KNOXVILLE – Labeled an “instant-impact player” during the recruiting process a year ago, true freshman LaDarrell McNeil has lived up to the billing in his first year at Rocky Top.
Following a season-ending injury to sophomore Brian Randolph, McNeil stepped into the starting lineup at Mississippi State on Oct. 13 and has remained there since.
In his four starts, the Dallas, Texas, native has registered 29 tackles, including a career-high 10 last week against Troy.
In addition to his hard work on the field, McNeil’s early success is due in large part to the effort he has put in off of it as well, spending most of his free time learning the intricacies of playing his position from safeties coach Josh Conklin.
“Since this is my first year here, we have been having meetings, meetings and meetings,” McNeil said. “I meet with him in the morning, I meet with him in the afternoon and I meet with him at night. Our bond is kind of like a father-son relationship.
“When I first came in I thought I would never get this. I was thinking that this defense is just too hard for me and I would never get it, but Coach Sal [Sunseri], Coach [Derrick] Ansley and Coach Conklin improved my knowledge of the game. That is why I play like I do.”
That extra effort in the film room has not gone unnoticed, especially by Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley.
“It is very rare for a freshman to be as focused and driven as he is,” Dooley said. “What separates him is that he understands that, ‘Boy, I don’t understand this stuff.’ A lot of freshmen don’t really care, they just go play.”
McNeil doesn’t want to be like other freshmen though, instead setting his sights on the habits of the team’s older veterans.
“When I see Herman [Lathers] and Prentiss [Waggner] and Tyler Bray, all those leaders, when I see them going and putting in extra work, putting in extra time, it makes me want to be a better player and go in there to get the extra work, get the extra time and get the extra knowledge for this game,” McNeil said.
While he is making the transition from high school to college look easy, Dooley knows that is never the case in the ultra-competitive SEC.
“One thing is the mental part, and it certainly hasn’t been easy on him, and then the physical beat down that you go through as a freshman and the emotional pressure you feel, because there is a lot of pressure on how much we are depending on him to hold up back there. Over the course of time that can really take a toll on a player. It has hit LaDarrell for a couple of weeks but he has a great attitude. He has a big-time future, he is going to be a great football player. I believe that.”
OFFENSE SEEKING FULL EFFECT
The offensive records from Saturday's win over Troy have been well-documented, but head coach Derek Dooley is looking for a level of consistency from that side of the ball.
With 55 overall points, the Vols scored them in spurts. The first 28 points came in a stretch of 11:30 bridging the first and second quarters. The final 21 came in the game's last 13:38.
"What we want to see is that execution on all phases for 60 minutes and we really haven't had a game where we feel like we have done that," Dooley said. "As good as the [Troy] game was, we went through about a 25-minute period where we got six points."
That gap in the middle, when UT converted two field goals, officially covered a span of 27:28 as Troy outscored the Vols 30-6 during that period.
"We didn't convert in the red area, our details In the red area sometimes get sloppy, and we never want turnovers or those kinds of things," said Dooley. " There is always room for improvement and, of course, we are playing a lot better defense this week, so we'll see."
THE ANAGRAM TANDEM
With Rajion Neal sitting out the Alabama and South Carolina games after being injured at Mississippi State, backup running back Marlin Lane was called on to step up in the starting role, where he has filled in nicely.
Neal returned to action against Troy, but his snaps were limited as he tries to regain full mobility of his ankle. Still, he finished the day with 32 rushing yards and a 23-yard touchdown catch.
Not only are Neal and Lane's names anagrams, but the duo are complements of each other on the field as well.
"It's a dual threat," said senior offensive lineman Dallas Thomas. "When Marlin gets tired, Rajion comes in and bam, hit it, hit it, hit it, and then when he gets tired we can just keep it going. I wish we had a rotation like that for the O-Line, but that's just the way it is."
"They go hand in hand with each other,” Thomas said. "You can't even tell the difference, I'm glad we have two good guys back there that can run the rock."
Both running backs stand at 5-11 with Neal weighing in at 211 while Lane carries around 205 pounds. Both are also solid runners.
