as the biggest lingering issue coming out of the spring and the biggest reason why they are. Tennessee lost a lot of players in the secondary and had to fill in gaps through the portal, which could be a problem for the Vols once they get into the SEC season. 

"The Vols lost their top six defensive backs from a year ago, some who were multiyear starters, so there's not really a veteran presence on the back end," Low writes. "But a handful of defensive backs return who played meaningful snaps during the latter part of the 2023 season, including cornerbacks Rickey Gibson III and safeties Andre Turrentine and Jourdan Thomas, who's poised to take over at the hybrid "star" role.

"The big get in the portal was Oregon State cornerback Jermod McCoy, who earned Freshman All-America honors a year ago. Temple transfer Jalen McMurray was one of Tennessee's most consistent cornerbacks this spring, and true freshman Boo Carter and Middle Tennessee transfer Jakobe Thomas are both new faces to watch at safety."

The defensive secondary will be the biggest issue for Tennessee's defense this season. With newcomers gelling with younger players like Boo Carter, it will be interesting to see who emerges as the top defender in the secondary and who is the Achilles heel. 

If Nico Iamaleava can get the offense up and running early in the season, it could offset the defensive struggles until the secondary settles in. If the offense can play efficiently early in the year, it might be enough to help the secondary ahead of conference play and might not be as big an issue as it seems once we start playing football. 

This will be an important factor in Tennessee's early-season matchup against NC State, which will compete for the ACC Championship this season. The test against the Wolfpack will help Heupel and the coaching staff identify issues early in the season before SEC play begins.

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