‘Hundred Steps In The Right Direction’: Tennessee Freshman Corners Improving Ahead Of Opener

Tennessee Football

Tennessee FootballTennessee cornerback Jordan Matthews. Photo via Tennessee Athletics.

As Tennessee’s pass defense looks to improve from last year’s poor statistical showing, defensive back’s coach Willie Martinez and defensive coordinator Tim Banks are largely relying on the same players to provide improvement.

Tamarion McDonald will start at STAR again and veterans Doneiko Slaughter and Kamal Hadden are favorites to open the season as the starting corners.

But there is an infusion of young talent in the room. Freshman corners Jordan Matthews, Rickey Gibson III and Cristian Conyer all came to Tennessee as sought after recruits with a chance to factor early. After arriving in January and going through spring practice, the freshmen are starting to take strides forward in fall camp.

“I think they’re obviously a lot more comfortable than they were in the spring,” Martinez said Tuesday. “By the fourth or fifth time that we have installs, you’re seeing less and less alignment issues, you see a lot more execution on a consistent basis. They’re competing at a different level because they know it more. It’s good to see. You got some of the guys making plays. Consistently, all three of them are making something happen during the practice.”

Making plays is the upside the freshmen bring to Tennessee’s defense. The Vols’ secondary wasn’t prone to busts last season but few corners played with the confidence to take away one side of the field or make opponents pay for throwing their way.

That confidence is specifically a strength of Matthews, the highest rated recruit of the bunch. BYU transfer Gabe Jeudy-Lally— the other newcomer in the room— noted that Matthews is “really physical” and plays with an aggressive edge.

Those skills have shown up in the fall as they start to gain a better grasp of Tennessee’s defense and what playing cornerback at the SEC level is like.

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“All of them have a great sense of urgency,” senior Brandon Turniage said of the trio. “They’re young and they have grown a lot. I know in the spring they were making plays, but they really didn’t understand why they were making plays. Now, they have confidence — Conyer, Rickey and Jordan Matthews — they all have a great level of confidence on the edges at corner and they have a better understanding of route concepts and things like that so they are able to make more plays. They’ve been doing a great job.”

Conyer came to Tennessee with less hype than Matthews or Gibson. The Vols beat out Kentucky for the Bluegrass State native but Conyer was just a three-star and doesn’t physically jump off the page.

That, in part, led to less buzz and hype around Conyer during spring practice. But the 6-foot-1, 180-pound freshman has taken real strides in recent months and is impressing his veteran teammates with his growth.

“I think the guy that has made the biggest step from the spring is definitely Cristian Conyer,” Jeudy-Lally said. “He has really honed in the last five months since spring ball and really taken over, getting to know the plays. He goes out there and makes plays every day. It’s just been really cool to see, because coming from high school early on and trying to get it done in the spring was a little bit of a step.”

Time will tell how much Tennessee’s freshman corners will play this season. All three figure to be important Volunteer defenders in their careers but asking them to be reliable contributors as freshmen is a tall task.

But that is why early enrolling is so important for newcomers trying to play early. The trio have made important improvements in their seven months on campus which make it possible for them to help the Vols’ defense this season.

“It’s been good to see the whole group just evolve,” Jeudy-Lally said. “I think we’ve taken a hundred steps in the right direction since the spring.”

Author: Ethan Moore