Tennessee’s defensive backfield is proof of the old adage about “safety in numbers.” When all hands are healthy, safety is the strongest position on the entire Vol roster.
-Starting free safety Brian Randolph heads into 2015 already qualifying as a four-year starter. He started eight games as a freshman, then started the first three as a sophomore before suffering a season-ending injury. He started all 12 games in 2013 and 11 of 13 in 2014 – missing one start due to injury and another due to a two-quarter targeting suspension. Now a fifth-year senior, he boasts 34 career starts.
-Starting strong safety LaDarrell McNeil approaches 2015 as a three-year starter. He started seven games as a freshman, all 12 as a sophomore and 12 of 13 as a junior last fall. At 6-feet-1 and 215 pounds, he’s kind of like having an extra outside linebacker.
—Todd Kelly Jr. was so impressive as a true freshman last August that he joined the starting lineup for Games 2 (Arkansas State) and 3 (Oklahoma). Despite starting just one more game all season, he led all SEC freshmen with three interceptions. Kelly appears poised for an even bigger year in 2015.
—Evan Berry, younger brother of perhaps the greatest safety in Vol history, played sparingly behind Randolph and McNeil in 2014 but made more strides last spring than any player on the roster. If Berry can approach the production of older brother Eric, he could be one of the all-time greats.
When was the last time Tennessee had four safeties the caliber of Randolph, McNeil, Kelly and Berry? Maybe never. Certainly, the talent level at the position is the strongest it has been in Randolph’s five years on The Hill.
“I remember times a couple of years ago, me or LaDarrell would get dinged up or extremely tired and we felt like we had to stay in the game; it was the best thing for Tennessee,” Randolph recalled. “Now if I get a little bit tired I know I can come out and there won’t be any drop-off if I let Todd or Evan give me some rest.”
Tennessee’s head coach feels blessed just having a couple of senior starters the caliber of Randolph and McNeil.
“It is a great luxury when you have Brian Randolph and LaDarrell McNeil,” Butch Jones told InsideTennessee. “Obviously, they have played a lot of football here, but they are great people and very, very good communicators.”
The experience Randolph and McNeil bring could be critical to a Vol defense that projects to be awfully young in the front seven.
“Brian has really upped his game in terms of leadership,” Jones said. “LaDarrell’s the same way.”
Randolph led all Vols with 65 solo stops last fall and ranked third with 88 total tackles. McNeil was fifth in solos (46) and fourth in total tackles (76). They’re still starters but Kelly and Berry have closed the gap considerably since last season. Moreover, freshman Stephen Griffin has shown flashes in fall camp that he deserves playing time, as well.
“It's very high competition, and that's what you want," Kelly told InsideTennessee. “You saw a little bit of that during the spring, and you know all five of our safeties are out there trying to make plays and doing the best we can … at the same time learning and helping each other. That's the only way you get better – with competition.”
|Tennessee sophomore safety Todd Kelly Jr.|
Certainly, Kelly has been doing his part to foster competition at safety.
“I give Todd Kelly a lot of credit,” Jones said. “He’s been hampered with some injuries but he’s fighting through that.”
Kelly senses tremendous camaraderie in the secondary these days, noting: “"It's not about yourself. It's about the team. We call it power of the position. Whenever someone's out there – not just the safeties, but the corners and also the nickels – we’re all supportive and we want to make plays."
McNeil briefly lost his starting job to Kelly last fall but rallied to become one of the Vols’ most dependable defenders the rest of the season. He believes he will be even better this fall due to a greater familiarity with his responsibilities.
"I believe that I’m better with the scheme,” he said. “I’m better at the run game. I can determine my fits. Coach (John) Jancek and Coach (Willie) Martinez always preach that I know my assignment, and that is what I’m doing."
For what it’s worth, Randolph sees improvement across Tennessee’s defense … not just at safety.
“We’ve got a chance to put Tennessee back on the map this year,” he said. “We feel like we definitely have the defense this year to do it, so we appreciate all the talent we’ve got.”