Randolph, who led the team in tackles through three weeks (23), left a gaping hole in Sal Sunseri's defense, but that gave former four-star safety prospect and Dallas, Tex., native LaDarrell McNeil his opportunity to shine.
"Honestly I was surprised because they had Brian Randolph, they had Brent Brewer, they had Rod (Wilks)," McNeil said of his early playing opportunity. "I was surprised, but I kept working and they were telling me "you're good, just keep playing and keep working hard and you will start.""
McNeil, who has eat, slept and breathed the film room, is getting up to speed and says his drive to succeed comes from leadership around him.
"It really comes from the leadership on our team because when I see (Herman Lathers), (Prentiss Waggner) and Tyler Bray, all those leaders, going and putting in extra work and time that makes me want to be a better player," McNeil said.
|Tennessee assistant coach Josh Conklin (pictured) has aided McNeil in his development both in practice and in the film room.|
"The one thing is the mental part and it certainly hasn't been easy on him," head coach Derek Dooley said. "Then the physical beat down that you go through as a freshman. The emotional pressure that you feel because there is a lot of pressure with 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 great attitude and he is going to be a great football player. Very rare for a freshman to be as focused and as driven the way that he is. What separates him, I think he understands that he doesn't understand this stuff. A lot of freshmen don't care. They just go play."
The 6-foot-1, 195 pounder has appeared in eight of nine games in 2012, including four starts and totaled 37 tackles and one pass defended. And all his extra film study has led to an extremely close relationship with first-year Tennessee safeties coach Josh Conklin.
"Me and coach Conk, 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 and son relationship."
However, as dedicated as McNeil has been, he hasn't been immune to the constant breakdowns that have plagued the Vols defense this season.
"The most frustrating thing is when you feel like you have everything down, you have the play right, you have everything good and then you mess up and the coach yells at you or gets on you, but you have to keep moving on," he said. "That is the most frustrating thing."
Watch as Derek Dooley and McNeil addressed the media following Tuesday's practice in preparation for visiting Missouri: