KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Just two days removed from hip surgery, Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley was back at work on Thursday.
With the help of a golf cart, Dooley was actively involved in the team’s final practice before heading to Starkville for Saturday’s showdown against No. 19 Mississippi State (9 p.m. ET ESPN2).
Although the timing for his surgery was not ideal, Dooley did what he had to do.
“I didn't have an option, I had to get surgery this week,” Dooley said on Vol Calls Wednesday evening. “If it split, I would have had to have a full hip replacement. I didn't want to miss any game planning, but that's why I had the surgery when I did.”
Dooley will coach Saturday’s game from the coaches booth in the press box at Davis Wade Stadium, but doesn’t anticipate that change will cause any issues with game administration.
As usual, Dooley has a plan.
“I will have a point person on offense and one on defense,” Dooley said. “Nothing will be disrupted other than being able to look players in eye.”
The last time the head coach of the Vols was not on the sidelines was Sept. 26, 1992, when Johnny Majors, recovering from heart surgery, coached the Vols to a 40-0 win over Cincinnati from the coaches box at Neyland Stadium.
COULD MCNEIL START?
A year after the Vols had 34 total games started by true freshmen, they could see a rookie draw the starting nod for the first time in 2012 on Saturday.
Dallas native LaDarrell McNeil is making a major push to start at strong safety and could earn the role at Mississippi State.
“Well we’re going to see how ready he is," safeties coach Josh Conklin said. "I think he’s ready to go. We’ve tried to get him as prepared as we can. It’s another week that he’s approached it the right way. He’s worked really hard on getting in extra in the mornings after meetings, trying to get more work in watching film, studying.”
McNeil saw the most playing time of his young career at Georgia and made an impression with five tackles. McNeil has continued to build on his strong second half against the Bulldogs.
"I am really excited about LaDarrell," defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri said. "He has done a great job this past week. That young man is flying around making plays and he is going to be a heck of a player at the University of Tennessee. I think he brings a level of talent. This kid is extremely quick, extremely fast and has football instincts. When you have those type of intangibles, you are going to play for a long time, whether it is here or the next level."
Conklin echoed Sunseri's impressions.
“His instinctive football ability has never changed," Conklin said of McNeil, who made 124 tackles as a senior at Wilmer-Hutchins. "That’s what he was in high school and that’s what he is here. He gives us a little extra punch to the point of attack in the middle of the field and he can get guys down in the alley which is something we lack.”
Last season the Vols started at least two true freshmen in 11 of 12 games and three or more on eight occasions. Heading into game six this year, McNeil could be the first to make his initial start in his first college season.
TONEY’S TIME AT STAR?
Local product Jaron Toney has made a major impression with his effort and hard work which could pay off this Saturday. The former high school running star at Alcoa High School is in the mix for significant time at the Vols' Star position in the secondary.
Toney is pressing the incumbent in UT's nickel package, Eric Gordon, for more action.
"Wow, he’s responded well," said cornerbacks coach Derrick Ansley. "(Toney's) trying to create competition at that position. We’re going to play the best guy that has the best week of practice. (Gordon's) practiced well, and so has Jaron. They have one more day to go out there and compete and see who has the best day tomorrow, and then we’ll make a decision on Friday."
Toney was moved to the secondary last spring and has continued to rise up the depth chart with his play on special teams and in the defensive backfield. In high school, Toney ran for 2,358 yards as a senior and a Tennessee state record 50 touchdowns to earn the 2009 Gatorade State Player of the Year.
"Jaron Toney has done a great job," said Sunseri. "He's made on plays on special teams and usually I look at things really simple. When a young man goes out and starts making plays on special teams and starts getting noticed, then he is ready to get in there in the fire on first and second and third down. The kid has made some plays, he has done a good job and he will have an opportunity to get out there and show what he can do."
Toney has made the most of his play on special teams using it as a springboard for more time on defense.
