KNOXVILLE - Brian Randolph watched helplessly last fall as Tennessee's defense clumsily stumbled through a disastrous season.
The Volunteers' safety crumpled to the Neyland Stadium turf on Florida's game-clinching touchdown in the third game of the year and missed the rest of the season.
Tennessee had statistically the worst defensive season in program history without him, but the 6-foot, 200-pound Randolph feels he is back to his normal self heading into this season.
"My knee doesn't affect me at all on the field," he said. "[Watching last year] was difficult, and last year the playbook was much harder. We've gotten a little more simple with the playbook and we're not taking as many risks on defense, so I think we'll get that settled."
In eight starts as a freshman in 2011, Randolph finished fifth on the team with 55 tackles and made the All-SEC freshman team. He led the Vols in tackles when he suffered his season-ending injury, but his value goes beyond those numbers. Randolph was a vital part of communicating coordinator Sal Sunseri's complex efense, and the defense kept struggling with pre-snap confusion, miscommunication and misalignments without him in the lineup.
The Vols most missed Randolph's open-field tackling on the back line in allowing 74 plays of 20 or more yards. Only seven teams in the Bowl Subdivision allowed more big plays.
"He would have made a difference," linebacker A.J. Johnson said. "Maybe we could have won a couple more games. He's a great player, and he always does the right thing.
Added safety Byron Moore: "It's definitely a plus any time you can add somebody back there with the experience Brian has from playing his freshman year and an overall leader."
Randolph feels his role hasn't changed much from last year. The Vols are counting on him both before and after the ball is snapped. Randolph is a potential difference maker on a unit needing playmakers.
"You've got to have leadership from the middle of your defense, especially the back end," secondary coach Willie Martinez said. "Our defense is built around safeties and linebackers. It's a safety system, and what I mean by that is he's making a lot of the calls and a lot of the checks that need to be made, so you need some leadership from the position.
"He's got the experience. He's a guy that's athletic, a good tackler [with] good ball skills. We're asking a lot of him."
And that's fine with Randolph.
"I pretty much had a lot of responsibility last year," he said. "I picked up this defense very well. I feel about the same responsibility."