NCF Nation: Brian Randolph

SEC helmet stickers: Week 2

September, 8, 2013
Week 2 was another wild week in the SEC that provided plenty of highlights, and now it’s time to hand out the helmet stickers.

Aaron Murray, QB, Georgia: The monkey is finally off his back. Murray delivered in a big game, in front of a national audience, and the Bulldogs came out victorious. Before Saturday, he had a reputation for losing big games. He lost to Clemson in the opener. He lost to Alabama in last year’s SEC championship. He was 0-3 in his career against South Carolina. That’s all changed now. Murray finished 17-of-23 for 309 yards and four touchdowns. More importantly, he didn’t turn the ball over. It’s just one game, and Georgia still has aspirations of winning an SEC title and then a national title, but Murray can sleep easy for now.

The Tennessee secondary: Many pundits thought Western Kentucky would go into Knoxville and take down the Volunteers, but Tennessee’s defense had other ideas. At one point in the first quarter, it forced five turnovers in a span of six snaps, including two interceptions that were taken back for touchdowns. In all, the Volunteers pulled down five interceptions and held coach Bobby Petrino’s passing offense to just 222 yards through the air. Junior safety Brian Randolph, who missed the majority of last season with a torn ACL, finished with two picks.

Odell Beckham, WR/RS, LSU: What didn’t Beckham do? As a receiver, he had five catches for 136 yards and three touchdowns. He returned a missed field goal 100 yards for a score, and he also added a 60-yard punt return that set up another LSU touchdown. For the game, he finished with 331 all-purpose yards. The junior now has more than 100 yards receiving in both of his first two games and has emerged as a go-to target for quarterback Zach Mettenberger.

The Auburn defensive line: In Week 1, Auburn failed to generate much of a pass rush from its defensive line. After a rigorous week of practice under defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, the line responded. The Tigers had 13 tackles for loss against Arkansas State, including a pair of sacks. They held the Red Wolves to just 150 yards rushing after they had gained 500 on the ground the week before. Defensive end LaDarius Owens led the way up front with eight tackles, two for a loss, and a sack.

Maxwell Smith and Jalen Whitlow, QBs, Kentucky: The Wildcats needed a win in the worst way, and the two quarterbacks delivered against Miami (Ohio). Smith, who started, finished 15-of-23 for 310 yards and three touchdowns while his counterpart Whitlow added 103 yards passing on a 10-for-12 night. Whitlow also rushed for 48 yards and a score. New coach Mark Stoops picked up his first win and has to feel good about his two signal-callers going forward.
Someone has to chase down all those speedy skill position players, and the SEC is well equipped with some fine secondaries this fall.

Here's how they rank going into the 2013 season:

1. Florida: The Gators will have arguably the nation's best cornerback duo in potential future first-rounders Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson. Purifoy is viewed by many as the nation's top cornerback. He's still raw, but he's a tremendous athlete, has great speed and is getting better at being a pure cover corner. Though Roberson isn't as athletic, he's more polished and has real lockdown ability (14 passes defensed in 2012). Sophomore Brian Poole made tremendous strides this spring at corner, and many think incoming freshman Vernon Hargreaves III has the ability to play now. At safety, veterans Jaylen Watkins and Cody Riggs have moved from corner. Coach Will Muschamp wants to see more from this position, but has plenty of bodies to help Watkins and Riggs, starting with Marcus Maye and Jabari Gorman.

[+] EnlargeHaHa Clinton-Dix
AP Photo/Butch DillHaHa Clinton-Dix could emerge as one of the best safeties in the nation.
2. Alabama: First-round corner Dee Milliner and reliable safety Robert Lester are gone, but there's a wealth of young talent in the secondary. Safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is poised to be an All-American and could be the top safety in the country. Deion Belue emerged as a very reliable cornerback and should be one of the top players at his position in the SEC this year. Sophomore Geno Smith matured quickly last year and was solid this spring, so he shouldn't have a problem stepping into a starting role. Vinnie Sunseri gives Alabama a veteran leader at safety, while sophomore Landon Collins might be ready go from special teams workhorse to starting safety for the Tide.

3. Vanderbilt: Andre Hal is one of the best cornerbacks in the SEC, while Kenny Ladler ranks near the top at the safety position in the SEC. Hal was second in the SEC with 14 pass breakups and added two interceptions last season. Ladler figured out a way to be all over the field last year, leading the team with 90 tackles. His safety partner, Javon Marshall, is back. Marshall and Ladler tied for the team lead with 60 solo tackles and will be one of the league's best safety duos. Replacing Trey Wilson won't be easy, but there are plenty of options, starting with senior Steven Clarke, who was the primary nickel corner.

