KNOXVILLE — A pair of injuries on its back line have prompted Tennessee to move a freshman cornerback to safety.
Veteran Todd Kelly Jr. is set for undergo season-ending surgery on his troublesome knee injury and Evan Berry, also Tennessee’s electric kick-return man, hasn’t played since the first half of the season opener against Georgia Tech, which left the Vols razor thin with just freshman Theo Jackson behind starters Nigel Warrior and Micah Abernathy.
“(He’s) smart. He was playing on special teams already,” Shoop said. “He’s a guy who I thought might eventually transition into safety anyways. We’ve got to get Evan Berry. If we get Evan Berry back, it’s not Cheyenne, but right now with Evan out, Cheyenne and Theo could back those guys up. They practice hard, they do the right things. That was the choice.
“Right now we’re kind of deciding how we want to play it out with Maleik Gray, whether he’s going to redshirt or whether he’s going to play or whatever it is. Because Cheyenne’s been in games, he was the next best option.”
The 6-foot, 188-pound Labruzza, who switched jersey numbers from No. 9 to No. 42 to avoid any special-teams duplication with freshman running back Tim Jordan, appeared in the Indiana State and Florida games on special teams.
One of three cornerbacks the Vols signed in their 2017 class, Labruzza, ranked the No. 334 overall player and No. 33 cornerback in the class by 247Sports, is a former three-star prospect out of Louisiana the Vols held off LSU to hold onto and sign in February.
The injuries to Kelly and Berry meant Warrior and Abernathy went the distance in Saturday’s loss at Florida, and the only options behind the two starters are Jackson and now Labruzza, though nickel cornerback Rashaan Gaulden could play there in a pinch as well.
Tennessee coach Butch Jones on Monday said Kelly would be out indefinitely, but Shoop’s comments about the senior from Knoxville were more ominous and suggested Kelly won’t return this season.
“Todd Kelly’s a great kid and Todd Kelly to me embodies all that’s good about college football,” Shoop said. “He comes from a good family. He’s a good student. He’s very involved in community service and wants to do well. It’s very sad. He wasn’t playing as much. To say he wasn’t playing at all is not an accurate statement. Like some people wrote that and different things.
“He played the most snaps against Indiana State of any safety and played almost half the game against Georgia Tech. I do think that his knee injury from back whenever has prevented him from maybe playing up to his full capabilities. I think that became discouraging to him, and the pain became to the point where he had to have something done.
“I think the world of Todd and hope for a speedy recovery for him and that he’s back and either playing next year or in med school somewhere doing really well.”
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