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.
“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.