By Josh Ward
Tennessee said goodbye to its top defensive player on Wednesday.
Fourth-year junior defensive back Rashaan Gaulden announced he has declared for the NFL Draft.
The news isn’t surprising. Gaulden is coming off a terrific season and has been thinking about a potential jump to the NFL for a while.
Tennessee hiring Jeremy Pruitt as head coach might have given Gaulden some pause before his final decision because of Pruitt’s strong reputation coaching defensive backs, but the opportunity to turn pro was ultimately too much for Gaulden to pass up.
Tennessee will miss Gaulden, who was not only one of the Vols’ best overall players last season but also one of the most respected. Remember, Cam Sutton switched his jersey number from 23 to 7 in 2015 to honor Gaulden after he went down with a season-ending foot injury.
Gaulden also made perhaps the top play of the 2017 season for Tennessee when he forced a fumble in the fourth quarter against Georgia Tech, offering Tennessee a chance to tie the game in regulation and ultimately win in overtime. Imagine Tennessee’s season without a win against Georgia Tech.
Game changer! ➡️ Rashaan Gaulden. pic.twitter.com/ZvZvwYx0wL
— Marshall Hughes (@marshallhughes) September 5, 2017
Gaulden’s departure leaves Tennessee quite inexperienced at cornerback. The players returning with the most playing time at that position are Baylen Buchanan, Marquill Osborne and Shawn Shamburger.
All three players have been well thought of as it relates to their talent, but they also have plenty to prove on the field.
There’s also the question of personnel decisions from the new coaching staff. Where will Pruitt and his coaches decide to play guys like Tyler Byrd, who spent the last two years at receiver but could play defensive back, and Cheyenne Labruzza, who split time this past fall between cornerback and safety?
Gaulden’s decision to turn pro also makes recruiting at the cornerback position even more important. Olaijah Griffin from Mission Viejo, Calif., becomes an even more important cornerback prospect for UT’s new staff to recruit over the next month.
That’s something that will be discussed today on Sports 180 as well as this Saturday on Football Futures, which covers the latest on Tennessee and SEC recruiting.