KNOXVILLE — Tennessee has a problem on the back line of it's secondary.
This one, though, probably isn't giving the Volunteers' defensive coaches many sleepless nights.
In Brian Randolph, Byron Moore and LaDarrell McNeil, Tennessee has three safeties with 32 career starts combined, and the Vols are hoping they can provide some stability in an unsettled secondary.
"It's better to have that problem than trying to find guys that don't have experience, or [guys] you're not sure about," secondary coach Willie Martinez said Saturday after Tennessee's second preseason practice. "We're developmental in all the other areas.
"They have a lot of experience, which it shows. They were obviously well ahead of the other guys coming out here. They're doing a nice job, and obviously in our system, our safeties have got to be like the quarterback. They've got to make all the calls, so we're leaning on them a lot as far as leadership and getting that relayed throughout the whole secondary."
The Vols are glad to have Randolph back after he missed the final nine games last season with a knee injury. Two weeks after his season ended against Florida, McNeil got his first significant playing time against Georgia. The Dallas product, the highest-rated high school signee in Tennessee's 2012 class, started alongside Moore for the season's final seven games.
The 6-foot-1, 199-pound sophomore, an SEC All-Freshman team selection last season, impressed Martinez in spring practice and wanted to build off that in the summer.
"I wanted to get bigger and faster, and I wanted to make sure I can play faster by play recognition," he said. "Every day we try to make each other better by competing and telling each other key things. If we miss an assignment, or if we mess up just a little bit, of if we're in coverage, we try to help each other out as much as we can."
Most likely, though, the three safeties are fighting for two spots in the lineup. Given how valuable Randolph was early last season -- linebacker A.J. Johnson said earlier this week he thought his absence cost the Vols two wins -- it's likely McNeil and Moore battling for the other spot.
"It is a battle," coach Butch Jones said. "First of all, getting Brian Randolph back, you can see his recovery from spring ball to now. He's quicker. He's stronger.
"With McNeil and Byron, just the day-to-day competition, I think the competition's healthy, but it also helps us in the special teams game as well. Everything is earned by their body of work on the field.
Freshmen under fire
After a stretching period, Jones gathered his team around him before calling for receiver Cody Blanc and freshman cornerback Malik Foreman to face off one-on-one at the goal line.
Blanc cut out and back in and hauled in the pass with Foreman draped across his back.
"We're going to have to rely on some true freshman, and I know Cody's not a true freshman, but Malik Foreman is," the coach later explained. "I think it's a lesson to Malik that every time you step on the football field, you've got to be ready to play. It's just trying to put those freshmen in competitive situations, and we'll do more of that throughout the course of training camp."
Perilously thin at corner, Tennessee plans to push freshmen Foreman, the Kingsport Dobyns-Bennett High School product, and Cameron Sutton to be ready when the season begins. Defensive coordinator John Jancek said his message to the new duo was "Don't flinch." The reality, he said, is both Sutton and Foreman will play.
"They were hit and miss," he said. "Malik got challenged today, but I think those guys have a good skill set. I like their demeanor. Obviously they're a long ways away on the second day of practice as true freshmen, but they've shown signs that they've got some skill.
"We've just got to stay with them and keep banging away."
Jones expects Sutton and Foreman to be up to the challenge they'll face this month.
"They're sipping through a fire hose," he said. "Everything's coming at them. We're going to keep force-feeding them, but they've very prideful, they're extremely competitive and they take coaching. I'm very encouraged. ... I think we really helped ourselves at that position."
Without being asked about them, Jones said he's been "very encouraged" by Tennessee's freshmen wide receivers. During one tempo period when the 11-man offense worked on its fast pace, newcomers MarQuez North, the 6-foot-4, 215-pounder who was the 2013 class's top-rated signee, and Josh Smith, the Knoxville product, were in the first-team lineup. Later in the drive, freshman Ryan Jenkins and rookie tight end A.J. Branisel went in for some snaps.
"I think they've improved our football team," Jones said of the new wideouts. "Finally we're completing balls in practice. I think they've been a big addition.
"We've thrown a lot at them, and I think they've digested the playbook. The speed leve, the ball skills, the natural instincts -- they've really added to the competitive component to our offense, which was greatly needed."
Brighton (Tenn.) High School's Charles Mosley was in Knoxville and attended Saturday’s practice. A four-star prospect according to 247sports.com, the 6-foot-5, 346-pounder is considering the Vols, who are recruiting him to play defense, and Alabama. Georgia, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Auburn and Vanderbilt are Mosley’s other SEC scholarship offers.
Blinn (Texas) College’s Kameel Jackson, one of Tennessee’s two 2014 junior college receiver commitments, made his official visit to campus this week. The 6-foot-1, 208-pound three-star prospect pledged to the Vols in April. At Oklahoma in 2011, Jackson caught 12 passes for 165 yards before leaving the Sooners and enrolling at Louisiana-Monroe last season.
Justin King, who played tight end in the spring and quarterbacked a wildcat package last season, switched to linebacker over the summer, but the sophomore won't be available until later in training camp with an injury.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...
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