Brian Randolph forged a reputation as a solid tackler and a big hitter not long after arriving at Tennessee last year.
This year, as only a sophomore, Randolph emerged as a vocal leader who knew the defense well enough to direct other players on the field.
On Monday, Randolph hobbled through the Vols' football facility on crutches, wearing a large brace on his right knee. Coach Derek Dooley confirmed that Randolph tore his ACL in the fourth quarter in the loss to Florida on Saturday and would miss the rest of the season.
"We hurt for Brian, but he's going to be fine, and we'll move on," Dooley said.
Randolph's defensive contributions could make him tough to replace. On a defense plagued by communication problems and in a secondary that is sometimes porous, Randolph was one of the players who seemed to get it.
"(Randolph's loss) is really big. It's really key," said linebacker Curtis Maggitt. "He's a really vocal guy. He's really smart. He understands his position and understands others' positions. He can help out a lot and you can trust him behind you."
When Tennessee (2-1) plays Akron (1-2) on Saturday (TV: CSS, 7:30 p.m.) at Neyland Stadium, junior Brent Brewer will move up to the starting lineup to join junior Byron Moore in one of the two safety spots. Freshman LaDarrell McNeil will join senior Rod Wilks in a backup role.
"Byron Moore has been playing pretty good football, and he just needs to keep doing what he's doing," Dooley said.
Moore said he would try to take on some of Randolph's responsibilities.
"I'll take on more of a leadership role back there and make sure those guys are right," Moore said. "He was another leader. He was a real smart player and knew the defense well. Me and him combined were able to get the DBs lined up right. We should be fine. I'm going to have to step
up even more now. I'll be ready for it."
McNeil was a consensus four-star prospect and Parade All-American out of Dallas. He committed to the Vols last August and stuck with the team through a rocky 2011 season and widespread coaching turnover. He made his debut against Georgia State and played again Saturday against Florida.
"He's a real high-motor guy," said Moore. "He flies around every time he goes out there and always goes 110 percent. We just have to get him learning the plays and ready to go now."
The secondary endured an ugly stretch late in the 37-20 loss to Florida, most notably when Gators receiver Frankie Hammond blazed past the Vols on his way to a 75-yard touchdown.
"We're not going to go into a total panic because we've been playing pretty good back there," Dooley said. "We had a stretch of bad plays. It doesn't define who we are. It defines what we did and what we did poorly. Time will prove that out."
Dooley said he would continue "promoting competition" at cornerback, where seniors Marsalis Teague and Prentiss Waggner are currently starters. Freshmen Daniel Gray and Deion Bonner and sophomore Justin Coleman should see plenty of action against Akron.
"We had an opportunity to prevent some of those big plays from happening and we didn't do it," Dooley said. "We need the young guys to come on."
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/TennesseeBeat.