KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee safety Brian Randolph says he sometimes worried last year that he never would completely recover from the torn anterior cruciate ligament that ended his 2012 season prematurely.
There were times I thought I'd never get better, Randolph said.
His fears apparently were unfounded.
Randolph, the Volunteers' leading tackler at the time of his injury, is back on the field participating in spring practice and attempting to rejuvenate a defense that ranked among the worst in school history last season.
His teammates believe he can make a major impact. Tennessee's defense wasn't the same without him.
He's a very important part of our secondary, fifth-year senior defensive back Eric Gordon said. Having that guy back there just makes all the difference.
Randolph made 22 tackles through the first three games of last season, but he injured his right knee in the second half of a 37-20 loss to Florida on Sept. 15. Randolph earned a redshirt, giving the sophomore three more years of eligibility.
As soon as he felt the snap in his knee, Randolph understood the severity of the injury and realized he probably wouldn't play again the rest of the season.
I knew it was over, Randolph said. There was no hope.
Without Randolph, there wasn't much hope for Tennessee's defense, either.
A lack of speed in the secondary made Tennessee vulnerable to big plays all season. Tennessee gave up the most points (35.7) and yards (471.4) per game of any Southeastern Conference team.
The Vols hadn't allowed that high a scoring average since 1893, when they gave up 42.7 points per game while playing a six-game schedule. Tennessee hadn't given up that many yards per game since at least 1950, the earliest year its sports information department has that statistic on file.
That hurt me a lot, Randolph said. Sitting at home watching the games, it was the worst feeling ever.
Randolph also was frustrated about the slow recovery process associated with a serious knee injury.
There are just some days where you'd come in and feel like you got worse from the day before, Randolph said. It was just a long, lagging thing. It took a while to get over.
He seems just about over it now, though he's still working his way back.
Randolph isn't quite at full speed as he participates in spring drills. Randolph said the knee remains a little sore. He indicated that he tweaked his hamstring Tuesday in part because he was overcompensating with his healthier leg.
I think we have to pick our spots, Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. We can't just throw him in there on every single rep, but he's every bit of what we thought he'd be. He's bringing great leadership. He's doing a great job.
Although it's only the first week of spring practice, Jones' staff already likes Randolph's ability to lead by example. Now the Vols want him to take the next step in that leadership role.
We're just trying to (get) Brian to be a little more vocal because he's got some really good qualities about him - his work ethic, his personality, defensive backs coach Willie Martinez said. The kids look up to him.
That even includes the guys competing with him.
Randolph's return immediately boosts a safety unit that gained experience in his absence. Tennessee returns fifth-year senior Byron Moore, who tied for the SEC lead with five interceptions last year and ranked second on the Vols with 86 tackles. LaDarrell McNeil also is back after starting seven games as a freshman last season.
Tennessee's other safeties welcome the competition. They're impressed with the speed of his recovery.
Honestly, I am surprised and I'm happy for him, McNeil said. I told him, `You're going to have to compete it out. It's not going to be easy, but I want you to be right there with me because you're like a big brother to me.
Randolph's ready to compete. After everything he went through last year, Randolph said he feels blessed to be back on the field. Now that he's playing again, Randolph wants to help Tennessee's defense make its own comeback.
He understands that skepticism continues to surround a defense that couldn't stop anyone last season. Randolph is using the memories of last year as motivation.
We tell ourselves we were the worst defense in the SEC last year, Randolph said. We're just trying to prove everybody wrong.