So much of playing successful defense against the Oregon Ducks is predicated on getting everybody lined up properly, making checks and having players in the right position to make plays in space.
Tennessee coach Butch Jones is thankful to have veteran safety Brian Randolph assuming many of those duties on the back end as the Vols storm into Autzen Stadium this Saturday.
It's extremely valuable. You know, we talk about being smart football players and football intelligence, and Brian is extremely smart. And, so, that's obviously going to help him, and we're going to need that all day Saturday.
When Randolph plays, the Vols are simply better. Junior All-SEC linebacker A.J. Johnson gets most of the publicity, but Randolph is Tennessee's defensive MVP.
Since coming to Knoxville, Randolph has started 13 games. According to the official statistics on UTSports.com, the Vols have allowed an average of 19.6 points and 344 yards during those starts. In the 12 games he didn't start, UT allowed an average of 34.4 points and 452.7 yards per game.
Said UT senior linebacker Dontavis Sapp:
Brian Randolph's a great player. He knows the defense in and out; smart guy. He's always making the right calls and communicating well with the linebackers, so it's great to have him back.
The redshirt sophomore from Marietta, Ga., is coming off his best game as a Vol in last week's 52-20 throttling of Western Kentucky. He corralled two interceptions in the end zone to turn away scoring drives, a performance that earned him the SEC Defensive Player of the Week, according to the SEC's official site.
That honor emphatically announced Randolph's full-circle return from a devastating knee injury suffered in the third game of 2012.
During Florida's frenetic comeback victory over UT last September, Frankie Hammond caught a pass and got behind the Vols defense. The only player standing between the receiver and end zone was Randolph, who planted his foot, corkscrewed his knee, missed the tackle and was left writhing in pain.
In this case, that touchdown added injury to insult. Randolph—who, according to this Associated Press story on ESPN, was UT's leading tackler at the time with 22 stops—tore his anterior cruciate ligament, and UT had to replace its leading tackler and best leader.
They couldn't. The Vols endured the worst defensive season in school history without him.
Though there were several factors that contributed to Sal Sunseri's nightmarish season as UT's defensive coordinator, Randolph's loss was major. The Vols had no custodian on the back end—a player who could clean up busted coverage. Plays that should have gone for 15 yards went for 60.
With the Ducks up next, minimizing big plays is going to be a major point of emphasis. When there inevitably is a missed assignment and a big gain, somebody has to calm the team.
Having a simplified 4-3 scheme helps, but so does deploying a steady player like Randolph, who said slowing down Oregon starts with getting everybody on the same defensive page.
We've just got to talk, communicate to everybody. If we see somebody get wide-eyed out there, we've just got to bring them back down to Earth. Don't let things get bigger than they are.
Randolph is a calming, coaching presence out there. He has started since his freshman season, when he finished as a freshman All-SEC performer with 55 tackles, according to his UT bio. Having him on the field makes a major difference.
"He's a playmaker and a great leader for us," junior cornerback Justin Coleman said. "With him out there, he can control the defense and help us get Ws."
Beating Oregon is an awfully tall task, but the Vols have proven the chances improve greatly when Randolph is on the field.
All quotes were transcribed from videos posted on UTSports.com, unless otherwise noted.