Tennessee defensive back Brian Randolph talks about the upcoming season on July 31 in Knoxville.(AP Photo/Knoxville News Sentinel, Amy Smotherman Burgess)
KNOXVILLE — Tennessee safety Brian Randolph hopes to follow the example of a former teammate as he attempts to complete a comeback from a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
Randolph watched Justin Hunter return from a torn ACL last year and enjoy one of the most prolific seasons of any receiver in school history. Hunter bypassed his senior season and was drafted by the Tennessee Titans in the second round.
When Hunter wasn't catching passes, he occasionally was giving advice to Randolph, who tore the ACL in his right knee last year. Both players got hurt in early-season losses to Florida.
"He'd always joke with me about it and try to keep my spirits up when I was in the training room every day," Randolph said. "It was good talking to him. He told me everything would be fine, (that) I've just got to relax, wait and be patient."
Randolph's patience is about to be rewarded.
Less than a year after surgery, Randolph said he's at about 95 percent heading into Tennessee's Aug. 31 season opener against Austin Peay.
Randolph's injury came early enough in the 2012 season to earn him a redshirt, giving him three more years of eligibility. He now is eager to demonstrate how much he's learned during his time away from the playing field.
"I feel like I'm smarter," Randolph said. "I pretty much know what everybody on the field is doing, so I know how to work with them in our coverages and stuff. I can use that to my advantage to be in the right place and make plays."
Tennessee's coaching staff believes Randolph can help make the safety position a strength of the defense. Randolph is locked in as the starting free safety. Sophomore LaDarrell McNeil could start at strong safety ahead of senior Byron Moore, who tied for the Southeastern Conference lead with five interceptions and ranked second on the team with 86 tackles last year.
Jones says he has noticed improvement in plenty of aspects of Randolph's game, from his body position to his leverage to his use of hands. Secondary coach Willie Martinez praises Randolph's consistency and leadership.
Martinez hasn't noticed Randolph worrying about the knee at all.
"He's been very confident, moves around very well," Martinez said. "His physicality shows up."
Randolph was leading the Vols with 22 tackles last season when he hurt his knee trying to make a play on a 75-yard touchdown reception by Florida's Frankie Hammond in the third game of the year. Tennessee's defense proved even more vulnerable to the big play without Randolph and ended up allowing seven touchdowns of at least 70 yards and 14 touchdowns of at least 40 yards last season.
"I felt I could have helped my teammates out and stopped the big runs, kept those touchdowns to 20-yard gains and stuff like that," Randolph said.
Randolph wasn't alone in that opinion.
"That was a big part of our defense that we really needed back there in the secondary, and it showed a lot (in) how the season went," Hunter said. "We didn't have that guy back there."
As Randolph became more of a presence in the training room than the secondary, he received pointers from Hunter on what to expect during the recovery process.
"I told him the truth: It's going to be hard," Hunter said. "I talked to him every day (and said), 'It's going to get better.' "
Hunter's actions offered as much encouragement as his words. Hunter showed no lingering effects from the injury while catching 73 passes for 1,083 yards and nine touchdowns.
"I remember watching him in practice, and he was joking around and cutting on it and stuff," Randolph said. "That made me feel good about myself, how he wasn't even thinking about it."
Randolph has followed the same type of path in his recovery as Hunter did last year. Randolph now hopes he can produce the same type of results.
AP sports writer Teresa Walker of Nashville contributed to this report.
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