Vols' secondary using criticism as motivation

In an Aug. 3, 2013, photograph, University of Tennessee safety Brian Randolph watches practice in Knoxville, Tenn. Tennessee's defensive backs have heard the talk that they're part of the worst secondary in the Southeastern Conference. Rather than running from the criticism, they're using it as motivation to try to bounce back from a disappointing season in which they gave up far too many big plays. (AP Photo/Amy Smotherman Burgess, Knoxville News Sentinel)

In an Aug. 3, 2013, photograph, University of Tennessee safety Brian Randolph watches practice in Knoxville, Tenn. Tennessee's defensive backs have heard the talk that they're part of the worst secondary in the Southeastern Conference. Rather than running from the criticism, they're using it as motivation to try to bounce back from a disappointing season in which they gave up far too many big plays. (AP Photo/Amy Smotherman Burgess, Knoxville News Sentinel)

In an Aug. 3, 2013, photograph, University of Tennessee defensive back LaDarrell McNeil takes part in training camp drill in Knoxville, Tenn. Tennessee's defensive backs have heard the talk that they're part of the worst secondary in the Southeastern Conference. Rather than running from the criticism, they're using it as motivation to try to bounce back from a disappointing season in which they gave up far too many big plays. (AP Photo/Amy Smotherman Burgess, Knoxville News Sentinel)

In an Aug. 3, 2013, photograph, University of Tennessee defensive back LaDarrell McNeil takes part in training camp drill in Knoxville, Tenn. Tennessee's defensive backs have heard the talk that they're part of the worst secondary in the Southeastern Conference. Rather than running from the criticism, they're using it as motivation to try to bounce back from a disappointing season in which they gave up far too many big plays. (AP Photo/Amy Smotherman Burgess, Knoxville News Sentinel)

In a July 31, 2013, photograph, University of Tennessee NCAA college football safety Brian Randolph speaks to reporters in Knoxville, Tenn. Tennessee's defensive backs have heard the talk that they're part of the worst secondary in the Southeastern Conference. Rather than running from the criticism, they're using it as motivation to try to bounce back from a disappointing season in which they gave up far too many big plays. (AP Photo/Amy Smotherman Burgess, Knoxville News Sentinel)

In a July 31, 2013, photograph, University of Tennessee NCAA college football safety Brian Randolph speaks to reporters in Knoxville, Tenn. Tennessee's defensive backs have heard the talk that they're part of the worst secondary in the Southeastern Conference. Rather than running from the criticism, they're using it as motivation to try to bounce back from a disappointing season in which they gave up far too many big plays. (AP Photo/Amy Smotherman Burgess, Knoxville News Sentinel)

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee free safety Brian Randolph has heard the criticism of the Volunteers' secondary and is ready to prove the skeptics wrong.

"Before we get out there and start working, we get together and remind ourselves that people consider us the worst secondary in the SEC," Randolph said. "That has been a motivator for us. I think it got us better this offseason."

The Vols gave up the most points (35.7) and yards (471.4) per game of any team in the Southeastern Conference last year in part because a lack of speed in the secondary made them vulnerable to big plays.

Tennessee's defense gave up six touchdowns of at least 70 yards. The other 13 SEC defenses combined to allow only 10 touchdowns of that length. The Vols' defense yielded an SEC-high 13 touchdowns of at least 40 yards, more than twice as many as all but one team in the conference. Mississippi's defense gave up 11 touchdowns of at least yards.

Those numbers naturally caused plenty of complaints and played a role in the demise of former coach Derek Dooley, who was fired in the midst of a third straight losing season.

"We just use that as motivation every day - people calling us the worst secondary, one of the worst defenses in UT history and stuff like that," senior strong safety Byron Moore said. "We're trying to prove all those people wrong and trying to give them a new picture of us this year when we hit the field."

The Vols believe they'll do better this season. Randolph's presence gives them reason for optimism.

Randolph made eight starts as a freshman in 2011 and was leading the Vols in tackles last year before tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee during the third game of the season. Tennessee's secondary wasn't the same without Randolph, who came back for spring practice and declared himself at "95 percent" when training camp opened last week.

