When the Tigers face WKU next weekend, one of the biggest stories for the Tigers will be the continued resurgence of defensive lineman Demarco McNeil. A strong player as a redshirt freshman in 2000, he earned freshman All-SEC honors and was a key component in Auburn's run to the SEC Western Division championship. Things looked bright for him, but a chronic knee injury kept him from reaching his full potential as both a sophomore and junior.
Dedicating himself more than ever over the off-season leading up to his senior year, McNeil lost weight to take the stress of his knees and the results have been outstanding. Leading the team in tackles through three games with 21 and also leading in tackles for loss, he has come back with a vengeance and position Coach Don Dunn said that is good to see.
Demarco McNeil with the defensive line and Coach Terry Price during Thursday's practice.
"He's playing as good as anybody I've got right now in terms of production," Dunn said. "He's played really well the first three games. He's doing well. I'm real proud of him. I think losing that weight and keeping it off has helped him more than anything else.
"He's definitely playing at a level higher than last year, but that's just because of the injuries. It reminds me a lot of his freshman year. He's probably a lot smarter football-wise. He's one of the best I've got as far as understanding what's going on. He's a student of the game. He really does a good job of watching film and watching his opponent. He spends a lot of time breaking down what he needs to do against the guy he's going against."
In addition to being more active on the field during games, the slimmer McNeil has also been able to practice more during the week. Forced to sit out much of the practice times each of the last two seasons in order to be ready for games, McNeil was sometimes rusty on technique and assignments on Saturdays. This year that hasn't been the case, missing just one day on his own. That doesn't mean that the coaches don't give him a rest now and then though to make sure he's ready to go.
"We hold him some during the week but that's our decision," Dunn said. "Last week I didn't practice him Wednesday or Thursday. He stays inside and gets ice and gets in the water, which is just like running but without all the pounding."
Kody Bliss prepares to boom one during Thursday's practice.
McNeil and his teammates put the finishing touches on a short week of practice with a learning practice on Thursday. Focusing on special teams work in the punt game and scout teaming against Western Kentucky's offense and defense, Coach Tommy Tuberville said his team had a good day of practice leading up to the weekend off.
"We had three very physical days and it gave us a chance to get some guys healthy," Tuberville said. "We had to go back to fundamentals in some areas and look at different players. We won't really know until next week whether we'll keep these changes the way we've got them when we get into the game plan."
Two of the changes that have gotten the most attention are the moves of Tre Smith and Courtney Denson to defense. While the pair have gotten better each day on the practice field, Tuberville said it's too early to tell if they will stick for the long haul.
"We'll know more today," Tuberville said of Smith's progression. "He had a lot better day yesterday than the day before when he was just totally lost. Courtney Denson is the same way. They've made a lot of improvement, but it's not an easy position to play. There is a lot of technique involved. We'll sit down Sunday and visit about it and see whether we're going to move Tre back or leave him there. The same thing with Courtney."
The off week allowed the coaching staff to work many of the younger players following practice to get them closer to playing form. Offensively that meant many of the young linemen got a chance to get more individualized work and Tuberville said quite a few stepped up and made a move for more playing time later in the year.
"Jarrod Britt has practiced well," Tuberville said. "King Dunlap is practicing well. Those are two guys on the offensive line that we feel like are probably going to have to play for us down the stretch. Steven Ross is doing a good job at tight end and at tackle. Jeremy Ingle is much improved. He's getting better and we're going to have to get in the game more."
Tuberville also singled out quarterback Josh Sullivan for his play on offense and expressed his desire to get him in the game more in the coming weeks. Defensively he praised linebacker Mayo Sowell for his work ethic as well as defensive end Doug Langenfeld. The junior college transfer has been working at both end positions and could play either, which gives the Tigers more depth with Jay Ratliff's sprained ankle still bothering him.
Kickoff for next Saturday's game against Western Kentucky is scheduled for 4 p.m. and will be available on a Pay-Per-View basis only.