"It can lead to a lot of opportunities, because on special teams, you have to be athletic, you have to be able to tackle in space, you have to be able to block in space," said Ansley. "You have to be able to carry on assignments, so anytime we have a guy that’s a core special teams guy, we love to see him play on offense and defense, and Jaron is one of those guys.”
OLD, SALTY ROGERS
Zach Rogers, one of the most experienced players on the Tennessee roster, has quietly taken part in 41 games during his UT career.
A solid receiver, Rogers has really emerged during his senior season after playing a backup role in his first three years at Tennessee behind Denarius Moore, Luke Stocker, and Montario Hardesty, who can all be found on NFL rosters, and current standout Justin Hunter.
Rogers hasn’t changed anything about how he has practiced over the years, however, and according to wide receivers coach Darin Hinshaw has really stepped up as a leader in his final go around on Rocky Top.
“I call him an old, salty dog,” said Hinshaw. “Look at this guy, how he works in practice and look at his production during the games. It is pretty easy to talk to everybody in the room and say continue to do what Zach Rogers is doing. He is doing a really good job.”
His freshman year excluded, Rogers notched 14 catches in each of his last two seasons for 496 total yards.
In 2012, Rogers has become one of quarterback Tyler Bray’s favorite targets already tallying 14 catches for a career high 249 yards while his 17.8 yards/catch ranks third on the team.
These stats can be explained by two things.
“It is a combination of two things,” Hinshaw said. “Number one is he is a senior and number two is he is healthy. The good thing is he went through all of camp with no injuries, which was really important. His leadership qualities are really coming out because he is the guy who has been out there playing the most in all the games and his experience that he has had, he has shared that.
“He has been a great leader to our group. You can see how he practices is how he plays. He goes and practices extremely hard and therefore it shows up in the game. Same guy practicing, same guy in the game.”
Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, who has been an active participant in Rogers development during his time at UT, echoed his colleagues’ thoughts and added a few of his own on this year’s senior class.
“I think you are dealing with maturity,” Chaney said. “He is a senior, and healthy, he’s stayed healthy. That is the key for Zach. In his past he has had a ding here and a ding there that has affected him because he is not a large guy. So when he gets hurt it bothers him.
“So far he has stayed relatively healthy, and he is a senior. Those are neat. I look out at the field and see a few seniors. It warms my heart. I like it. Seniors are neat people; I haven’t known that in a while.”
MISSISSIPPI STATE HEAD COACH DAN MULLEN
(On the matchup with Tennessee)
“I’m excited about this game. An eight o’clock kickoff and it will be a great a environment here. I know our fans are going to be fired up and our student body is going to work hard to give us the home field advantage—which is critical. You want to put yourself in a position to win championships, so you have to win home games. We will surely have our hands full with the challenge of the team we will be playing this week.
“When you look at Tennessee, the first thing that jumps out to you is the explosiveness of their offense. They have NFL type players in every position. They have great receivers, their quarterback, running backs—just a very experienced offensive line. They can put up a lot of points. They’ve played Georgia and Florida in the SEC so far and put a bunch of points up on both teams. When you look defensively, the challenge is that the two teams that have beaten them really relied on the big play. They’ve been beaten with a bunch of 70 and 80 yard touchdowns.”
“Coming off of a bye-week I’m sure that they’ve had time to adjust that stuff and get things done. It’s going to be a great challenge for our team and we’re looking to our fans for a great home field advantage this week to push us through. It should be a really fun and entertaining game. Malcolm Johnson and Devin Jones are both probable for this game. We expect those guys to play. Cedric Jiles will be out with the hand. That’s really the extent to guys playing and not playing in this week’s game.”
(On player matchups)
“I think it will be a great challenge for our guys. They’re the two best receivers we’ve played so far this year. And on top of that, the best passing quarterback we’ve played this year. So, that combination is definitely going to be a challenge for our secondary, and it should be fun. Those are the guys that you depend on as the strength. Along with all of the leadership experience that we have on the back end they are going to have to step up and play great.”
