KNOXVILLE -- With his two starting safeties donning the green non-contact jerseys during practice this week, Tennessee defensive backs coach Terry Joseph is preparing himself physically.
Free safety Prentiss Waggner's shoulder sprain flared up against Vanderbilt last week, and freshman strong safety Brian Randolph suffered a mild concussion in the first half against the Commodores.
"The bad thing about it," Joseph said after UT's practice in Neyland Stadium Wednesday morning, "is we're probably one or two injuries from me having to play safety.
"It's a bad deal back there right now, but hey, we'll put some guys out there Saturday and be ready to go."
Both Waggner and Randolph have practiced this week and are expected to play in UT's regular-season finale at Kentucky on Saturday. The Vols can clinch a bowl bid with a win against the Wildcats, though they may be forced to play safeties who were the fifth and sixth options when the season began.
Junior Rod Wilks took Randolph's strong safety spot when the freshman left the game in the first half after a brutal collision. The hit affected Randolph so much, Waggner recalled Tuesday, that he came to the sidelines asking teammates how he hit Alabama tailback Trent Richardson.
"[Cornerback] Izauea Lanier told him, 'Hey dog, we playing Vanderbilt,'" Waggner said.
Wilks, the team's leading tackler on special teams made seven tackles and scooped up a fumble in Randolph's absence. When Waggner went down in overtime, junior-college transfer Byron Moore took his spot, though he's been playing almost exclusively at the nickelback the past few weeks. Joseph said those two have been getting "a ton" of practice reps this week with the delicate situations of UT's other two safeties.
"The biggest difference in those guys is Rod's more of a strong safety, and Byron is more of a free safety," Joseph said. "I feel OK with Randolph and Pre kind of mixing and matching them, but with those two guys, they are pigeon-holed themselves with one being a free and one being a strong.
Tyler Bray's return against Vanderbilt certainly provided a spark for what was a struggling UT offense even though the sophomore quarterback wasn't the same player he was before suffering a broken right thumb against Georgia on Oct. 8.
Now in his second week of practice since returning, Bray is making strides towards returning back to 100 percent, but that will only come with time, something the November weather isn't helping.
"He's getting a little better, but I wouldn't say it's significant," coach Derek Dooley said. "I think it's going to be a slow process getting back, and I'm sure the weather doesn't help. It just takes longer to warm up and get it loose. It's just a slow trek back, but he's doing fine, running the offense fine and I hope the biggest thing is he's shaking off the rust of not playing."
The rust was evident against Vanderbilt. Bray was 16-of-33 for 189 yards and two touchdowns, but also threw two critical interceptions that resulted in 14 Commodore points.
"At times really good and at times really bad," quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw said of Bray's play. "There was some rust involved not having played in five weeks. He made two interception throws we'd like to have back. We don't make those poor decisions right there and it's going to be a different ball game.
"You try to put them in a position in practice where he sees those kinds of situations. They did a couple of things a little different than what they did on film. You can't practice every look and in those situations you've got to make the right throw, throw the ball away and live for another down."
Kentucky coach Joker Phillips said both of his banged-up quarterbacks, Morgan Newton and Maxwell Smith, practiced on Wednesday. The freshman Smith, who's started the last three games after taking over for Newton, missed Tuesday after suffering a shoulder injury last week at Georgia. Phillips said he expects Smith to start, but the Vols are keeping tabs and preparing for both.
"We've got to have a plan for both of them," said defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox. "They're both a little bit different. We'll draw things that we've done throughout the year for more running quarterbacks and passing quarterbacks and have a different game plan for each of them. They'll be a lot of carryover, but there will be a few things that we would use specific to each quarterback."
Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said the new-look pistol formation "benefitted" the Vols last week because it disguised where the ball was going on run plays, made play-action passes more effective and kept Bray's thumb from taking a beating with under-center snaps. ... Wilcox called Ben Martin's four-tackle performance against Vanderbilt the best he's seen from the senior defensive end. ... Dooley said the Vols will have a team Thanksgiving breakfast before its 11:15 a.m. practice today and take the rest of the holiday off before reporting back early Friday.
Correspondent Matt Dixon contributed to this story.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...
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