Mike Strange: Brian Randolph is back off the couch, ready to make a difference

Mike Strange
University of Tennessee defensive back Brian Randolph speaks to reporters during a media luncheon at the Stokely Family media center in Neyland Stadium, Wednesday, July 31, 2013. (Amy Smotherman Burgess/News Sentinel staff)$RETURN$$RETURN$

Photo by Amy Smotherman Burgess

University of Tennessee defensive back Brian Randolph speaks to reporters during a media luncheon at the Stokely Family media center in Neyland Stadium, Wednesday, July 31, 2013. (Amy Smotherman Burgess/News Sentinel staff)$RETURN$$RETURN$

Players, Coach Jones talk about importance of staff cohesion

UT LB Dontavis Sapp on the importance of a positive attitude.

Right there, on one terrible play, Tennessee got hit with the double whammy of insult and injury.

The 2012 season was just getting serious, but the Vols’ defense would never be the same.

The insult was a 75-yard Florida touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter last Sept. 15. It capped a Florida rally from a seven-point deficit to a 14-point lead and confirmed that momentum had irrecoverably switched sidelines.

But even before Florida’s Frankie Hammond danced into the checkerboard end zone, a Neyland Stadium crowd had turned back to see Brian Randolph crumpled, clutching his knee.

The Vols’ sophomore free safety, considered a potential rising star, knew immediately he wouldn’t play another snap in the season.

The diagnosis confirmed as much: the dreaded torn ACL (anterior cruciate ligament), to be repaired by surgery.

“That had to be the most frustrating thing in my life,’’ Randolph said Wednesday after proclaiming himself 95 percent fit for UT’s preseason camp.

“I trained so hard all season and then the season got taken away from me. I kind of felt like I was in prison.’’

While Randolph was serving time, so to speak, his defensive colleagues were being flogged on a weekly basis.

From his mother’s couch at home in Kennesaw, Ga., — that’s where he would retreat on Saturdays — Randolph watched the horror show, a repetitive highlight reel for the other guys.

Big gaps led to big plays. Some Bulldog or Commodore always seemed to be running free. Not even an offense as potent as Tennessee’s could keep pace.

“I couldn’t do nothing,’’ Randolph said. “I wanted to help my team so bad but all I could do was root from the couch.’’

If — and it’s a fair question — Randolph had been on the field instead of the couch, what difference would it have made?

The Vols were struggling to grasp Sal Sunseri’s new 3-4 defense. They weren’t destined for the BCS title game. But instead of 5-7 they might have made, say, the Liberty Bowl.

“He could have made a difference in us winning maybe a couple of games,’’ linebacker A.J. Johnson said Wednesday, “because he’s a great player and always did the right thing and had very (few) missed assignments.’’

A new season dawns and Randolph can make a difference again. The knee is almost as good as new. And he gets the season that was taken away back. Thanks to a medical redshirt, he’s still a sophomore.

Randolph embraces and has been embraced by the new coaching staff. Even though he wasn’t cleared for contact in the spring, Randolph has impressed coach Butch Jones and the defensive staff enough to start at free safety when camp opens Friday.

“All great players have it,’’ Jones said. “He has a very high level of consistency. You know what you’re getting with Brian.

“He’s very positive, a hard worker, can take the classroom setting to the field.’’

Jones also noted that Randolph’s return will be a bonus on special teams:

“Brian adds a whole ’nother element in all factors of our program.’’

Randolph can’t wait to prove how much he can add to a secondary and a defense that were mathematical disasters last year. UT opponents averaged 35.7 points and 471 yards a game. Troy amassed 721 yards in a game the Vols barely survived.

“Fingers point at the defensive backs,’’ Randolph acknowledged. “Before every single (summer) workout we’d get together and remind ourselves that people think we’re the worst secondary in the SEC.

“That’s a motivator for us. I think that got us better this offseason.’’

There are multiple reasons why UT’s secondary and its defense as a whole should be better in 2013. Start with the cynical one — hey, it couldn’t possibly be worse.