4. LSU: The Tigers have to replace Eric Reid and Tharold Simon, but have the bodies to make things right, starting with corners Jalen Mills, Jalen Collins and safety Craig Loston. Mills and Collins were thrown onto the field early last season after Tyrann Mathieu's dismissal and grew up in a hurry. Mills started all 13 games and defended seven passes with two interceptions. Loston had trouble reaching his potential early in his career, but has really turned the corner and should be one of the top SEC safeties. Junior Ronald Martin should be fine at the other safety spot, while sophomores Micah Eugene and Corey Thompson are solid backups. Freshman Jeryl Brazil is a freak athlete who should help at corner.

5. Ole Miss: The Rebels gave up more yards and touchdowns through the air than they would have liked last season, but this group showed good flashes here and there. A good spring and a healthy dose of experience should go a long way this fall. Senior Charles Sawyer was very steady at corner after moving from safety and is the leader of this group, while hard-hitting sophomore safety Trae Elston has what it takes to be a top safety in this league. Junior Cody Prewitt leads the charge at the other safety spot, while Senquez Golson will start opposite Sawyer. Highly-touted freshman Antonio Conner could enter the season as the starter at the hybrid "Husky" position. There is a ton of depth in the secondary, starting with big-play machine Nick Brassell, who is back after a juco stint. Quintavius Burdette and Chief Brown provide good reserve options at safety.

6. Texas A&M: What was a young unit in 2012 is all grown up now. The top player back there is corner Deshazor Everett, who became a national name after his game-sealing interception against Alabama. While Everett could be a star, he and top safety Floyd Raven are dealing with legal issues after they were arrested in connection with an April incident at a College Station apartment complex. Getting them on the field is critical for the Aggies. De'Vante Harris enjoyed a solid freshman campaign and proved he can be a shutdown corner. Safety is stacked with veterans such as Raven, Howard Matthews and Toney Hurd Jr., so this unit should be drastically better in 2013.

7. South Carolina: The Gamecocks lost a top-flight safety in D.J. Swearinger and an experienced corner in Akeem Auguste, but they bring back a lot of athleticism and speed. It starts with junior corner Victor Hampton, who has turned into one of South Carolina's best overall players. Jimmy Legree moved back to corner from safety last season and tied for a team-high three interceptions and six pass breakups. Talented sophomore Ahmad Christian will also push to get on the field. Brison Williams is solid at strong safety, while sophomore T.J. Gurley could be a stud at free safety. He'll have to battle with the much-improved Kadetrix Marcus, but Gurley is one of the team's most talented players. There's a lot of inexperience behind the main guys, and the staff is hoping to get more out of former top safety recruit Chaz Elder.

[+] EnlargeTray Matthews
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsTray Matthews could crack the starting lineup in time for the season opener.
8. Georgia: The Bulldogs lost a ton of production here, but defensive coordinator Todd Grantham is excited by the talent his youngsters have, especially safety Tray Matthews, who might already be one of the top players at his position in the SEC. He covers a lot of ground, has great instincts and hits with the best of them. There's "old man" Damian Swann, who excelled as both a nickel and boundary corner last year. He's now the guy at corner. Sophomore "Star" Josh Harvey-Clemons might be the most talented player in the secondary and he'll work at both safety and linebacker in certain packages. Sophomore Sheldon Dawson left spring as the other starting corner, and the coaches are excited about his potential, while talented early enrollee Reggie Wilkerson will miss the season after suffering an ACL injury. Sophomore Devin Bowman should help at corner, along with true freshman Shaq Wiggins, a former ESPN 150 member.

9. Mississippi State: Jim Thorpe Award winner Johnthan Banks, top interception man Darius Slay and longtime starter Corey Broomfield are all gone. It hurts, but the Bulldogs aren't lost in the secondary. Senior Nickoe Whitley has loads of experience, while fellow safety Jay Hughes really stepped up as a valuable leader this spring. Jamerson Love is the most experienced corner coming back and the coaches expect him to break out very soon. But a lot of attention is going to juco transfer Justin Cox, who might be the team's fastest player and looks ready to step right in and be a shutdown corner. The top four guys seem solid, but there is a lot of inexperience behind them.

