Oct. 11, 2012
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - Just two days removed from hip surgery, Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley was back at work on Thursday.
With the help of a golf cart, Dooley was actively involved in the team's final practice before heading to Starkville for Saturday's showdown against No. 19 Mississippi State (9 p.m. ET ESPN2).
Although the timing for his surgery was not ideal, Dooley did what he had to do.
"I didn't have an option, I had to get surgery this week," Dooley said on Vol Calls Wednesday evening. "If it split, I would have had to have a full hip replacement. I didn't want to miss any game planning, but that's why I had the surgery when I did."
Dooley will coach Saturday's game from the coaches booth in the press box at Davis Wade Stadium, but doesn't anticipate that change will cause any issues with game administration.
As usual, Dooley has a plan.
"I will have a point person on offense and one on defense," Dooley said. "Nothing will be disrupted other than being able to look players in eye."
The last time the head coach of the Vols was not on the sidelines was Sept. 26, 1992, when Johnny Majors, recovering from heart surgery, coached the Vols to a 40-0 win over Cincinnati from the coaches box at Neyland Stadium.
COULD McNEIL START?A year after the Vols had 34 total games started by true freshmen, they could see a rookie draw the starting nod for the first time in 2012 on Saturday.
Dallas native LaDarrell McNeil is making a major push to start at strong safety and could earn the role at Mississippi State.
"Well we're going to see how ready he is," safeties coach Josh Conklin said. "I think he's ready to go. We've tried to get him as prepared as we can. It's another week that he's approached it the right way. He's worked really hard on getting in extra in the mornings after meetings, trying to get more work in watching film, studying."
McNeil saw the most playing time of his young career at Georgia and made an impression with five tackles. McNeil has continued to build on his strong second half against the Bulldogs.
"I am really excited about LaDarrell," defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri said. "He has done a great job this past week. That young man is flying around making plays and he is going to be a heck of a player at the University of Tennessee. I think he brings a level of talent. This kid is extremely quick, extremely fast and has football instincts. When you have those type of intangibles, you are going to play for a long time, whether it is here or the next level."
Conklin echoed Sunseri's impressions.
"His instinctive football ability has never changed," Conklin said of McNeil, who made 124 tackles as a senior at Wilmer-Hutchins. "That's what he was in high school and that's what he is here. He gives us a little extra punch to the point of attack in the middle of the field and he can get guys down in the alley which is something we lack."
Last season the Vols started at least two true freshmen in 11 of 12 games and three or more on eight occasions. Heading into game six this year, McNeil could be the first to make his initial start in his first college season.
TONEY'S TIME AT STAR?Local product Jaron Toney has made a major impression with his effort and hard work which could pay off this Saturday. The former high school running star at Alcoa High School is in the mix for significant time at the Vols' Star position in the secondary.
Toney is pressing the incumbent in UT's nickel package, Eric Gordon, for more action.
"Wow, he's responded well," said cornerbacks coach Derrick Ansley. "(Toney's) trying to create competition at that position. We're going to play the best guy that has the best week of practice. (Gordon's) practiced well, and so has Jaron. They have one more day to go out there and compete and see who has the best day tomorrow, and then we'll make a decision on Friday."
Toney was moved to the secondary last spring and has continued to rise up the depth chart with his play on special teams and in the defensive backfield. In high school, Toney ran for 2,358 yards as a senior and a Tennessee state record 50 touchdowns to earn the 2009 Gatorade State Player of the Year.
"Jaron Toney has done a great job," said Sunseri. "He's made on plays on special teams and usually I look at things really simple. When a young man goes out and starts making plays on special teams and starts getting noticed, then he is ready to get in there in the fire on first and second and third down. The kid has made some plays, he has done a good job and he will have an opportunity to get out there and show what he can do."
Toney has made the most of his play on special teams using it as a springboard for more time on defense.
"It can lead to a lot of opportunities, because on special teams, you have to be athletic, you have to be able to tackle in space, you have to be able to block in space," said Ansley. "You have to be able to carry on assignments, so anytime we have a guy that's a core special teams guy, we love to see him play on offense and defense, and Jaron is one of those guys."
OLD, SALTY ROGERSZach Rogers, one of the most experienced players on the Tennessee roster, has quietly taken part in 41 games during his UT career.
A solid receiver, Rogers has really emerged during his senior season after playing a backup role in his first three years at Tennessee behind Denarius Moore, Luke Stocker, and Montario Hardesty, who can all be found on NFL rosters, and current standout Justin Hunter.
Rogers hasn't changed anything about how he has practiced over the years, however, and according to wide receivers coach Darin Hinshaw has really stepped up as a leader in his final go around on Rocky Top.
"I call him an old, salty dog," said Hinshaw. "Look at this guy, how he works in practice and look at his production during the games. It is pretty easy to talk to everybody in the room and say continue to do what Zach Rogers is doing. He is doing a really good job."
His freshman year excluded, Rogers notched 14 catches in each of his last two seasons for 496 total yards.
In 2012, Rogers has become one of quarterback Tyler Bray's favorite targets already tallying 14 catches for a career high 249 yards while his 17.8 yards/catch ranks third on the team.
These stats can be explained by two things.
"It is a combination of two things," Hinshaw said. "Number one is he is a senior and number two is he is healthy. The good thing is he went through all of camp with no injuries, which was really important. His leadership qualities are really coming out because he is the guy who has been out there playing the most in all the games and his experience that he has had, he has shared that.
"He has been a great leader to our group. You can see how he practices is how he plays. He goes and practices extremely hard and therefore it shows up in the game. Same guy practicing, same guy in the game."
Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, who has been an active participant in Rogers development during his time at UT, echoed his colleagues' thoughts and added a few of his own on this year's senior class.
"I think you are dealing with maturity," Chaney said. "He is a senior, and healthy, he's stayed healthy. That is the key for Zach. In his past he has had a ding here and a ding there that has affected him because he is not a large guy. So when he gets hurt it bothers him.
"So far he has stayed relatively healthy, and he is a senior. Those are neat. I look out at the field and see a few seniors. It warms my heart. I like it. Seniors are neat people; I haven't known that in a while."