(On offensive opportunities)
“Well, last week I would’ve liked to have had more points on the board. I thought we moved the ball pretty well, but we missed some opportunities to score. We finished the game down there in the red zone. I saw two other possessions that I think we really should have had touchdowns on. I think when Bumphis dropped a big pass down the middle of the field would have been a big play. So I think theirs is some big play potential for us but you’re not going to always have lots of opportunities for big plays. When you do, you better capitalize on them, and if you don’t you’re going to be in battle. You have the opportunity to make the big play—when it is already hard to score in this league—you HAVE to take advantage of them.”
CORNERBACKS COACH DERRICK ANSLEY
(On Eric Gordon)
“Every position is open for grabs. When you get comfortable and you don’t create a competitive environment for these kids, they get lax. So we just try to keep everyone on their toes and keep everyone getting better. It’s a long season. November doesn’t matter if we don’t get through October and be successful. We’re trying to get these guys better every day and creating competition is the best way to do that.”
TIGHT ENDS/SPECIAL TEAMS COACH CHARLIE COINER
(On Michael Rivera)
“I think the guy has made big strides. I think he gets it, that’s what always comes to mind when people ask me about him. I think he gets what it takes, he gets the work that has to go into it, I think he gets the preparation, I think he gets how fragile it is, I think he gets how important it is to him. He has goals. He has goals here at Tennessee. He has goals after that. Good for him, good for him. I look at the guy, and I see someone who comes into work every day and takes a lot of pride in it and is very serious about this. I think he’s done a lot. What can he do to get better? Just the same things: pad level, hands inside, all the things I tell him out there with his blocking. His effort is there, but you can always get better technique. That’s why, you go right now to any NFL squad, this guy is continuing to get better, and then he’s trying to get better to at some fundamentals too. That never ends, that never ends. The day that ends, that means you’re retired.”
(On rallying around Derek Dooley being in the press box)
“I think so. I think that they’re leaders. The head coach is obviously a leader. In this business rather, whether it’s a coach, a player, a trainer, a manager, when you’re around a competitive atmosphere enough, you better take pride in what you do. I don’t care who is out there. You better. If the head coach is absent during a practice and you’re not going to practice as well, that kind of says something about you. So, I think Coach Palermo might be right about that. I think the kids will rally around that, but at the same time, everybody’s got a job to do. Coach Dooley being at practice, Coach Dooley being up in the press box, should not affect what we’re doing on the field one bit.”
(On Jason Croom possibly playing TE)
“Well, Jason has been running some routes from a two point alignment and seven on a little bit, so we’ll see. He’d be a good one, let’s put it like that. He’d be a good one, Jason would be a good one, with some of the attributes he brings, but I’m not sure what Coach has talked to you about, so I just assume stay away from that, but Jason has been running some routes from the tight end position, sO I can say that. Yes and that’s the other part of it. I’m not sure who knows what about it, so I just would like to stay away from that if I can.”
SAFETIES COACH JOSH CONKLIN
(On being up in the press box )
“I don’t think anything is going to change too much. Obviously you’re going to have the defensive coaches and offensive coaches down on the field. They’re going to be able to handle all the verbage that he wants to get communicated to the players on the field. I think the one thing that you miss that some people don’t necessarily see is Coach Dooley has the opportunity to look a guy in the eye and see how they are feeling and how to react to them and what they need to hear, because when you get up in the press box, it’s just a completely different world as far as the emotional part of it is taken out a little bit. You have to look at it as a positive too. He’ll probably be able to see some things offensively, he’ll probably be able to see some things defensively, maybe that he wouldn’t necessarily be able to see.”
(On being on the field coaching and getting a feel for the game)
“I think the coaching part of it on game day, you just have an opportunity to say exactly what they need to hear at the appropriate time, whether that’s an emotional get them up type speech or you have to bring them back down. When you’re in the box, you just don’t have that emotional connection to the game and how the momentum is turning at a certain point.”
