The Tennessee Vols secondary should be practicing with a sense of urgency. Its play could prove pivotal in UT’s biggest games.
The Vols will play five teams — Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Texas A&M and Auburn — that are ranked in the Top 25 of the Amway Coaches Poll. All five of them will test UT’s pass defense.
The test became more difficult when the SEC announced its revised, conference-only schedule. Texas A&M and Auburn both have experienced quarterbacks and receivers.
UT has experience of its own at cornerback, which should help against the passing attacks coming its way.
Bryce Thompson, an All-SEC candidate, and Alontae Taylor have two seasons of starting experience. Kenneth George also has starting experience, and Warren Burrell started some last season as a freshman. One of Tennessee’s most acclaimed signees in the 2020 class — Key Lawrence of Nashville — should contribute as a freshman.
There’s also experience at the back end of the secondary, which will feature safety Jaylen McCollough and nickel back Shawn Shamburger.
UT’s secondary will need help from its defensive front. The Vols lost their best pass rusher in outside linebacker Darrell Taylor, who had 8.5 sacks last season.
Perhaps, Kivon Bennett and Deandre Johnson can become more prominent in UT’s pass rush. Tennessee also could use more of a push from its returning front three of Greg Emerson, Aubrey Solomon and Darel Middleton.
Their play could be as crucial as the secondary’s against Tennessee’s toughest opponents.
The Tide will have one of the best wide receiver tandems in the country in Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith. Smith had 68 catches for 1,256 yards and 14 touchdowns last season. Waddle has averaged 18.1 yards on 78 career catches.
Both are projected to be taken in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft.
Quarterback Mac Jones should benefit from last season’s experience. He started four games after All-American Tua Tagovailoa was sidelined by a hip injury in November.
Waiting in the wings will be freshman Bryce Young, a five-star recruit who would give Alabama a running threat at quarterback.
Sprinter Anthony Schwartz and Seth Williams combined for 100 catches last season. UT should remember them from their trip to Auburn two years ago.
Schwartz, considered the fastest player in the SEC, showed off his speed on a 76-yard touchdown reception. He also carried the ball three times for 44 yards. Williams had five catches for 85 yards and a touchdown.
Eli Stove will give sophomore quarterback Bo Nix another experienced receiver. Nix, a former five-star recruit, started as a freshman.
Florida’s receivers will be especially troublesome because of their size.
Tight end Kyle Pitts, projected as a first-round draft choice, is 6-foot-6. Wide receiver Trevon Grimes, who chose to forgo the NFL Draft and return for his senior season, is 6-5.
Pitts had 54 catches last season for 649 yards, and Grimes had 33 receptions for 491 yards. Both made big plays against UT. Pitts had four catches for 62 yards and a touchdown. Grimes had two catches for 60 yards.
Florida’s offense is in good hands on the passing end, too. Quarterback Kyle Trask returns after completing 66.7 percent of his passes for 2,941 yards and 25 touchdowns last season.
The Bulldogs might not have as many proven receivers as the other four nationally ranked teams on Tennessee’s schedule. But sophomore wide receiver George Pickens will present a huge challenge after starring as a freshman with 46 catches for 727 yards.
Pickens’ athleticism and penchant for acrobatic catches enable him to routinely win one-on-one matchups.
No matter which heralded quarterback — either Southern California transfer J.T. Daniels or freshman D’wan Mathis — wins the starting job, Pickens will be his favorite target.
Senior Demetris Robertson, who had 30 catches for 333 yards last season, will give the Bulldogs another experienced receiver.
Quarterback Kellen Mond already has 34 starts entering his senior season. He can count on wide receiver Jhamon Ausbon, who had 66 catches for 872 yards last season.
Mond also will have the benefit of throwing to tight end Jalen Wydermyer, who had 32 catches and scored six touchdowns last season as a freshman.
John Adams is a senior columnist. He may be reached at 865-342-6284 or [email protected] Follow him at: twitter.com/johnadamskns.