10. Auburn: Auburn has a lot of experience coming back to a unit that ranked eighth in pass defense last season. That number should be better this year, especially with Ellis Johnson taking over the defense. Corner Chris Davis might have only played nine games last season, but Johnson thinks he could be a special player. Corners Jonathon Mincy and Josh Holsey also saw plenty of time last year, while Jonathan Jones provides solid depth. Safety is covered by the high-flying Demetruce McNeal and Jermaine Whitehead, who were two of the Tigers' top tacklers last year. This group has to be more consistent and has to generate turnovers. Auburn had just two interceptions last year, with one coming from reserve safety Trent Fisher.

11. Missouri: Senior corner E.J. Gaines is one of the best cover corners in the SEC. What he lacks in size, he makes up in athleticism, speed and toughness. He has 27 pass breakups and three interceptions in the last two seasons. Randy Ponder had a solid spring and should start opposite Gaines. He has played in 25 games with five starts. Safety Braylon Webb is back after starting 12 games last year at free safety, while senior Matt White should hold down the other safety spot. Only Gaines and Ponder return with interceptions from last year (one each) and this unit surrendered an average of 333.3 passing yards per game last November.

12. Tennessee: The Vols do bring back experience, but this same group contributed to Tennessee owning the SEC's second worst pass defense (282.5 yards allowed per game). So that means these players have to grow and simply get better on the field. It won't come over night, but the experience gained last season should help. Safeties Byron Moore and Brian Randolph, who is coming back from an ACL injury, provide a solid foundation at safety, while returning starting corner Justin Coleman has to be much better than he was in 2012. Fortunately for the Vols, Coleman made very good strides this spring. Juco transfer Riyahd Jones could come in and start immediately.

13. Arkansas: This is another group that returns a lot of experience, but it was also the SEC's worst pass defense last year. The Razorbacks surrendered 8.2 yards per pass, 285.8 passing yards per game and gave up 24 touchdowns with six interceptions. All four starters -- corners Tevin Mitchel and Will Hines and safeties Eric Bennett and Rohan Gaines -- but all of them have to get better. Mitchel and Gaines have the potential to be big-time players, but they have to be more consistent. This unit should get a boost from juco transfers Tiquention Coleman and Carroll Washington, while redshirt freshman Jared Collins had a pretty good spring.

14. Kentucky: The Wildcats lost two quality starters and are now stuck with a lot of young players. Coach Mark Stoops wasn't too pleased with the play of the secondary this spring, so this won't be a quick fix. Junior safety Ashely Lowery has the playmaking ability Stoops wants back there, but he just resumed working out after his horrific car accident from earlier this year. Youngsters Daron and Zack Blaylock, J.D. Harmon, Cody Quinn, and Fred Tiller all saw good time last season, but their growing pains lasted for most of the season. There was some improvement this spring, but this unit has a long way to go before fall.
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- A Tennessee helmet signed by Peyton Manning sits prominently displayed in Butch Jones’ office at the Vols’ plush new digs, a reminder of where this program once operated among college football’s upper crust.

Manning’s signature includes a short note that reads simply: “Coach Jones, I’m in your corner.”

The truth is that they’re lining up in Big Orange Country to be in Jones’ corner. He hasn’t won a game, hasn’t even coached in a game. But he’s made a lot of right moves to this point, starting with fully embracing Tennessee’s traditions and reaching out to the former players.

[+] EnlargeButch Jones
Wade Rackley/Getty Images"We're going to get back to being Tennessee," vows new Vols coach Butch Jones.
“It’s the pride of who we are,” Jones said. “Those individuals have laid the foundation for this program. They’re the ones who’ve put in the sweat equity. They are who we are, and it’s important that our players understand the great players who came before them.”

It’s one of the reasons Jones is bringing back a captain from every era to address the team. Manning was on campus last week. Al Wilson, who captained the 1998 national championship team, is also scheduled to come in at some point.

On Friday, Jones tweeted out a picture of he and Arian Foster together in Tennessee’s new $45 million football complex. Foster, the Houston Texas’ All-Pro running back, had not been back to campus since 2009. He spoke to the team on the eve of Saturday’s Orange & White spring game.

“There’s only one Tennessee, and we’re going to get back to being Tennessee,” vowed Jones, who’s made it a point to get out and see fans, engage fans on social media, and speak just about anywhere he’s asked to speak.