Neal is grateful that Lane was able to step in and keep the momentum going in the run game during his absence.
"You like seeing that your guys do well," said Neal. "It makes you excited when you come back at 100 percent and you know you have a lot more weapons and more explosiveness. Marlin is smoother at cut-tackle running, but at the same time, he's a very physical person. I'm more of a speed, power back, so we complement each other well."
With multiple options in the backfield, it is difficult for Dooley to decide who will be out there more on Saturday against Missouri.
"It is hard to really say but we view both of them as our running backs and they are both productive," said Dooley. "It always depends on who has that groove going in the game." Lane has had that groove recently and both he and Dooley know it is because of the improvement in his level of consistency both at practice and during the game.
"For two weeks, these last two games, we have seen a Marlin Lane who is the same at practice every day and then he goes out and we know what we are getting in the game. That was something we didn't really get coming into the year and early in the year. I am proud of Marlin. He has really stepped up and is performing the way he is capable of."
Neal is still looking to get back to 100 percent, but was happy to get back out on the field last weekend.
"It felt good being out there,” Neal said. “I'm still a little nicked up, but you just have to play through some of those things. It was good being out there for the first time in two weeks. As always, I just prepare as if I'm playing with a heavy load like I was at the beginning of the year. It's going to take some of Marlin and I equally to pull this out."
WHEN THEY ARE CLICKING...
One that thing that has been very evident over the Vols' last two games has been the chemistry between quarterback Tyler Bray and his receivers. In the last pair of games, Bray has thrown for a startling 898 yards (449.0 per game). Of that, 649 have gone to his trio of wideouts Justin Hunter, Cordarrelle Patterson and Zach Rogers.
Bray is in the groove with his favorite targets.
"Anytime you get a ball in a playmakers hands they are going to make stuff happen," said Bray. "You get it to Justin and he is going make guys miss, CP is going to make guys miss, the running backs out of the backfield they are going to make people miss."
Bray's success is well-earned according to his coach, who has seen a different demeanor from his signal caller in recent weeks.
"He earned it every day in practice and that is why he is playing well," said Dooley. "I believe that is why he has had the success that he has and I told him he has to earn it every week."
Confidence is brimming for Bray as he heads into the final three regular-season games.
"Our confidence is always like that," said Bray, who set the school record for passing yards in a game with 530 vs. Troy. "I don't want to say [we are] cocky but we have a bunch of guys on this team that are convinced that we can score every drive."
Piling up yards and scoring touchdowns, which Bray has thrown for nine in the last two games, is a product of the up-tempo system implemented by Dooley and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney.
"When our offense is clicking it is hard to stop," said Bray. "I think we ran a series where we had two plays and a touchdown. When we are moving at that fast pace, it is making the defense confused and making them show their looks instead of trying to hide it."
HEAD COACH DEREK DOOLEY
(On the lack of production from the pass rush)
“Sometimes you can be more concerned about pushing the pocket and keeping the quarterback in and that slows down a pass rush. When you are losing your edges in the run game that slows them down, so we have probably slowed them down a little bit more than we should have worrying about so much other stuff. We’ll try to pick some times where we can let them pin their ears back and come.”
(On Missouri’s defense)
“They are one of those 4-3 teams with penetrating defensive linemen, they are coming at you. They paly real sound behind them, so they are very similar philosophically on defense to what South Carolina does.”
(On Missouri DL Sheldon Richardson)
“He is a big-time defensive lineman. Big time. He would be starting anywhere.”
(On the disparity in the confidence levels for the offense and defense)
“That is human nature. You aren’t going to be super confident when you haven’t had the results you expect and certainly success breeds confidence. That is something we have to keep working on with our defense. It is hard to be confident when you aren’t getting results, but the way you build confidence is through your preparation during the week and your investment during the week. You go out there and rep it and you feel good about it and then you go out and play. That is a big component of it.”
