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 email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at Strangemike44.