Building on that leadership is something at defensive back Coach Tommy Thigpen said is important early in fall camp as the young players try to adjust to a new way of doing things and a new life. Because of that he said it's impossible to measure just how important older, established players are to a football team.
"You've got to have them, guys like him and Walter," Thigpen said. "You've got to have older guys. You can't take away the experience those guys have on the football field. Sometimes guys might be second-guessing themselves or doubting what they're supposed to do. If you're a young guys it's always pleasing when somebody gives you the call and tells you what you're supposed to do. It makes football a lot easier. The more they talk and the more they communicate the easier the games become for everybody."
While McFadden and Etheridge are taking on the vocal leadership role on the field, McNeil has been forced to watch early in the preseason. Instead of taking days off, Thigpen said he's seen McNeil become another coach on the sidelines at the safety position.
"Mike is just like Zac on the other side," Thigpen said. "Mike is a guy that likes to talk and teach the younger guys. He's a coach on the field right now. He's into it. He's walking around and he's asking a million questions. Anything that is new that he doesn't know about he'll get it and then go explain it to the other guys. When you've got that going on, when they're not in the game and not actually playing what are they doing? Those guys on the sidelines aren't messing around."
With McNeil not participating and signee Daren Bates still waiting final clearance, it has put a dent in the depth at the safety position. Split practices with two different groups hasn't helped the situation in terms of numbers but Thigpen said having the chance to work more reps with less players will only help guys down the road.
"You don't have as much depth because you're not running threes and fours out there," Thigpen said. "The quality of work is improved. There are a lot of mental reps in there as well. What is even better is that you give the young guys a lot of reps. At any point an older guy could be down and they could be in the mix getting 45 or 50 reps in one day. The reps that each player get are invaluable."
One of the players that should benefit from the extra work is true sophomore Drew Cole. Playing mostly special teams as a freshman, Cole is battling with Mike Slade to be the top back up for the Tigers at the safety position when McNeil returns. Right now it means battling to be a first-teamer. Thigpen said he's seen some good things out of Cole so far and he expects him to get even better.
"He's put on some pounds and some speed," Thigpen said. "Drew is an aggressive kid. The more he's out there and the more he's feeling comfortable, he's going to get his chance. That's one thing about him, I know he's going to do great on the run. He's not shy at all about making contact and putting his body on people. He knows his weakness is with the ball in the air. We've just got to keep making sure we give him different reps on different looks he's going to get. Every day he gets better."