KNOXVILLE - Tennessee's defense spent last week before the open date searching for a solution to what has caused the Volunteers to allow big play after big play this season.
Part of the formula being tried includes LaDarrell McNeil.
While Tennessee needs the other 10 players around the freshman safety to limit those devastating long runs and recognizes McNeil is making his first career start Saturday night in a hostile environment at 19th-ranked Mississippi State, the Vols' coaches are looking forward to unleashing their most prized high school signee from February's class.
"We're going to see how ready he is," safeties coach Josh Conklin said after practice Wednesday. "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, and he's worked really hard to get in the extra [work] in the mornings after meetings ... watching film and studying."
The 6-foot-1, 195-pound McNeil's feet already should be a little wet. He played special teams in Tennessee's first four games and nearly blocked a couple of punts. His most extensive action defensively came against Georgia.
The Texas native doesn't shy away from contact, and Tennessee's coaches feel his combination of instincts, speed and tackling ability can help the Vols' back line.
"I'm really excited about LaDarrell," defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri said. "He's done a great job this past week, and that young man is flying around, he's making plays and he's going to be a heck of a player here. When you have those types of intangibles, you're going to play for a long time, whether it's here or the next level."
Tennessee has missed injured safety Brian Randolph both as a communicator in the secondary and a valuable last-line defender, and Conklin said McNeil could develop into a similar player once he gets more experience and a better grasp of the defense.
"He has those type skills," he said. "He may be a little bit faster at the point of attack than Brian Randolph was. He's got the ability to get guys down in the open field.
"He's just a pup right now. He's coming along quickly. He's got the ability to do it, and it's my job and our job as a staff to make sure he gets up to speed as quickly as he can."
That's where having Byron Moore alongside him in the secondary should help McNeil. The junior said the key for McNeil is just letting him play, and he pledged he'd help his younger teammate line up correctly and know what to do. Then it's up to McNeil to play to his talent.
"He's doing a real good job," Moore said. "He's a real mature kid. He's up there watching film with me, getting in the playbook.
"You've just got to let LaDarrell get out there and let him go, let him play. He brings a lot of energy, and he's going to go 110 miles per hour every play. I'll try to feed off of it, and it's good having him back there."
Head coach Derek Dooley returned to practice Thursday morning less than 48 hours after surgery that inserted a pin to repair a fracture in his right hip. The 44-year-old drove a golf cart around Haslam Field with crutches in the back of the vehicle. He remained active by shouting to his players and talking with other team personnel.
Dooley -- whose wife, Allison, is an OB/GYN - called Wednesday night into "Vol Calls," a live weekly radio show on which he usually appears, and discussed the injury that will force him to coach from the press box Saturday.
"I'm pretty active," he said. "I'm always taking the stairs and I'm running and I'm jumping and I'm lifting [weights]. I think a breakdown over time, the femoral neck of my hip began to fracture and got worse and worse.
"I really didn't have an option [on surgery], because if that thing would have split, which it could have done with any sudden movement going forward ... then it would have required a full hip replacement.
Tennessee might make another change in its struggling secondary.
Walk-on JaRon Toney split first-time reps at nickelback with regular Eric Gordon, and both could play Saturday. The former Alcoa High School player who set a state record with 50 rushing touchdowns in 2009 was a reserve tailback last season and switched to defense during spring practice. He's played special teams this season.
"Usually I look I look at ... when a young man goes and he starts making plays on special teams and starts being noticed, then he's ready to get in there in the fire on first and second and third down," Sunseri said. "The kid has made some plays, he's done a good job and he will have an opportunity to to get out there and show what he can do."
Linebacker Curt Maggitt should play Saturday night, but he won't be 100 percent then or for the rest of the season with turf toe. He practiced in a noncontact jersey Tuesday and Wednesday, and though he shed the red Thursday, the Vols weren't practicing in shoulder pads. Maggitt took nearly the entire open date off from practicing, but he has not moved as well as usual this week.
"The foot and managing him has been tough," Sunseri said. "We've rested him, and he's ready to go. The toe's feeling better, so things are going good."