KNOXVILLE – Two spring practices are in the books for Butch Jones and Tennessee, but there will be a different feel come Thursday.
“Football practice officially starts Thursday when the pads go on,” Jones said after Tuesday’s practice, which was the final one with Vols wearing just helmets. “We have to get a lot better in a hurry. It’s our mental conditioning, being able to play through fatigue, being able to execute. I know they’re trying, but we have to step it up on Thursday.”
Full pads might sound dreadful to some on the team, but it’s a welcomed sign for redshirt sophomore Brian Randolph, who missed all but three games in 2012 with a torn ACL sustained against Florida in Week 3.
“There were times when I thought I’d never get better,” Randolph said in his first interview since the injury last season. “There were just days where you felt like you got worse from the day before. It was just a long experience.”
But almost six months to the day that Randolph crumpled to the Neyland Stadium turf with the season-ending injury, he’s back on the practice field wearing just a light knee brace on his right leg and is participating in most of the spring drills.
There’s still a balancing act for him, though. He admitted that he tweaked his hamstring on Tuesday because he was overcompensating on his good knee while running. He is technically “limited” this spring due to the ACL, but hopes to participate in a majority of the drills.
“Brian’s done a great job,” Jones said. “He’s back practicing and we have to pick our spots. We can’t just throw him in there on every single rep. He’s every bit of what we thought he’d be. He’s bringing great leadership, he’s doing a great job.”
His quick return has been a pleasant surprise for teammate LaDarrell McNeil, who stepped in as a starting safety a few weeks after Randolph went down last season.
Randolph’s injury means three starting safeties return in 2013 – McNeil, Randolph and senior Byron Moore. It’s a competition McNeil welcomes.
“I am surprised and I’m happy for him,” McNeil said. “I told him ‘you’re going to have to compete it out,’ it’s not going to be easy, but I want you to be right there with me because you’re just like a big brother to me.”
All are hoping for better results from a secondary that was among the worst in the nation in stopping the pass and limiting big plays in 2013.
“That hurt me a lot,” Randolph said. “Sitting at home watching the games. It was the worst feeling ever. I feel like I could’ve helped my teammates. I heard a bunch of bad stats. We just tell ourselves that we were the worst defense in the SEC last year, so we’re trying to prove everybody wrong this year.”
Defensive depth chart:
There’s no official depth chart at this point in spring practice, but here’s a look at how the defense lined up when the team ran through plays during the open portion of the second practice on Tuesday:
DE: 1. Jacques Smith 2. Corey Miller
DE: 1. Marlon Walls 2. Jordan Williams
DT: 1. Daniel McCullers 2. Allan Carson
DT: 1. Daniel Hood 2. Trevarris Saulsberry *Maurice Couch is limited with injury
LB: 1. A.J. Johnson 2. Dontavis Sapp/Kenny Bynum
LB: 1. Brent Brewer 2. Channing Fugate/Christian Harris
CB: 1. Justin Coleman 2. Naz Oliver
CB: 1. Daniel Gray 2. Riyahd Jones
NB: 1. Eric Gordon 2. Jaron Toney
S: 1. Byron Moore 2. Geraldo Orta
S: 1. Brian Randolph 2. LaDarrell McNeil
Injury update: Linebacker Curt Maggitt (ACL) was not on the practice field and instead worked with trainers in the weight room. Defensive tackle Maurice Couch and defensive back Tino Thomas both went through some drills, but both had green, non-contact jerseys on.
Marques Pair worked with the first team at left tackle in place of Tiny Richardson (shoulder), who is limited this spring.
• Due to heavy rain on Monday, saturating Haslam Field, practice was held in the indoor practice facility Tuesday morning.
• Ball security has been a huge emphasis during both of the first two practices. “Chin the ball” is a common expression used by this staff, emphasizing the concept of holding the ball high and tight.
• Jones spends most of his time with the offense, but he does split time between different drills. He also spends a fair amount of time with the kickers and punters and seems to have a good grasp on kicking technique. In general, his style seems to be intense, yet encouraging. There haven’t been any earth-shattering rants from him yet, but there have only been two practices.
• Wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni seems to be one of the more vocal and intense coaches. He’s given several receivers an earful after they dropped a pass, lined up incorrectly or ran a sloppy route.
Daniel Lewis covers University of Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga