“There’s a good chance he’s going to start,” Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said Monday. “We’ll see. We’ll see how he does this week. He’s a good football player.”
Tennessee’s preliminary depth chart for its game Saturday at No. 19 Mississippi State lists McNeil as the second-team strong safety behind junior Brent Brewer, but Dooley indicated he is continuing to evaluate his personnel and could make changes later this week. Brewer moved into the starting lineup for Tennessee’s last two games after Brian Randolph tore his anterior cruciate ligament Sept. 15 in a 37-20 loss to Florida.
The Vols have allowed six touchdown plays of 50 yards or greater over its last three games, with five of those long gains coming on running plays. Five of those six touchdowns went at least 70 yards. Tennessee spent the off week searching for ways to prevent similar breakdowns the rest of the season.
“Most of those plays generally start with a little bit of an alignment error,” Dooley said. “Then it’s not playing the blocks very well just from a toughness standpoint. Then the ball breaks and not being able to get the guy down in space. There were some trends. Of all the things you’d say we’ve got to stop during this open date it’s these long runs over 30 yards or really over 15 yards.
“We’ve had some really long ones, more than you want in a career.”
McNeil and Tennessee’s other true freshmen haven’t been made available to reporters yet this season, but McNeil’s teammates and coaches have spent the last couple of weeks raving about him. McNeil moved into the two-deep after Randolph’s injury and made an impression with his performance Sept. 29 in a 51-44 loss at Georgia.
“He’s a real mature kid,” junior free safety Byron Moore said. “He’s up there studying the playbook. He’s watching extra film. He’s a ball hawk. He’s always around the ball. He’s flying around back there. Anytime you can get somebody flying to the ball like he does, you’ve got to have him on the field.”
Tennessee is seeking answers in its attempt to upgrade its run defense.
The Vols are yielding 5.17 yards per carry, the most of any SEC team. Boston College (5.18), Clemson (5.36) and Kansas (5.58) are the only major-conference programs giving up more yards per rush. Tennessee ranks 12th out of 14 SEC teams in scoring defense (29.6) and 13th in total defense (425.8).
Mississippi State’s longest run of the season thus far went just 44 yards, but the Bulldogs are averaging 4.84 yards per carry. Mississippi State’s Ladarius Perkins is the SEC’s second-leading rusher with 499 yards and six touchdowns on 82 attempts.
“The two teams that have beaten them have really relied on the big play,” Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said. “It’s hard, consistently, to rely on the big play. They’ve beaten them with a bunch of 70- and 80-yard touchdowns. Coming off a bye week, I’m sure they’ve had time to adjust that and get stuff done.”
While McNeil could garner more playing time in the secondary, Tennessee also may make an adjustment on its line.
Junior nose guard Daniel McCullers has been atop Tennessee’s depth chart all season, but he hasn’t played nearly as much against pass-oriented offenses. He didn’t appear at all against Akron and received limited playing time against Georgia State. After recording a career-high eight tackles against Georgia, McCullers could have a larger role the rest of the season.
“He’s improving every week,” Dooley said. “Our challenge now is to see how much we can play him before he hits a dip, because he’s a good football player. We need to keep amping up his plays each week no matter what the offense does.”
Dooley also announced Monday that Michael Palardy had regained his status as the Vols’ No. 1 kicker. Dooley had indicated after the Georgia game he was leaning in that direction. Palardy kicked Tennessee’s final extra point against Georgia after Derrick Brodus missed an extra point and a 28-yard field goal.