“I think our fans and former players see our body of work, and feel the passion and energy and zeal me and my coaching staff have to be here at Tennessee. We’re one of them and as impatient as anyone, but we’re going to do it right and build it brick by brick and make sure that foundation is set in stone.”

As passionate as Jones is, he’s equally realistic. There aren’t going to be any quick fixes, not with a killer schedule in 2013 that includes trips to Alabama, Florida and Oregon.

The good news is that the Vols return an offensive line that should be one of the best in the SEC. But just about everywhere else, there are major question marks.

Simply getting to a bowl game next season would be a huge accomplishment for the Vols, who have suffered through three straight losing seasons.

“We’ve got a ways to go, but I’m hopeful we’ll be able to overcome some of the challenges we have starting out with our effort, our fundamentals, and our chemistry,” said Jones, who won four conference championships in his six seasons as head coach at Cincinnati and Central Michigan.

“The big thing for us is continuing to get better in our program day by day, hour by hour, and the winning will take care of itself.”

Amazingly, Jones is the fourth different head coach at Tennessee in the past six seasons. It’s hard to find genuine stability anywhere these days in the realm of SEC football. But for more than 30 years, the Vols were coached by two men -- John Majors and Phillip Fulmer.

Jones is hellbent on bringing back that stability, and his players insist the difference from the old regime under Derek Dooley has been night and day.

“There’s no locker room drama, people talking bad in the locker room,” said junior safety Brian Randolph, who is healthy again after missing most of last season with a torn ACL. “We used to have those people. That went away once coach Jones got here. The locker room atmosphere is much better, people hyped every day for practice. The team camaraderie is a lot better.”

Junior quarterback Justin Worley said Jones has followed through on giving everybody a fresh start, which has made for some fierce competition on the practice field this spring and eliminated any sense of entitlement that might have existed previously.

“Everybody’s had an opportunity to prove what they can do on the field and off the field, whether it’s in the classroom or the weight room,” said Worley, who exits the spring as the Vols’ likely starter at quarterback.

“That’s been a huge change. He hasn’t focused on just a small group of guys. We’ve had some walk-ons even step up and take some reps. We’ve never had that here. It really has been a clean slate, and we needed that.”

Something else Jones has done is get off to a blazing start on the 2014 recruiting class, which has been his most important move. The Vols were No. 7 nationally in ESPN’s early class rankings. They have already landed a pair of commitments from ESPN 150 prospects Jalen Hurd and Todd Kelly Jr. A third ESPN 150 prospect, linebacker Dillon Bates, could be soon to follow.

If the Vols are indeed going to return to elite status under Jones, they have to get back to beating teams on the recruiting trail that they have to beat on the field. When they had it rolling under Fulmer in the 1990s, that was the formula.

Jones’ message to recruits hasn’t wavered since he took the job, and the early returns suggest that they’re listening.

“We have it all right here at Tennessee, and then to be on the ground floor to build it back to its rightful place makes it even more special,” Jones said. “That’s a legacy, and something that will live with you for the rest of your life.

“It’s easy for players to go somewhere that’s established and they can just sort of fit in. Go some place you can make a difference.”

They’re believers on Rocky Top that Jones will make a difference. It’s just going to take some time.
Earlier, we took at look at five SEC Eastern Division players from the offensive side of the ball to keep an eye on in 2013 when it comes to potential breakout seasons.

Now, we're taking a stab at breakout defensive players to watch out for this fall (in alphabetical order):

Caleb Azubike, DE, Vanderbilt: With a defensive end spot up for grabs, Azubike has a chance to make a real name for himself in 2013. With limited snaps last fall, Azubike finished the year with 21 tackles and 4.5 tackles for loss, including four sacks. He's athletic and fast and with even more snaps this year should grow into a fine player for defensive coordinator Bob Shoop. The Commodores will need Azubike to step up and take some pressure off of other end Walker May.

[+] EnlargeJordan Jenkins
Todd Kirkland/Icon SMIJordan Jenkins recorded five sacks and 22 quarterback hurries this past season.
Jordan Jenkins, LB, Georgia: Jenkins found himself in a starting position for most of the second half of the season and was quite the performer for the Bulldogs. While Jarvis Jones grabbed all of the attention, Jenkins made a handful of plays for the Bulldogs and finished the season with eight tackles for loss, five sacks and 22 quarterback hurries. He has good speed on the outside, which helps him cover a lot of ground and make it tough for teams in both the running and passing game. With Jones gone, Jenkins has a chance to put up some fine numbers in 2013.

