Nov. 6, 2012
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - 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 EFFECTThe 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 TANDEMWith 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."