(On Missouri kick returner Marcus Murphy)
“I’m not sure there is a more dangerous player in the league. He has had four returns for touchdowns, which nobody [else] in the country has. Every time he touches it, it is a game breaker. He really is a special player. You have the guy at South Carolina [Ace Sanders] but he only does punt returns. CP, he’s one of those guys, but we are trying to get him back there a little bit more. But this cat, he’s really good.”
(On LaDarrell McNeil)
“He has all the qualities to be a really good player and it is very difficult with the position we are putting him in. That is kind of what we did to Dan [Gray] last week. It is difficult and it is a little bit like what we did with a lot of players in the last couple of years, which is hard.”
(On Dallas Thomas)
“Don’t forget that Dallas was our left tackle and we said to move to guard. What a great team player. I think he likes guard a little better. He doesn’t like it when Antonio [Richardson] is out, but to his credit, he moves over and plays. He is another one of those guys who just stayed the course, kept working hard, great team member and he has a lot of years ahead of him.”
(On whether Thomas’ move to guard has helped his draft stock)
“I think it gives people another evaluation of him, but what helped him more than anything is how he worked at it and how he has performed. The move to guard wouldn’t have meant anything if Dallas didn’t have the level of commitment that he has showed to being good.”
JUNIOR QB TYLER BRAY
“They have a great defensive line and are going to try and get after us. We have a great offensive line and it is going to be a great battle.”
(On Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson)
“Not really. Justin is the same goofy kid that he has been since he got here. As long as he keeps that going he will be fine. Everyone is more focused. CP especially, last week he had his best practices of the year so far.”
(On getting Justin Hunter an SEC touchdown)
“I don’t have a rushing one, so we all can’t have what we want. We are always going to try and get it to him, whoever is open is going to get the ball.”
(On completing his video game like numbers)
“I would either like to rush [for a touchdown] or catch one. Doesn’t matter to me. They are both six so it doesn’t matter. I think I have a height advantage and my vertical – I could jump over anybody. I have better hops than Justin.”
(On Cordarrelle Patterson)
“His energy level, he was running his routes crisp. He got complaints about his route running so he took initiative to get better at that.”
(On finishing games)
“It finally showed that our offense can finish the game. That we are not going to go down to the wire and lose like we have in the past. We can go through and actually finish the game.”
RS SENIOR OL DALLAS THOMAS
(On his SEC correlations)
Florida: “D-line. Big, tough guys.”
Missouri: “Their offense. They have a good offense. I'm pretty sure they have a good defense too, and I know 34 (Sheldon Richardson) is really good, we have film on him. I can't wait to get out there and get after them.”
(On what he's seen from their defensive front)
“They're going to get after you and you just have to be ready when they come, because those guys are coming. They were put in the SEC for a reason.”
SOPHOMORE OL ANTONIO RICHARDSON
(On if it was fun to play in such a high scoring game)
"Yeah, it was fun to play in a game like that, but we were on our toes the whole time. We were looking at the scoreboard sometimes, and we got a little scared. But every time our offense went out there, we basically executed."
(On watching Patterson making plays at wide receiver)
"It's like a video game watching him. You know what I'm saying? You only have to sustain the blocks for three seconds and he's going to make something happen, so you hold the blocks for five seconds or longer and get up the field. That's why I kept trying to go up the field and make and extra block for him because I knew he could take it to the house any time."
(On condition of his knee)
"It's good. I'm going to get it drained this week here before the weekend, so I can have a little pressure off of it. I've got some fluids up in there, so I'm going to try to be as healthy as I can Saturday."
SOPHOMORE LB CURT MAGGITT
(On Coach Dooley’s presence with the defense)
"[Dooley] has been with the defense every day this week. He’s been putting his input in, asking and making sure if anyone has questions or is unsure, he’s there to help keep everyone on the same page.”
(On Missouri game)
“I wouldn’t say the [defense] is changing, but we’re slowing down a little bit. We’re simplifying it. Making sure everyone is on the same page is more important. Technique, alignment and making sure everyone understands is the biggest thing. They definitely [feel like an SEC team]. They’re someone new to the SEC and they have a similar record to ours and we have to go out there and make a statement and let them know that Tennessee is not giving up.”
