published Sunday, February 12th, 2012

UT Vols anxious till signing LaDarrell McNeil

KNOXVILLE -- LaDarrell McNeil's phone kept ringing.

Coaches looking to make a last-minute sales pitch. Reporters trying to get a read into his mind for updates.

"My phone was blowing up almost every five minutes," McNeil recalled earlier this week.

Such is the life of a highly rated safety prospect in the high school football hotbed of Dallas when signing day is merely days away. One particular night, his phone rang at 11. That was the last straw for McNeil's mother.

"She actually had to take my phone," LaDarrell said, "because I couldn't sleep and I wasn't on top of my studies because I was always talking to reporters and always talking to coaches. She was like, 'Sometimes you've got to leave your phone and just focus and keep focusing so you can go and be successful.'"

Tennessee's coaches might have worried even more than his mother about McNeil. The Wilmer-Hutchins High School standout committed to the Volunteers in August, meaning UT's coaches had to endure five seemingly endless months of hoping they could hold on to a prospect from more than 800 miles away who had no shortage of suitors.

When McNeil canceled an official visit to North Carolina on January's final weekend, the Vols breathed just a little easier. When the 6-foot-1, 195-pounder inked his letter of intent and faxed it in to UT's football offices, there was certainly a collective sigh of relief.

"I was extremely nervous," Vols head coach Derek Dooley said at his signing day news conference on Feb. 1. "He took a visit to Oklahoma State [on Jan. 21]. Are you nervous? Are you kidding me? Yes. He's going to take another visit, but then he cancels it. When that happens, you get a little peace.

"Are you nervous? Yeah, you're calling them 28 times before signing day. 'Are you there? Is everything OK?' 'Yeah, Coach. What?' You don't hear from them in two hours, and you're in a panic. He's just at a movie."

Given McNeil's ability, the Vols had plenty of reasons to worry about keeping him. The hard-hitting safety was selected to the U.S. Army All-American Bowl in January and the Parade All-American team. A member of Rivals.com's top 100 players, McNeil was rated the nation's seventh-ranked player by both Rivals and 247Sports and backed up the ratings by making 124 tackles, including 18 or more in four games.

"Big, can run, can hit," said Terry Joseph, UT's safeties coach and recruiting coordinator. "Happy to hold on to him being so far away. Good player, expecting big things from him. Hopefully he's doing some offseason stuff right now."

McNeil held offers from Arkansas, Texas A&M, TCU, Clemson, Miami, Notre Dame and Southern Cal, among others. He took an official visit to Nebraska in December in addition to visiting Big 12 champion Oklahoma State in January. It was his official visit to Knoxville the weekend before his trip to Stillwater that essentially locked him up.

"Mainly because of the coaching staff -- they really showed me that they wanted me and that I was important to the upcoming class," McNeil said of decision to sign with UT. "The atmosphere for Tennessee and the traditions, I just loved it. I basically fell in love with Tennessee, the coaching staff, the people and just Tennessee.

"I just weighed my options, and I was like, 'Tennessee is the best place for me.'"

It's also a long way from his hometown. McNeil made the drive with a teammate for UT's camp in July, a month before he committed. The Vols had a connection: Dooley knew Wilmer-Hutchins coach Elzie Barnett from his time at SMU (1997-99).

McNeil said the distance was not a factor for him or his parents.

"I really didn't too much try to convince them or anything," he said. "I just tried to let them see for themselves. I let Coach Joseph, Coach Sal [new defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri] and Coach Dooley, they came down and convinced my parents. My parents said, 'We really like Tennessee; we really love Tennessee. It's just up to you and it don't matter how far it is because we'll always be there. Don't worry about us.'"

Now McNeil can begin worrying about his freshman season with the Vols. He plans to major in international business or accounting, and his main on-field objective is to adjust to the speed of the SEC while maintaining his body.

"I feel like I'm a very intelligent player," he said. "I like to study a lot of film, and I like to study the wide receivers' techniques so I know what I'm going up against. I like to knock people off their routes. I try to pay as much attention to that as I can."

With his college decision settled, McNeil probably can focus less on his quieter phone.

"We liked everything about him," Dooley said. "He has great character, too. Do I think he has all the skill sets back there? Yeah, I do. He's physical, he's fast, he's rangy, he's big. We'll see."

about Patrick Brown...

Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...

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