Safety LaDarrell McNeil, who was ruled out for the foreseeable future with what Butch Jones called “neck instability issues” August 27, practiced Tuesday in full pads and a green limited contact jersey.
The senior pre-season All-SEC candidate who started 12 games for the Vols last season was expected to miss significant time with the injury before making his debut back at practice Tuesday.
“This one came kind of out of nowhere,” Jones said at a press conference August 27. “Very, very unfortunate. I feel for him. He’s had some neck instability there, so he’s undergoing further examination. But he will be out an extended period of time, and it could be a lengthy period of time.”
That period of time could be much shorter than first originally thought. Jones is expected to update McNeil’s status Wednesday, and defensive coordinator John Jancek sounded hopeful and excited to have his senior back on the field.
"It was great having LaDarrell back out there. He's a great kid," Jancek said. "He's certainly a guy who knows our defense and you miss that back there. There's no replacement for experience and LaDarrell has a lot of experience. He was really playing his best football, so it was good to have him back out there."
McNeil has started in 31 games in his time at Tennessee and served as a leader on the defensive side of the ball for much of his career as a Vol.
"It was a great feeling," fellow safety Brian Randolph said of having McNeil back on Haslam Field. "I can't really say much about it. Coach (Jones) is going to talk about it, but LaDarrell is a great guy. That's one of my greatest friends. He's a great person."
Man in the Middle
Jancek was less than pleased with the way his middle linebackers performed Saturday against Bowling Green. Starter Colton Jumper only recorded one tackle in the win and both he and Darrin Kirkland, who was playing in his first ever college football game, missed some calls when lining the defense up.
“It was rough. They’re scratching and clawing,” Jancek said. “The game was fast, the tempo was fast, they’re nervous, a lot of anxiety. It’s challenging for those guys.”
But the third-year Vols defensive coordinator isn’t panicking. He understands growing pains will happen when shuffling between a walk-on and a freshman, so he’s taken a hands-on approach to teaching them what needs to be done at the line of scrimmage and beyond.
“We were getting them to the sideline and coaching them up in between series and touching base with them,” he said. “It’s tough. They’ve got to set the front, but they’ll get better. The good thing is I think those guys are talented … It’s just they’re running around out there right now.”
A year older, a year wiser
One of the most noticeable changes in the meeting room to running backs coach Robert Gillespie has been his players’ maturity in the system. Jalen Hurd’s year of experience coupled with Alvin Kamara’s understanding of blocking schemes from his time at Alabama and in the junior college ranks allowed Gillespie to go more in depth with his players in fall camp.
“That’s been the biggest thing, is that we’re a year older,” Gillespie said. “Jalen Hurd understands the blocking schemes now. I could coach the group in a more mature fashion this year. Everyone knows how to draw up plays. Everyone knows who’s pulling and who’s blocking who. The game has slowed down for those guys and we’re able to be a little more patient.”
Gillespie also praised Hurd for his pass protection skills, noting that one of his big blocks in pass protection was the only piece of film he showed the team about Hurd’s game Saturday
“I tell him all the time, ‘I don’t brag on your for being a runner. You’re supposed to do that,’” Gillespie said. “’What you want your team to know is that, when you don’t have the ball in your hands, make plays the same way.’"
Mike DeBord gushes about staff's in-game adjustments Saturday
John Jancek speaks on safety LaDarrell McNeil's return to practice