COLUMBIA, S.C. — Tennessee will be without one starter on defense for Saturday night’s season opener at South Carolina. Defensive back Shawn Shamburger, the senior who is the starter for the Vols at their important Star position, did not make the trip to Columbia and is unavailable to play, a program official confirmed to GoVols247. In his absence, Tennessee is shuffling its lineup in the secondary with Bryce Thompson set to start at safety.
Thompson, a two-year starter at cornerback, was with the first-team defense at safety alongside Trevon Flowers during warmups. Elsewhere in the secondary, Kenneth George Jr. and Alontae Taylor were at cornerback with freshman Doneiko Slaughter filling into Shamburger’s void at the Star position.
Shamburger excelled at the Star position in 2019, racking up 47 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, three interceptions, two pass breakups and one interception. He didn’t allow a touchdown on more than 300 coverage snaps and had one of the lowest opponent passer ratings when targeted last season, per Pro Football Focus. The 5-foot-11, 190-pounder is one of the key members of a veteran secondary for the Vols.
Tennessee’s coaching staff is high on the potential of freshman Slaughter, the former Arizona State commitment who signed with the Vols in December. The 6-foot, 185-pounder from Roswell, Ga., was one of the biggest late risers in the recruiting rankings after a stellar season senior. Slaughter was ranked the No. 472 overall player and No. 40 safety in the industry-generated 247Sports Composite for the 2020 season.
Freshman running back Tee Hodge did not make the trip as he’s been limited in practice with a leg injury. The Vols traveled just four running backs: Eric Gray, Ty Chandler, freshman Jabari Small and walk-on Fred Orr.
Tennessee already had several players sidelined:
> Defensive lineman Darel Middleton announced via Twitter on Saturday afternoon that he didn’t make the trip “due to health issues.” Middleton started six games in 2019 and finished with 33 tackles, three tackles for loss and one sack in his first season in the program after transferring in from junior college. The senior has missed some practice time during the preseason, but did practice this week.
> Fifth-year senior defensive back Baylen Buchanan (spine) and freshman defensive back Tamarion McDonald (shoulder) are out for the season, and Pruitt said earlier this week that starting tight end Austin Pope (back) “probably” wouldn’t play this season after starting 11 games and excelling as a tough, physical run-blocker for Tennessee’s offense.
> The Vols are short a couple of freshman running backs with Len’Neth Whitehead not cleared for full-contact practices due to a significant foot injury he suffered during his senior season and Dee Beckwith hurting his ankle in practice this week.
> Wide receiver Deangelo Gibbs has opted out of the season.