KNOXVILLE - Brian Randolph walked over to a group of reporters following practice Tuesday morning for the first time in his Tennessee football career sporting an odd-looking neck roll underneath his orange No. 37 jersey and shoulder pads.
It's been a busy last couple of weeks for the Volunteers' true freshman safety, and his 6-foot, 190-pound frame certainly has the soreness to prove it.
"I've been getting little stingers," Randolph said, adding that he'd leave the neck roll behind for his fourth career start Saturday night against 14th-ranked South Carolina. "When you're back there and they've got the camera on, you can't shy away from contact. That gets you on the bench very fast. If it's your job to tackle him, you've got to tackle him."
Since taking over at free safety late in the first half against top-ranked LSU on Oct. 15, Randolph has 17 tackles, including 15 solo stops. He's sixth on the team in tackles, and his 21 solo tackles rank third on the team behind senior linebacker Austin Johnson and junior defensive back Prentiss Waggner.
Most of Randolph's production has come against bigger backs such as LSU's Spencer Ware (5-11, 223 pounds) and Alabama's Trent Richardson (5-11, 224), Eddie Lacy (6-0, 220) and Jalston Fowler (6-1, 246).
Life as the last line of defense, especially as a freshman, can be challenging.
"When a running back busts out, there's a lot of pressure," Randolph said. "But you don't really think about it during the play; you just react."
Coach Derek Dooley joked after practice about one specific play when Randolph's reaction got him in trouble. Buffalo quarterback Chazz Anderson faked a handoff, went around the right side and was 20 yards downfield before Randolph, who was sprinting toward the line of scrimmage, realized who had the ball.
"It's tough," Dooley said. "There's going to be some times where he messes up. The Buffalo game was a great example. He still thinks the quarterback handed the ball off. He's still convinced. He doesn't know how the guy ended up in the end zone. That's what you get sometimes."
Randolph was rated a consensus three-star prospect out of Kell High School in Marietta despite earning Georgia's Gatorade Player of the Year honors as a senior tailback and safety. UT's staff has liked his intelligence and ability since he quietly committed last summer and signed as part of a seven-prospect class of defensive backs in February. The dismissal of Janzen Jackson in late August forced Randolph to be ready to play immediately.
"Doors opened for me," he said. "One door closes for one and opens for another. It was a big point to be ready. [The coaches] got me ready; they did a good job of that.
"I had to step up my game and be prepared. You've just got to take everything in, you've got to learn fast, you've got to play fast, you've just to work hard and show them that you're dedicated."
Earlier in the season, Randolph played when UT went into its five-defensive back nickel package and started against Cincinnati and Buffalo's spread offenses. With the Vols' ongoing struggles at cornerback forcing Waggner to his more natural position there, Randolph entered the starting lineup in the base defense.
The catch for the Vols was bringing him along to where he's fully ready to handle a key spot at the very back of the defense.
"Oh, phew, critical," Dooley said of the importance of Randolph's development. "We're struggling in the back end. He's a more physical guy at the post than Prentiss, that's a fact. It allows us to play Prentiss at corner, and we're hoping that will help us a little bit.
"He's going to be a good player for us. He's no different than a lot of these freshmen. They are very important, and that's why that class we signed [in February] was so important. We had a lot of holes to fill and still do."
Freshmen Curt Maggitt and A.J. Johnson have filled holes at two linebacker spots, and now Randolph appears locked in at free safety. Those are three of the Vols' top six tacklers, and UT is the lone team in the bowl subdivision with that distinction.
"Smart guy," Waggner said. "He's taken total control of the defense. He knows all the calls, all the checks. He's a guy who gets extra film study in with the coaches. He's been playing very good football for us."
Even if it's made him a little sore.