KNOXVILLE - Much of the talk defensively for Tennessee has surrounded freshmen A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt, but freshman defensive back Brian Randolph is quietly emerging into his starting role at free safety.
While his opportunity to play has increased, it’s given the Vols more opportunities in other areas of the secondary.
“He’s a more physical guy at the post than Prentiss (Waggner),” head coach Derek Dooley said following Tuesday’s practice at Haslam Field. “That’s a fact. It allows us to play Prentiss at corner. We’re hoping that will help us a little bit. He’s going to be a good player for us.”
Randolph is Tennessee’s sixth-leading tackler, making the Vols the only team in the country with three of its top six tacklers being freshmen.
“It (has been) a very exciting experience,” Randolph said as he addressed the local media for the first time Tuesday. “The door was open for me. One door closes for one and one opens for another. It was a big point for me to get ready and they (coaches) got me ready. I had to step up and get more reps with the ones and be prepared.”
Being prepared has helped Randolph post impressive back-to-back efforts against LSU and Alabama with nine and eight tackles, respectively.
Each team poses physical challenges, but the adjustment for Randolph has been more mental.
“It’s much different than high school,” Randolph said. “There are a bunch of different things. You have to check the plays according to how they line up. Before every snap, you have to run through every possible situation in your head and be ready for whatever happens.”
JUSTIN JUMPS IN
Donning a green No. 14 jersey, freshman quarterback Justin Worley led Tennessee’s first-team offense Tuesday in preparation for his first career start Saturday against South Carolina.
Although there’s nothing new with Worley’s attire, much changed in his mentality when starting quarterback Tyler Bray was injured against Georgia and he moved up the depth chart.
“He did what he’s done the last couple of weeks,” Dooley said of his performance Tuesday. “He’s been a different guy ever since Tyler (Bray) went down, just mentally. You can tell he’s into it. There was no difference there, which is good. He’s throwing the ball well. He’s managing the plays well and running the offense. He just has to prepare well this week, go out and do the best he can.”
What ‘the best’ for Worley is remains to be seen.
“I don’t know what it’s going to look like,” Dooley said. “It could look great. It could look average. It could look really good at sometimes, really bad at sometimes. It could look bad. I have no idea, but I have confidence in him or I wouldn’t be starting him. He has a lot of good qualities. He has a tremendous amount of experience in high school, meaning he has thrown a ton of balls and that means something. He’s intelligent. He has a good arm. He has good stature. We’ll see.”
Those good qualities have been evident to at least one of his receivers in junior Zach Rogers.
“He has a lot of confidence in his arm and he has a lot of ability,” Rogers said. “Once he gets the schemes down and learns the playbook a little better, I think he will be just fine. (He is) very accurate. We came out here today and I don’t think many balls were on the ground, so that’s a good sign. He throws a good spiral and it’s easy for us to put our hands on it.”
While Worley hasn’t attempted a pass at Tennessee yet, his ability to communicate to the other 10 guys on offense has rated as a completion.
“He has been very vocal (in the huddle),” center Alex Bullard said. “Not once today or even in Alabama did we have to tell him to speak up when he came in. He’s ready to go and clear with his calls. We feel really confident with him in at quarterback.”
Bullard made his first collegiate start at center last week at No. 2 Alabama with decidedly positive results as he was named Tennessee’s offensive player of the week by the coaching staff.
The Franklin, Tenn., native was happy with his play, but nowhere near ready to call it a perfect performance.
“I feel like I did pretty well for my first time,” Bullard said. “I could have made better calls. I could have identified the ‘mike’ linebacker a little bit better in order to pick up the pressure (Alabama) was bringing. I feel like that will come with a little more experience at the position.”
This week against South Carolina, Bullard will be the veteran in the center-quarterback exchange as he works with Worley for the first time in a game. He isn’t too concerned about making the transition though.
“It’s not that tough because we’ve worked with all of (the quarterbacks),” Bullard said. “During the summer, Justin Worley was with the (second string) switching with Matt Simms. I’ve had the opportunity to snap to all three of them in training camp so it will not be that big of an adjustment.”
BUMPS AND BRUISES
With seven games in the books, the Vols are enduring the typical this-time-of-year pain, especially after playing the top two ranked teams in the country in Alabama and LSU, both of which have a reputation for being physical.
“We have to learn how to manage it mentally,” Dooley said. “We have to learn how to manage it physically. Your body will continue to adjust to the amount of stress you put on it. We have to keep pushing and then we have to do a good job when we’re not in practice of recovering our bodies so we’ll be ready to go on Saturday.