But here’s a practical one: Randolph, Mr. Consistent, will be on the field, not his mom’s couch.

Mike Strange may be reached at strangem@knoxnews.com. Follow him on Twitter at Strangemike44.

© 2013 govolsxtra.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Comments » 5

jbocap writes:

I was at the Florida game last year and saw Brian go down...very glad to see him back this season! I'm a big fan of Brian and he will do great things for the defense...watch & see!
GO VOLS!!

CoverOrange writes:

You don't want to believe that one player can make that much difference but the defense did appear to go from mediocre to bad when Brian went down. As close as the Georgia, SC and Missouri games were, he might have been enough a difference to flip 2 or maybe all of them. Take away the demoralization at the end of the season and Vandy game would have been more competitive. Whatever, getting rid of Dooley was a good thing. It is what is was.

johnlg00 writes:

in response to CoverOrange:

You don't want to believe that one player can make that much difference but the defense did appear to go from mediocre to bad when Brian went down. As close as the Georgia, SC and Missouri games were, he might have been enough a difference to flip 2 or maybe all of them. Take away the demoralization at the end of the season and Vandy game would have been more competitive. Whatever, getting rid of Dooley was a good thing. It is what is was.

Randolph's return may indeed enable UT's defensive backfield to play better. That, and there may be other reasons as well; Mike's article suggested that the whole backfield is using the disrespect heaped on them by the whole college football world to drive their work this off-season. They knew that what they were doing last year wasn't working, so they have every incentive to buy in to whatever new concepts and strategies the new staff can offer.

As for your last sentence, it is painful as a long-time fan to say that the disastrous season may have ultimately been a good thing, since so far Jones seems to be a decisive upgrade over Dooley. As you say, as bad as the season turned out, the Vols were in a lot more games longer than perhaps even they realized. If Jones and staff can keep the guys' minds positive, they hopefully won't let opportunities escape them like they did last year.

CoverOrange writes:

in response to johnlg00:

Randolph's return may indeed enable UT's defensive backfield to play better. That, and there may be other reasons as well; Mike's article suggested that the whole backfield is using the disrespect heaped on them by the whole college football world to drive their work this off-season. They knew that what they were doing last year wasn't working, so they have every incentive to buy in to whatever new concepts and strategies the new staff can offer.

As for your last sentence, it is painful as a long-time fan to say that the disastrous season may have ultimately been a good thing, since so far Jones seems to be a decisive upgrade over Dooley. As you say, as bad as the season turned out, the Vols were in a lot more games longer than perhaps even they realized. If Jones and staff can keep the guys' minds positive, they hopefully won't let opportunities escape them like they did last year.

All I can say about Jones so far is that he is better at managing the players and better at managing the coaching staff. That is where I think Dooley ultimately failed, the players hated him and he did not involve himself in the disarray on the defensive side until late in the season. Those two aspects also affected Fulmer in his final years.

johnlg00 writes:

in response to CoverOrange:

All I can say about Jones so far is that he is better at managing the players and better at managing the coaching staff. That is where I think Dooley ultimately failed, the players hated him and he did not involve himself in the disarray on the defensive side until late in the season. Those two aspects also affected Fulmer in his final years.

From what I have been able to gather, Dooley is a pretty smart guy, but he seemed not to distinguish between the really important things and things that don't really matter. He was a micromanager in some ways, yet apparently distant and uninvolved in others. Tbe players couldn't quite figure him out. Part of the problem was that he was still formulating his approach to the greater demands of coaching at UT compared to LA Tech, so he may have appeared to be inconsistent in some of his expectations. The other problem, as mentioned in a couple of recent articles, was that he didn't really know most of his staff before they came to UT, nor did any of them know each other, so the possibility of player confusion was magnified. After a while, the players decided that the staff didn't have its act together, so they just checked out on the season. Don't see any of that happening with Butch, given the vastly greater time most members of the staff have worked together.

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