Wise guy at safety

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Brian Randolph has no idea if he'll start Tennessee's opener versus North Carolina State at free safety or strong safety ... and he won't find out until the Wolfpack breaks the huddle for its first snap.

"It just depends on how the offense lines up, whether you're playing strong or free safety," Randolph said. "Before the ball is snapped you never know, so you've got to be ready and know both positions."

Instead of designating a free safety and a strong safety, Tennessee's new scheme features a left safety and a right safety. Whether the left safety is more of a free safety or a strong safety depends entirely on the offense's alignment. The same goes for the right safety.

"It's more responsibility," Randolph said. "We have to know each position, so you can't just know what you've got to do on one side of the field. It's much harder than it sounds because you've got to know both safety positions."

Fortunately, Randolph is bright enough to master the responsibilities of both positions. Although he boasts a sturdy 6-foot, 197-pound frame and excellent talent, his greatest asset may be his intelligence.

"It helps me to play faster," he said. "I get to the right spot more times. It's helped me get on the field."

First-year Vol safeties coach Josh Conklin concedes that Randolph's ability to assimilate and process information in a split second gives him a significant advantage on the football field.

"I think it's helped him a lot," Conklin said. "Obviously, anytime you have that intellectual ability, you can pick up the schemes, pick up the things we're trying to teach. Some guys can pick it up but they can't apply it out here (on the field). He's got the knack for doing that."

Because he has a sharp mind, Randolph is entrusted with getting Tennessee's secondary in the right coverage on each play.

First-year assistant coach Josh Conklin has depth to work with at safety.
(Danny Parker/InsideTennessee.com)
"Whenever we're in a call, I make the checks," he said. "It's a lot more responsibility but I like it. I like being in charge because even if I make the wrong call at least I'll get everybody on the same page and running the same thing."

Although Randolph started eight games as a true freshman in 2011, he has improved tremendously in the offseason.

"He has really progressed," Conklin said. "I think a lot of it has to do with him learning, conceptually, what an offense is trying to do. You've got different run concepts. You've got different route concepts. You've got different run-blocking schemes.

"He's starting to understand that stuff. He's starting to tie that in with his fundamentals and his techniques. What you're seeing is a guy that's starting to be in position more often to make more plays. He's got good instincts. He's a really good football player that has good instincts."

Still, Randolph is being pushed. Juniors Brent Brewer and Byron Moore are very much in the running for the left and right safety spots. Randolph finds the challenge exhilarating.

"I feel like it's going to make all of us better," he said. "I like the competition. If one of us goes down we have someone ready to back 'em up. That's a good feeling to have; you don't have to do it by yourself."

Brewer started the first eight games of 2011 at strong safety before missing the last four due to a torn ACL. He has bounced back in a big way this preseason.

"From what I saw last year before the injury to now his footwork, his mobility, his side-to-side, his range in the middle of the field has improved a lot more than what I thought he'd be capable of," Conklin said.

Moore recorded two interceptions in the final preseason scrimmage, however, and continues to put the heat on Randolph and Brewer.

"They're real close right now," Conklin said. "Those two guys and B. Randolph all do different things. What they do on a football field, as far as God-given talent, is a little bit different. They've definitely got skill sets that can help us win as a football team, and we're going to use all of 'em."

The fact each of the three started multiple games in 2011 weighs in their favor. Experience, after all, is the best teacher.

"It's helped a lot," Randolph said. "We know how to get our plays called to keep everybody on the same page. We all know what to do and we don't freeze up as much, so that really helps us."

Tennessee's secondary was short-handed and somewhat passive in 2011. Apparently, that will not be the case in 2012.

"This year we're going to be much more aggressive," Randolph said. "I think the safeties are going to be much more aggressive. We're not going to play in the 2-shell or the 3-high as much.

"We're going to come on blitzes. I think me and the rest of the safeties will get more sacks, more pressure on the quarterback. We get to fly around more."

Check out Randolph's video interview following practice this week:

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