While the Vols recover, Dooley reminded them that they’re not the only ones.
“There’s a physical component to it, there’s a mental component to it and there’s an emotional component to it,” Dooley said. “But there’s not a team in college football right now that doesn’t have the bumps and bruises. That’s part of it.”
Head coach Derek Dooley
(On breakdowns in the secondary)
“I don’t think it’s one thing. Sometimes it’s experience. Sometimes it’s physical skills. Sometimes it’s a mental breakdown. Sometimes it’s just an inability to finish. There are a lot of issues. We just have to keep working. It’s all we can do.”
(On South Carolina’s offense)
“They have a fast back (Brandon Wilds). He’s really fast. He’ll be a little different style. It’s hard to get much of a feel. They’re going to do a lot of different stuff. They’ve had two weeks to prepare. We’re going to have to be prepared for everything. It’ll be tough.”
Sophomore center Alex Bullard
(On protecting Justin Worley)
“We have to help build his confidence. If he is not getting touched, and not having guys in his face and has time to throw the ball, than his confidence is going to rise dramatically. If we do not do our part and cut people loose giving up pressure than his confidence isn’t going to come along as quickly. I think that’s the biggest thing for us with a young, freshman, quarterback in his first game is to give him time and keep his jersey clean. He’ll take care of the rest. He’s extremely talented.”
(On what Marcus Jackson brings to the offensive line)
“He’s very physical. When he’s confident in what he is doing he flies off the ball and hammers people. Against Alabama he was able to blow off the ball and get his head on the inside of the defender. He’s a very physical player and when he goes in the right direction he levels people. He brings that physicality to our line that we want.”
(On the transitions all over the offensive line)
“We all are ‘next man in.’ I just have to do a better job knowing the calls because I might not have James Stone there to bail me out like I usually do. I’m going to have to know my stuff better this week and take over as more of a leader on offense.”
Sophomore defensive end Jacques Smith
(On Justin Worley making his first start Saturday)
“Anyone making their first start is going to have a little bit of nervous jitters, especially with the crowd since it’s a lot more different from high school. There are so many more people, it’s a lot louder, there are faster people going against you and everything is a lot quicker. He’ll adjust to the game quickly. He’s been in a lot of the scrimmages here and he’s gotten a lot of reps with the (starters). We’re going to prepare him this week and I feel like he’ll be ready for the game Saturday.”
(On whether he is satisfied with his production in games or not)
“Personally, no because everybody sets higher standards for themselves than what everyone else’s expectations are. Of course I want to do better, and of course I want to make plays. A sack on every down would satisfy me. I haven’t gotten to that point yet and I’ve got to continue to get better verse the run and pass.”
(Recalling his first year at Tennessee)
“My freshman year I had jitters all throughout the practice week and now it’s just natural. It’s like a test, we practice and film is like our textbook. We go out that week and that’s our test.”
(On getting better at the pass rush)
“I need to get off the ball and find any keys that I can key off of to know when the snap is coming so I can beat the tackle. Most of (South Carolina’s) tackles are pretty big, and you’ve got to beat them with speed. That’s what I plan to do this week.”
Freshman safety Brian Randolph
(On playing more)
“It has been a progression. I had to improve a lot. I wasn’t as good when I got here because I was shifted. I played running back (in high school), so I had to adjust to my new position and get a balance.”
(On opportunity to play)
“You have to take everything in. You have to learn fast, you have to play fast, you have to work hard and show that you are dedicated.”
(On being physical)
“When you are back there and they have the camera on you, you can’t shy away from contact. That will get you on the bench very fast. If its your job to tackle, then you have to tackle. I felt it from the LSU running back. (Spencer) Ware was pretty hard-hitting. I felt that one. You have to keep coming back. You can’t shy away from anyone.”
Sophomore defensive back Byron Moore
(On his improvement)
“Obviously, the whole situation with playing early didn’t play out like I thought it would, but I just kept a straight head, stayed humble and did what I had to do. I came in and lost three pounds, just worked on my technique and learned the playbook and system and just kept improving each day I came out here. The coaches noticed it and kept telling me to do what I do and that my time was going to come.”
(On playing both safety and nickel)
“I feel very comfortable now. I’ve been learning the playbook and going back and forth between playing free safety and nickel. I’m pretty comfortable at both positions and now I’m just trying to do what I can to make plays and get turnovers.”
(On the key to playing nickel)
“Just being able to cover and just show that you can come up and help in the run game as well. Just being able to bring my safety mentality down to the nickel position. With my cover skills, that position pretty much fits me perfectly.”