His return gives the Vols an abundance of experienced safeties. That much became evident at the start of training camp.

Moore tied for the SEC lead with five interceptions and ranked second on the team with 86 tackles last season, but he found himself behind sophomore LaDarrell McNeil on the depth chart. McNeil made seven starts as a freshman last season.

Tennessee coaches have downplayed the relevance of the pre-training camp depth chart, but the fact Moore was behind McNeil exemplifies the Vols' strength at the safety position. Moore and McNeil have minor hamstring problems that caused them to spend Monday afternoon's practice working alongside the other hurt players rather than participating in team and position drills, but neither injury is considered serious.

"I don't really see LaDarrell ahead of Byron or Byron ahead of LaDarrell," secondary coach Willie Martinez said. "I just see we've got three safeties who have got experience, who we feel pretty good about right now. That's a bonus. They're getting an equal amount of reps."

The problem for the Vols is that they need all that depth at safety to compensate for their lack of experienced cornerbacks.

Prentiss Waggner and Marsalis Teague completed their eligibility last season after combining for 62 starts, though Teague lost his starting job to Justin Coleman a year ago. Tennessee also must replace Eric Gordon, who is no longer with the team after starting eight games as a junior last fall.

Their departures leave Tennessee perilously thin at cornerback. Riyahd Jones, a junior college transfer, is currently atop the depth chart along with Coleman. Freshmen Malik Foreman and Cameron Sutton already are listed as second-team cornerbacks, even though both just arrived on campus this summer.

If the newcomers don't make big strides, Tennessee could be giving up more big plays.

"It's a great concern," Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. "Also, really Riyahd Jones is new in our system as well. He was here for spring football, but he's learning. We have three brand-new corners. We do have competition at safety, but you can never have enough. For us to get our program back to where we need it to be, we have to have great depth at every single position."

There isn't necessarily great depth throughout the secondary, but there is plenty of competition. The lack of experience beyond Coleman has left playing time up for grabs at cornerback. The position battle between McNeil and Moore at strong safety could last well into the season.

Tennessee's new coaching staff believes that could help make the Vols' secondary more competitive against SEC offenses.

"The best motivator is competition," Martinez said.

Criticism apparently is a pretty effective incentive well.

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Comments » 22

OrangePride writes:

I don't think I could have been more critical of a defense last year than I was. They needed two promotions just to reach the level of "poor." BUT (and I said this too), it was NOT the talent OR the effort! These same guys (least most of them) were the 23rd best only the year before. Now they are almost all back yet again, only this time with some guys who can coach and who have a proven system. I know Teague is gone......and I liked him. Gave 100% every game and bled orange. But he was hardly a shut down db. We will be OK. Prentis will be missed more. But again, I think we have some athletes to step in. Bottom line, I can't wait to see these guys take the field in three weeks with some VERY ugly attitudes!!! They are gonna be fun to watch flying around to that football. GO BIG D!! GO VOLS!!!

eb502us#225637 writes:

You can throw last year out the window.

The Vols may not have been in the upper half of the SEC last year as far as talent goes, but I guarantee you that even if we had four All-SEC players in the secondary, we would not have fared much better.

Sal Sunseri was so inept, that it was obvious nobody knew where to be on the field. I don't care who's playing, if you get caught flat footed or out of position, good speed won't necessarily allow you to catch up.

Major improvement in the secondary this year is a given if nothing more than for the coaching change alone.

volnbig11land writes:

They will be hard pressed to play worse than they did last year.

Every 3rd and long, I was like "oh no, here comes 15+ yards."

Hopefully CBJ and company can help them make GREAT strides.

Go Vols!

OrangePride writes:

in response to volnbig11land:

They will be hard pressed to play worse than they did last year.

Every 3rd and long, I was like "oh no, here comes 15+ yards."

Hopefully CBJ and company can help them make GREAT strides.

Go Vols!

