Auburn, Ala.--DeMarco McNeil long ago won the respect of his coaches and teammates with his hustling style of play and cat-like quickness on the football field that helped make him a Freshman All-American two seasons ago.
Last fall as a redshirt sophomore, his production decreased dramatically, but not his respect level from those in the know with the Auburn football program. Despite the type of pain in an injured knee that would have sent a lesser man to the sidelines, McNeil persevered all the way through the season finale, a Peach Bowl loss to North Carolina before going under the knife to work on his knee problem.
Although the surgery was a success and McNeil's long term prognosis is good, the 6-1, 303-pounder won't be ready for action when spring practice starts Friday. However, he is on schedule to be back at full speed for two-a-days and that is music to the ears of Tommy Tuberville and position coach Don Dunn.
"He is a tough kid," Dunn says. "There is no doubt about it. It is a shame what happened to him last season. If you put on a film of him last year and compare it to the film of 2000, the plays that he almost made last year he was making as a freshman.
"He just couldn't move, he couldn't push off," Dunn notes. "When you view the cut-ups the difference is like night and day. Hopefully, he will be 100 percent in the fall and have another great year because I know it is frustrating to him. I admire the heck out of him. He just never says a word and keeps going."
McNeil will have to wait until August before any contact drills will be allowed.
Tuberville says the knee problem was worse than anybody suspected and says that most players would have been watching the 2001 season from the bench rather than playing with pain like McNeil did. "There is no doubt about DeMarco's toughness," Tuberville says. "I am excited about getting the old DeMarco back this fall."
That idea appeals to McNeil, too, who says he is not certain when he will be cleared to turn it loose and go full speed, but he is sure it won't be during spring training. "Right now I am continuing to rehab my knee," McNeil tells Inside the Auburn Tigers. "I try to do something different everyday--stretching, running, riding a bike, swimming. I hope to be able to do more pretty soon, but right now they want me to take it easy. Hopefully, I will be ready when the coaches want me to be ready."
That would be in August when the Tigers begin final preparations for the 2002 season that opens Sept. 2nd at the Los Angeles Coliseum of Olympic fame when the Tigers take on the Southern Cal Trojans.
"I think am going to begin jogging sometime during spring training and hopefully I can be back to full speed not long after that," McNeil says. "I should have my quickness back. It couldn't get any worse than last year. My knee was beat up pretty bad. This is a whole new year and my goal is to stay healthy. If I can do that, everything should fall into place."
McNeil has earned a reputation as a fierce competitor who hates to lose. Watching the defense and the entire team fade around him down the stretch last fall irked the defensive tackle. "It was very frustrating," he says. "You just don't want to come to the realization that you can't do what you were used to doing. I don't want to make excuses either, but I have work to do on my strength and quickness to get back to where I was my freshman year."
That season the 6-1, 303-pounder was credited with 67 tackles and was around to make big plays in key situations. Last year after hurting his knee early in the season, he did his best to play through the problem even though many days the knee bothered him so much he worked out by himself on the side of the practice field while his teammates were involved in preparations for the next opponent. When the final whistle blew, McNeil had just 33 tackles.
"I felt weak and I wasn't able to get off the ball last season," he says. "Once a blocker got on me, I wasn't able to get off of him like I normally can. I hope to get that explosiveness back in my legs."
McNeil is shown at the 2001 Ball State game.
McNeil will have the same position coach, but will be playing for a new defensive coordinator with Gene Chizik replacing John Lovett. "I think we will be playing more to our strengths with a traditional 4-3 instead of what we were playing last year, which was more like a 4-2-5," McNeil says. "I think this system will use our talents to our fullest. We should be better as a defense than we were last year.
"The sky is the limit for us. We have a lot of players coming back on defense. The team that we put out on the field will be very experienced. We just have to learn the schemes that our new coordinator wants us to learn and from there we can move forward."
McNeil says the key for the defense is to develop depth at his position in the spring and fall and find starters and backups at the end positions where the Tigers must replace starters James Callier and Javor Mills plus backup Alton Moore. "When we get that done, we should be just fine," McNeil says.
Tiger Ticket Extra: Tuberville says that he wants to see leaders step forward during spring training and lead the 2002 Tigers. McNeil says he will try to do his part. "I am not necessarily a vocal type of guy, unless I am in the heat of the battle, but I am going to try lead by example. I will try to do the right things around the younger players."