RUNNING BACKS COACH JAY GRAHAM
(On the back preparation for Mississippi State)
"The effort has been really good. We are getting better and better each day. We just have to continue to study up on State because they do a lot of really good things and they are a good defensive team. We are going to keep improving what we do.”
(On Rajion Neal's workload)
"It all depends on how the game goes. I don't know if I go into the game expecting him to get that many. So far he has done well being durable and working hard. That's the thing, it's all about working hard. Working hard in the weight room. So at the end of the season, I think he will be ready to continue to get stronger and stronger."
(On Neal's leading the SEC in carries)
"I didn't really think about it before the season. You take each day of practice. You take each game as it goes. He has done well so far."
(On the running back rotation)
"We talk about it before the game. It just depends on how the series is going. Is it a 3-and-out or is it a 10-play drive? I try to spell them. In the last two or three games, it has been fairly early. I have tried to spell him and get other guys involved and get them going."
WIDE RECEIVERS COACH DARIN HINSHAW
(On comparing to Johnthan Banks to other players Tennessee has faced)
“Johnthan Banks is pretty special. I am not going to compare him to anybody because he has made a lot of plays. He is obviously a first/second round kind of guy and he deserves it because he has played really well and they have done a great job with them in coverage where he is in man to man, he is physical and they play them in the zone and then they play them in the run game where he is trap corner a lot. They mix him up what he is doing all the time which lets him use all his qualities and be able to go and function out there and have fun playing the game. You see him just running around playing really hard. He is also an older guy that has played a lot of snaps.”
(On realizing the severity of Coach Dooley’s hip)
“We didn’t. When he explained that it had gotten worse. We were like, ‘whatever we have to coach, we are behind you 100%.’ We are going to make it work no matter what. “
(On replacing Jason Croom)
“Drae Bowles, we have move his roles up a little bit and Cody Blanc, we have moved his roles up a lot too. Cody had a really good week of practice. He has to continue to learn and continue to get better.”
DEFENSIVE LINE COACH JOHN PALERMO
(On what they worked on during the open week)
“We keep trying to do the same thing, just keeping going back to fundamentals. Some of our guys are getting better. When you have a game like Georgia and there were a lot of big plays in the game. Sometimes it is one guy breaking down, sometimes it is two guys breaking down, not necessarily the whole defense. We have to play great team defense, so we don’t have any breakdowns.”
(On Daniel McCullers)
“We played him quite a bit in the nickel against Georgia and he did a really good job for us. So we will continue to do that.”
(On playing Daniel McCullers more)
“He had 40 snaps against Georgia. I don’t know if any of our defensive linemen are capable of going more than 40/45 snaps in a game right now. When the weather cools off I think they will. His attitude has been good. He is a happy-go-lucky guy. It is almost like you want to put him in a boxing ring and let someone take a few jabs at him before the game starts, but you can’t do that.”
(On McCullers’ against Georgia)
“He played super physical. When he does what he is supposed to, which has been pretty good, he is a big load and he is hard to move in there. He really does a good job playing with his hands.”
OFFENSIVE LINE COACH SAM PITTMAN
(On what Mississippi State does well)
“They force turnovers and they really run to the ball well. They play a lot of people on the D-line. A lot of the time, you feel like you can wear some guys down, but they play so many guys that it’s hard to wear their defensive linemen down. They have some linebackers that are good players. They have great stats and, obviously, it’s a great opportunity for us.”
(On facing so many elite pass rushers week after week)
“I can’t recall facing this many good pass rushers, and we haven’t even played Alabama yet. It’s an incredible league. As an o-line coach, I heard that it’s a defensive linemen league and I thought I’m sure they have some good players, but I had no idea that there would be as much defensive line talent as there is in the SEC. It makes you practice well because you know if you don’t you’re going to get your butt kicked on Saturday.”
(On who will wear the orange pants on the sideline Saturday)
“Well I can’t wear those pants and I don’t know who else could!”