LOL..... I can't tell you how often I said to the folks sitting next to me, "uh oh! They got us where they want us now; 3rd and 20!" And true....this year's secondary could not play worse, but right now I'm feeling a little better about where we are (course I said this same stuff last August and we all know how that turned out). Nonetheless, lets look forward and we will soon see if any of this orange-aide optimism is worth drinking.

volnbig11land writes:

in response to OrangePride:

LOL..... I can't tell you how often I said to the folks sitting next to me, "uh oh! They got us where they want us now; 3rd and 20!" And true....this year's secondary could not play worse, but right now I'm feeling a little better about where we are (course I said this same stuff last August and we all know how that turned out). Nonetheless, lets look forward and we will soon see if any of this orange-aide optimism is worth drinking.

+1 and I agree.

Go Vols!

claiborneh writes:

They don't have to prove they are not the worst defense, they WERE the worst defense! But last year is last year. New attitude, new scheme, fresh faces. It's certainly going to be a turn around year. Could not be worse.

RoadTrip writes:

We said the same things with a great DC in Chavis. Whenever the Mustang package was used with 3rd and 15 or more - "third and Chavis" was chanted. So why did the same things happen?

I will answer my own and possibly your question. We have 4-3 players that have been taught and drilled in its methods/schemes since high school. In both the 3-4 last season and 3-3 Mustang of Chavis they were using the wrong athletes that had not been trained well in 3 man D-line defenses. Those are read/think/react defenses that require a lot of communication and understanding. As a result they both failed.

6972 writes:

in response to RoadTrip:

We said the same things with a great DC in Chavis. Whenever the Mustang package was used with 3rd and 15 or more - "third and Chavis" was chanted. So why did the same things happen?

I will answer my own and possibly your question. We have 4-3 players that have been taught and drilled in its methods/schemes since high school. In both the 3-4 last season and 3-3 Mustang of Chavis they were using the wrong athletes that had not been trained well in 3 man D-line defenses. Those are read/think/react defenses that require a lot of communication and understanding. As a result they both failed.

As an old fullback, I will have to plead my ignorance about defense. But I would have thought that all defensive schemes required "read/think/react....and some commmunication and understanding. I guess I am never to old to learn. Go Vols.

NowHearThis writes:

Remember the predictions:

1. Feel good articles
2. Mid September reality check
3. 4-8

and now we can add another:

2014 Recruiting class rank Rivals: 14

beartn#223846 writes:

I don't think many fans expect a great season. However, I think 6-6 is more realistic than 4-8. We should win 3 of 4 non conference games (Oregon will shellack us). I think we can get 3 from Kentucky, Auburn, Mizzou, and Vandy.

StoneJackBaller writes:

in response to beartn#223846:

I don't think many fans expect a great season. However, I think 6-6 is more realistic than 4-8. We should win 3 of 4 non conference games (Oregon will shellack us). I think we can get 3 from Kentucky, Auburn, Mizzou, and Vandy.

I think the coaching change alone is good for 6 wins. We got the right staff.

Paynes3 writes:

Hate to use a Saban Quote but we need to get back to the basics. See Ball, Hit Ball and when you get there do it angrily!

brokendownoldvol writes:

They were the worst defense and secondary in the nation and school history last yr.

FearTheVols1252 writes:

in response to StoneJackBaller:

I think the coaching change alone is good for 6 wins. We got the right staff.

I think the previous regimes have shattered everyone’s confidence (understandably so). Our defense will be much improved simply due to being in a system that better fits their talent level. Now, I’m not suggesting they will be GREAT, but I think they will surprise a few.

Second, while we lost most of our skill players from last year, I feel reasonably confident that this offensive unit (barring no major injuries) will only get better as the season progresses. We clearly have one of the best O-lines in the country, so once those skill players (and QB’s) get up to speed, I think we’ll start seeing more wins come our way.

I think 7 wins is likely, and 8 wins is possible. Throw in 1 or 2 upsets, and I think this group will be heading in a perfect direction.

mocsandvolsfan writes:

I'm expecting about 6 wins. Reasonably. BUT I like the enthusiasm of 7 - 8 wins. A bowl win was possible last year if we'd gotten there. We are SEC after all.

I'm not skptical this year just cautious in my hopes. More than 6 wins and I'll be happy. Very happy and we'll get more recruits because of it. I.e. I don't mind a lot of 3 and 4* players who can turn out to be great. That's actually more fun to me than watching a 5* leave after a year. although a few more of those can be fun also.