Randy Ponder, CB, Missouri: With Kip Edwards departing, Ponder has a chance to start opposite E.J. Gaines at the other cornerback position. Ponder, who showed a lot of potential with some nice plays in the win over Tennessee, logged 29 solo tackles and broke up two passes with an interception. Losing Edwards hurts, but Ponder, a former walk-on, has promise and learned a lot from watching his teammates the past couple of years.

Ronald Powell, DE/LB, Florida: Last year was supposed to be Powell's breakout year, but he tore his ACL during Florida's spring game and had a setback during the fall. But Powell will sit out the spring and should be healthy for the upcoming season. With the Gators losing some quality talent on the defensive side of the ball, Powell's return is very important. He had a tremendous spring last year and if he returns to that form, he could be one of the top pass-rushers in the SEC. He arrived in Gainesville with a ton of hype, but has yet to live up to it. He's much more invested now, and that's a good thing for Florida.

Brian Randolph, S, Tennessee: Another player who is returning from an ACL injury. He suffered his early last fall, and should be ready for next season. Randolph had a big freshman year and was set up to have a big second year, but his injury stopped that. If Randolph comes back at full strength, he could cause a lot of problems for opposing quarterbacks. He's extremely smart in the defensive backfield and covers a ton of ground for the Vols. He has a ball-hawk mentality and isn't afraid to get in the box and make plays.
Tennessee will be without arguably its best defensive player for the rest of the season, after sophomore safety Brian Randolph tore his ACL in his right knee in the Vols' 37-20 loss to Florida Saturday.

Randolph hurt his knee while trying to tackle Florida wide receiver Frankie Hammond Jr. during Hammond's 75-yard touchdown catch-and-run in the fourth quarter. Randolph caught up to Hammond during his run, but stepped awkwardly after Hammond made a strong cut back to the middle of the field at around the 25-yard line before cruising into the end zone.

Losing Randolph is a big deal for the Vols. He has tremendous field instinct and is an exceptional playmaker. He finished the season as the team's leading tackler, with 22 stops, including 17 solo. Randolph really made a splash with the Vols as a freshman last year, playing in all 12 games and starting eight. He collected 55 tackles and was a Freshman All-SEC selection by the league's coaches.

Randolph's absense leaves a big hole in not just Tennessee's secondary, but the entire defense. Junior safeties Byron Moore, who started the first three games at strong safety, and Brent Brewer will man the starting safety spots. Brewer started eight games last year before suffering a season-ending ACL injury against South Carolina.

There's experience in the defensive backfield, but there's no question that Randolph's replacement has very big shoes to fill.

"It's real big," sophomore linebacker Curt Maggitt said. "It's real key. He's a real vocal guy, real smart, understands his position and understands others' positions. [He] can help out a lot and he's a great playmaker, and he's a good person. You can trust him behind you."

Recapping Tennessee's scrimmage

April, 6, 2012
Revving up the running game is a priority this spring for Tennessee, so it was encouraging for the Vols to have some success running the ball Friday in their first full scrimmage of the spring.

Junior Rajion Neal rushed for 100 yards on 15 carries and had several explosive plays. It's one of the reasons the Vols moved Neal back to running back from receiver, his ability to pick up yards in chunks.

"I felt like we really showed a lot of improvement running the ball, and that's been our emphasis," Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said. "The line was coming off (the ball), runners were running good and we generated a lot of run yards."

Last season, the Vols averaged just 90.1 rushing yards per game and were the only team in the SEC that averaged fewer than 100 yards per game.

Dooley said he was also pleased with the way quarterback Tyler Bray managed the offense in the closed scrimmage. Bray finished 13-of-32 for 142 yards with an interception and a 5-yard touchdown pass to tight end Mychal Rivera.

The defense, according to Dooley, was playing very aggressive, especially in the secondary. Sophomore cornerback Brian Randolph had an interception and also blocked an extra point.

"There weren't a lot of mental breakdowns, which allowed them to play fast," Dooley said. "We have got to do a better job of stopping the run, but we're playing a lot more aggressively, playing more physical and denying the ball in the back end a little bit better. As long as you're playing with that kind of aggressiveness and toughness, all the other stuff will come."

A complete report on the Vols' scrimmage can be found here on their official web site.