Jaylen McCollough expected a couple of things would be near the top of his offseason checklist, and fortunately for the Tennessee safety the two priorities just about going hand in hand. As one of the veterans in the secondary for the Vols, the senior knew he would have to step up his leadership with a pair of senior fellow starters moving on to the NFL. McCollough also knew his leadership would require him to set the example with his own approach and how he worked and emphasized the parts of his game that needed improving – tackling topped his list during spring football.
Having started 27 of Tennessee’s last 29 games dating back to midway through his freshman season in 2019, McCollough will be one of the most experienced players on Tennessee’s roster in 2022. There’s value in having played as much football as he has, but experience doesn’t t always guarantee success. McCollough has been a productive player, but he would be the first to tell you there are aspects of his game he has to improve.
He’s working on those this offseason while combining with fellow veteran starting safety Trevon Flowers to fill the leadership void left in the secondary by Alontae Taylor and Theo Jacksonand for McCollough the focus first had to be inward.
“It started with just looking at yourself, talking to yourself and making a decision on what do you want to accomplish, what do you want to be,” McCollough said after one of Tennessee’s spring practice. “It just going about that goal you set each and every day and not taking any steps back. I feel like that’s a main point we focused on as a team and individually. It’s just looking at myself in the mirror and always getting better than the day before.”
He added: “My personal goals for this spring ball was to improve my open-field tackling. Taking better angles in the post and in the box. Just being more detail-oriented, being intentional in the stuff that I do, and I feel like I’ve done a pretty good job so far.”
McCollough was Tennessee’s sixth-leading tackler with 50 in his 13 starts in 2021, and he added 3.5 tackles for loss, one sack, five pass breakups and three interceptions. It was a solid third season for the former Top247 prospect after he broke onto the scene midway through the 2019 season and stepped into the starting lineup for the second half of the Vols’ impressive turnaround. He was unable to build on it during the 2020 season, though, as injuries and other disruptions limited his impact.
After a good offseason in the strength-and-conditioning program, McCollough is healthy and moving better, and his presence is evident as he carries himself as the vocal veteran for the secondary. The Vols dealt with various injuries in the back end last season, but the standard set by Taylor and Jackson ensured those who were pressed into meaningful action were ready to step up and play well. McCollough was one constant, and he’s taken on the role of ensuring the standard among the rest of the defensive backs doesn’t change.
“Mentioning Theo and Alontae, those guys played a big role in our secondary last year,” McCollough said. “Just listening to what they were preaching and telling us, it helped me and Tre out a lot. I would like to believe that I’m more vocal. Tre’s more action-led, and I feel like our dynamic complements each other very well. We’ve taken on the leadership role and managing the back end and we’ll take great pride in that.”
Tennessee’s secondary has three veterans who have played extensively over multiple seasons in the SEC in safeties Flowers and McCollough and cornerback Warren Burrell. But the rest of the group is young and/or inexperienced by comparison. Kamal Hadden and Brandon Turnage are second-year transfers, Christian Charles and De’Shawn Rucker are sophomores, junior Tamarion McDonald is yet to make his breakthrough on defense and junior college transfer Dee Williams arrived in January.
The secondary this summer will add two more transfers in Wesley Walker from Georgia Tech and Andre Turrentine from Ohio State in addition to two freshmen in cornerback Christian Harrison and safety Jordan Thomas.
“I feel like it’s very neat, just having the ability to pour into those guys and basically bring them along,” McCollough said. “Try to get them to the level of a fourth-year senior or a fifth-year senior, just vibing out with those guys and building relationships, man, because at the end of the day, once all of us older guys are gone, We’re passing down our traditions and our standards to them, so we want them to uphold and feed into the program.”
Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel credited both McCollough and Flowers for “completely thrust(ing) themselves forward” into those important leadership roles.
“They recognize that it’s needed, the leadership inside of that room and on the defensive side of the football,” Heupel said. “They recognized and accepted that they have a role to play in that. They’ve embraced it. They’ve grown. During the offseason, that was a point of emphasis in what we did every week in the lead-up to spring ball. You can see and sense and feel their energy out on the practice field every day.
“They have grown into becoming really strong leaders for us. We need them to continue to do that. It’ll be a big part of our defensive secondary playing at the level that they’re capable of and us as a defensive unit and our football team.”
McCollough, whose experience means he is capable of playing both safety spots in addition to the Star and Dime positions, said the secondary is a “tight-knit group” that has a lot of trust in each other. Expectations are high as well. McCollough knows he has to create that standard for the rest of the defensive backs with his leadership as well as his own play.
“Just some of the things I’d like to see us improve on as a secondary is creating more turnovers, being more physical, just playing tighter coverage — just all-around being playmakers,” he said. “There’s a lot of experience in the back end. We have a lot of guys who can play, lots of playmakers, so we’ve just got to relax and play.”