8 wins? I don't know but I can't wait to find out. I just knew we'd have 9 wins last year. Watching that defense every week "took the win' right out of my sails".

Simply_Orange51 writes:

I would rather have a team that plays as a complete unit over one with lots of talent and doesn't. Over the years, I've seen teams that were suppose to be great and never lived up to their expectations. Have seen others that were not supposed to be very good and at season's end were much better than everyone predicted. Football is about getting the job done with every individual on the field so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts - that's why they call it a T-E-A-M. I too think we'll see some surprises - some good, some bad, and some, well, between the extremes. If they were of Alabama's caliber this year, they'd be ranked there like other SEC teams.

Realistically, they have a long way to go and lots to prove. Hard work can change the face of the team quickly. But every other team is trying to do the same thing. In the end - that's the reason all these games are played - to see which one is the better ballclub. You never know what can happen. Talent, desire, a couple of breaks here and there, and good coaching in the end wins games. Still remember the 98 championship year - if Arkansas's QB hadn't left the ball on the ground, that championship would have be a passing thought. How good they are this year - we'll soon know. I wish them well - GBO.

Witch_Doctors writes:

Witch Doctor again say Sal Saban'suri had them in some of the worst alignments in situations that still leave us "love the Defense" type of fans scratching monkeys head? Witch Doctor trying not to get hopes up too much for this season but it hard! but Witch Doctor gonna take it game by game. Go Vols
Bones never lie.

DawgDayAfternoon writes:

in response to NowHearThis:

Remember the predictions:

1. Feel good articles
2. Mid September reality check
3. 4-8

and now we can add another:

2014 Recruiting class rank Rivals: 14

The Vol secondary was also the worst in the Sunbelt last year; just ask Troy State.

Your 4-8 prediction is about right, and here's why. They're all in love with Jones' defense in exactly the same way they were all in love with Sunseri last August. As for the recruiting, 14th is a little high. It will be 21st to 25th and the standard UT class of about 10th or 11th in the SEC. Yet, they'll all claim it's great.

snafu14u#241639 writes:

So the secondary is faster......I did not see that....still concerned about speed. They may play faster because they do less thinking. Bonzai Vols

johnlg00 writes:

in response to snafu14u#241639:

So the secondary is faster......I did not see that....still concerned about speed. They may play faster because they do less thinking. Bonzai Vols

I think many of us share that concern. However, at a given level of football, there just isn't that much difference in speed between two teams. A tenth of a second in 40 time is no more than a stride or two gained in the whole 40 yards. Also, if you recall, the defensive backfield didn't have much depth, in part because of injuries, and they were left on the field too long in most games; tired guys can't make that extra closing step. The worst defensive collapses came in the second halves of games, mostly for that reason.

Part of the trick is to not let a guy run 40 yards in a straight line and make sure somebody is always lined up over the top of the coverage in all passing situations. The other part of the equation is to not allow the QB four seconds to find the guy who HAS that step advantage, if he does. So I think that, yes, a somewhat better pass rush, better alignment, and better understanding of defensive responsibilities can go a long way toward minimizing any speed differential between Vol defenders and opponents' ball-carriers.

hikerdude writes:

The defense will be much improved because
(1)the coaches will have them lined up properly most of the time,
(2)they will have been taught their assignments and
(3)they will be disciplined enough to execute those assignments.
None of those were true last year.

mocsandvolsfan writes:

Everything on defense was hesitant last year. some things on offense were hesitant. RBs for example.
Just knowing what to do without thinking about it will help our "speed". In other words the whole defensive scheme needed to change as many of us said last year. YOu can't go a whole game without adjustments. You also should adjust for how tired they may or may not be. Key will be our bench. With freshmen mostly it will be difficult. Unless they listened in High school or were actually taught fundamentals. Because the offense mostly knows where it's going they'll usually have a step or two on the defense. So you're covering an area sometimes more than a player. Both hopefully.

I just hope Butch has them responding without a lot of thought. We don't want to see many uncovered throws to the corner.

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