Safety shuffle

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Tennessee's best safety is done for the season, forcing two freshmen into the top backup roles. That's a shaky situation, especially when this Saturday's opponent, Akron, threw for 565 yards last weekend.

With Brian Randolph sidelined by a torn ACL, junior Brent Brewer assumes the starting spot opposite Byron Moore in the Vol lineup this weekend. Brewer has 14 career starts under his belt, so he's no novice. The backups, however — redshirt freshman Geraldo Orta and true freshman LaDarrell McNeil — are as green as the grass on Shields-Watkins Field. That is forcing safeties coach Josh Conklin to modify his approach a bit.

"You've got to adjust some things," Conklin said. "You've got to maybe simplify things or at least simplify how you teach it. Use less words and make sure the words you use are the correct words, then get 'em out there and make sure they understand what they're going to see."

In a perfect world Orta and McNeil would see a run-oriented opponent, not a Zips team that launched 59 passes (completing 44) last time out.

"They've got a very explosive passing attack," Conklin said. "It's going to be controlled. It's going to be short. But they do a great job of getting the ball out and running routes. It's clean, it's crisp, and we're going to have to be right on this week when we get out there."

Injuries are a part of football, of course, but the loss of Randolph is a serious blow for the Vols. He started eight times as a true freshman in 2011 and is Tennessee's leading tackler (22 stops) through the first three games of 2012. In addition to being one of the Vols' better athletes, he's one of the Vols' brightest players. That's why he was entrusted with calling the secondary coverages.

"He's a guy that definitely understood all of the checks and was probably a little bit more advanced than those other guys," Conklin said. "B. Moore will now be kind of the quarterback back there, making the checks we need, and I think we'll be all right.

"The biggest things we're going to miss from Brian are his production on the field and, obviously, his leadership. Those are two things that hurt us but those other guys are ready to step up, and there's a sense of urgency from those guys."

Though clearly more comfortable at cornerback, senior Prentiss Waggner has started several games at safety in his career. He may see a few snaps there Saturday against Akron.

"Prentiss has played a little bit of safety," Conklin said, "but I don't know if we'll look at that this week or not. Those young guys, LaDarrell McNeil and Geraldo Orta, have got to step up and start producing for us and helping us out."

Brent Brewer suddenly finds himself back in the starting lineup on the back end of the Tennessee defense.
(Danny Parker/InsideTennessee.com)
McNeil and Orta have the talent level to be SEC-caliber safeties; they just don't have the necessary comfort level yet.

"Right now they don't know the packages as well as those other two guys," Conklin said, referring to starters Moore and Brewer. "They can do some things really well, as far as the sub-personnel packages, but the base stuff they've got to pick up and they've got to accelerate. We've spent a lot more time with them in meetings this week and they've come in for extra work because they've got to be ready to go."

Instead of fielding a free safety and a strong safety, Tennessee plays a left safety and a right safety. This week is a perfect example of why.

"When you have an injury, you've got to have guys that can step up and be ready right now," Conklin said. "That's part of the reason we don't go strong and free safety — we go left and right — so they have a bigger picture of how things work and how we need to adjust things."

Although Randolph will be missed, Brewer and Moore give Tennessee a couple of capable players at the safety positions.

"I'm really comfortable with them," Conklin said. "It's unfortunate when you have an injury but you've got to go to the next guy and he's always got to be ready. You try to impress that on them early. Brent's time had been limited in our dime rabbit package but he's a good base safety. He can do that for us."

He isn't nearly as effective in coverage as Randolph but, pound for pound, Brewer (6-1, 215) is the biggest hitter on Tennessee's team.

"He can be a physical presence," Conklin conceded. "So now he's got to step that (coverage) part of his game up."

Although Moore is listed at free safety and Brewer at strong safety on the depth chart, they essentially play the same position.

"They have to be interchangeable," Conklin said. "Some body types can adjust to a strong safety or free safety a little better. But we feel like you have to be interchangeable, so when we put those two guys out there, it's left and right."

The player to watch is McNeil. A four-star prospect at Wilmer-Hutchins High in Dallas last fall, he was rated America's No. 6 safety prospect by Fox Sports NEXT. At 6-feet-1 and 195 pounds, he is an impressive-looking athlete.

"LaDarrell is an extremely focused individual and he's a very conscientious guy," Conklin said. "It's just a matter of getting live reps. I think the reps he's gotten on special teams have helped his confidence toward getting out there this week. I just want to see him put the extra time in and continue to develop as a football player and continue to gain confidence so that when you get out there your mind doesn't go blank."

Basically, McNeil is similar to former Vol safety Janzen Jackson, except without the off-field issues.

"LaDarrell's a very instinctive guy," Conklin said. "He's very explosive, what we call a 'twitch' guy. He can make plays and show up when you don't think he's going to make up (the ground). He's very explosive at the point of attack. It's just a matter of getting him going in the right direction.

"As advertised, he's the type of guy you want at the safety position, especially in the middle of the field."

See what else Conklin had to say about the safety position following practice this week on The Hill:


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