(On not getting to the quarterback)
“I think we’re not getting there because we haven’t made the decision to take control of some guys’ bodies. We have to pay attention to a lot of the small things and give all of our effort.”
(On the simpler defense)
“The simpler defense is helping guys understand what they’re doing. It’s all about not doing as much thinking and being able to play and react faster. I’m not [confused] very often. Herman (Lathers), A.J. (Johnson) and I and a few other linebackers come in and watch a lot of film. We make sure we understand it in the linebacker room. If I have any questions, I always ask. There’s always going to be times when you go out there and you’re not really sure, but you just go out there and play fast. It’s a little tough, but we just have to stick together and hold tight as a team and as a family and go out and win these last few games. ”
(On Mychal Rivera’s assistance)
He and Bart [Ben Bartholomew] both, I learn a lot. Mych treats it like a pro. He comes to work every day and that is what I want to do. They are helping me probably five or six times a day. We are always talking through something and they help me with little things here and there.
SENIOR WR ZACH ROGERS
(On the game-winning drive)
“Tyler Bray gathered us together and said that we had to get it done. We went and executed the offense and that is what we had to do. We knew what we had, we had some plays left in us and we were just trying to get a win for this program.”
(On the high scoring game)
“It was a lot of fun, a lot of scoring and offense on both sides. It was a lot of fun to have our offense clicking and theirs was clicking too. We just have to pick up our defense, we are in this together as a team.”
“They have a lot of great offense around there and they sling the ball around. They have gotten used to SEC ball, they have played a few games in the SEC so far, it will be a good matchup for us.”
(On Missouri’s defense)
“They are a stout core group of guys on defense all-around. Their D-Line just stands out but I am not taking anything away from their linebackers or secondary because they are all great players. It will be a good test for us.”
JUNIOR TB RAJION NEAL
(On his mentality returning to the field after an injury)
“It’s not really that [mental]. I just go out there and play, I’m not going to worry about it, I’m just going to go. I felt fine [in the game]. I trust my offensive line and I’m not afraid. It’s something I’m used to doing, I’ve played this game for a long time. If my foot is going to get broken, then it will, but I’m not going to go out here full speed and keep rolling.”
(On getting back)
“It’s tough and I can’t rush it as much as I want to. Coach Graham is still coaching me and I’m still watching film just like I always do.”
(On Mizzou defense)
“Part of their defensive line is very active, real athletic; they’re a heavy-flow team. They’re tall and they have strong habits of stripping away the ball, so we just have to play low and use their defense against them. We have to be a little more patient. I would say that [Missouri] would probably be more like Florida because they’re very disruptive and they play to run.”
FRESHMAN DB LADARRELL MCNEIL
(On learning a new defense)
“It was very overwhelming because I had never worked in a system like this. But I am glad that I came to this system because it is making me stronger and making me better.”
(On if he was surprised to be starting so early in his career)
“Honestly I was surprised because they had Brian Randolph, they had Brent Brewer, they had Rod Wilks. I was surprised but I kept working and they were telling me, ‘You are good. Just keep playing and working hard and you will start.’”
(On what helped him get ready to play as a freshman)
“I feel like my chemistry with the team, I feel like we are all coming together. That is helping me, improving me and making me a better player. Coverage-wise and tackling-wise are both basically about being a part of the team.”
(On the biggest surprise about the college game)
“Just the size. I knew the players were going to be pretty big, but when I saw them I was like, ‘Oh, man. They are enormous.’”
(On what he needs to work on)
“I need to work on all aspects of the game, especially coverage-wise and open-field tackling. Mainly just making sure I know my job.”
SOPHOMORE LB JORDAN WILLIAMS
(On getting pressure on the quarterback against Troy)
“Yes, it did. It definitely showed. This week we definitely have to get after it. I'm not sure what that is, but we definitely have to change it.”
(On maintaining confidence after giving up big plays week after week)
“You can only go one week at a time. If you keep looking back you won't be able to go forward, and the season would just go down from there. We just need to start fresh and move on from last week.”
(E-mail Stan Crawley at email@example.com)