August 21, 2012

Vols' secondary poised for starring future

The future is now. And tomorrow.

For Tennessee's secondary, either perspective is encouraging. With budding young coaches Josh Conklin tutoring the safeties and Derrick Ansley the cornerbacks, the Vols are poised to rebuild the back end of the their defense with quality young players.

"We talk about a lot of stuff, and we talk about how good we're planning to be. We're just planning to have Tennessee back on top." - Brian Randolph, soph. safety

They boast a pair of sophomores with starting experience in free safety Brian Randolph and cornerback Justin Coleman. Building upon that duo, Tennessee is bringing along a trio of heralded true freshmen --- cornerbacks Deion Bonner and Daniel Gray as well as safety LaDarrell McNeil.

"I think you see guys there that, number one, you're just really excited about it," said Conklin, the former defensive coordinator at The Citadel who is quickly earning a key role in the administration of the Vols' defense. "Because you just see some instincts, guys that really want to be good football players. Whether it's clicked quite yet or not, you see enough things from a defensive back skill-set, whatever those may be.

"I think from a back-end standpoint, you look at LaDarrell because that's the guy I've spent the most time with, he's got a lot of instincts to him and he's able to decipher things. Even though he may be moving a little bit slower right than we would like him to, you see flashes of the acceleration and getting to the point of attack. Being in the right position and making some plays. And I think for Deion and Dan, you're seeing those same things."

Added the first-year coach Ansley who worked with defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri previously at Alabama, "The future is bright. The young guys mentioned, and then you've got young guys like Brian Randolph and Justin Coleman, who are true sophomores. Then you can add Vincent Dallas to that mix, who's a guy who can help us down the road. We feel good about where we're going, but the time is also now. We've got to get the right guys on the field now and put a good product on the field. We don't look too far ahead, but obviously we've got some talented young guys coming through the program."

While Randolph and Coleman own starting experience when the Vols open their season Aug. 31 opposite N.C. State inside the Georgia Dome, they also embrace the future, Randolph said, of the Tennessee secondary.

"I believe right now, even though we're still young half of us are considered veterans because me and J-Cole have been here a year already, but I believe as the seasons go on it's going to do wonders for us. We're going to have a lot of experience," said the 6-foot, 195-pound Randolph, who earned Freshman All-SEC honors in 2011 after he started eight of 12 games and amassed 55 tackles. "We're very close. We talk about a lot of stuff, and we talk about how good we're planning to be. We're just planning to have Tennessee back on top."

Third-year Tennessee coach Derek Dooley isn't pronouncing any of the group as a finished product, but he sees exactly why the Vols' coaches targeted the players, all of whom signed with UT from out-of-state locales.

"As long as they are able at some point to play to their abilities, I think yeah, they have the right height, weight, speed, positional criteria that we're looking for. And that's better than not having that," Dooley explained. "But now it's can we develop them? Can they handle it academically? Can they handle it socially? Can they handle it emotionally? That's the next phase. The first phase is getting the right guys and the next phase is how we develop them and keep them here.

"Oh yeah, we're not disappointed."

Coaches and players typically point to the instincts and fearlessness of McNeil; Bonner already shows a physicality at the corner spot, and Gray is perhaps the fastest of the bunch with an ability to run downfield with receivers.

"They're two totally different players as far as what they bring to the table with their skill-sets. Dan is more of a long, leaner, vertical guy. Deion is more of a compact, strong guy," Ansley said. "(Bonner) can use his hands pretty well. They're different kind of players, but they're coming along at the pace we kind of thought they would come along at. They have good days and bad days, but they have more good days than bad of late. We're just going to challenge those guys to continue to grow and help us this year."

Noting the close-knit nature of the defensive backs, Randolph doesn't expect the secondary is going to disappoint. Even veterans --- older guys like Prentiss Waggner, Marsalis Teague, Eric Gordon and Brent Brewer --- join in bestowing one another nicknames. Moreover, Randolph said, the group simply acknowledges lofty goals without constricting them to any set parameters.

"We all look up to E.B. (Eric Berry) pretty much; he's a role model for us and we all want to get to the level he's at. He's a big role model," Randolph said. "Randy Boy. That's my childhood nickname, kind of like my alternate personality. We've all got nicknames. We've all got our nicknames.

"(As a group), we just say 'Headhunters' right now. No T-shirts. We've got to make some plays first and then we'll get some T-shirts."

Perhaps they'll say the future has arrived.

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