KNOXVILLE -- LaDarrell McNeil admits he initially thought he would never understand Tennessee's defense, much less become a starting safety.
His physical tools could carry the Volunteers' freshman only so far.
Spurred on by the example of some of his older teammates, McNeil took to the film room and his coaches' offices to expedite his navigation of the typical first-year learning curve and surprised himself in the process.
"It really comes from the leadership on our team," he said Tuesday morning in his first media appearance as a Vol. "When I see them going and putting in extra work, putting in extra time, that makes me want to be a better player and go in there and get the extra work, get the extra time and get the extra knowledge for this game. I feel like that's the reason why I'm starting."
The 6-foot-1, 195-pounder from Dallas made his first start at Mississippi State. He'd mostly played special teams to that point and nearly blocked a couple of punts in the season's early games. The season-ending injury to Brian Randolph in the Florida game and Brent Brewer's ineffectiveness paved the way to more playing time, and McNeil made five tackles in his first extensive action at Georgia.
As with any true freshman, there have been ups and downs. McNeil showed little fear in head-on collisions with Georgia tailback Todd Gurley and made eight tackles against Mississippi State and South Carolina. He was on the wrong end of an open-field stiff-arm from South Carolina's Justice Cunningham, and Troy quarterback Deon Anthony ran over McNeil at the goal line Saturday.
"He's got all the qualities to be a really good player, and it's very difficult the position we're putting him in," Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said. "It's difficult, and it's a little bit like we did a lot of our players in the last couple of years. It's just hard."
It's also something Tennessee is accustomed to doing under Dooley. Randolph started the final six games last season. Brewer, though an older freshman after playing minor league baseball, did the same in 2010.
Yet what makes McNeil different from most freshmen is his drive to get better outside of practice.
"I know the type of football player he is, and I know that he's spent a lot of individual time with me up in the meeting rooms," safeties coach Josh Conklin said last week. "I've got confidence in my ability, and I can get him right if he's willing to put the time in and invest the time in. He's been willing to do that.
"Is it 100 percent? It's not going to be, but he keeps putting the time in, and he's accelerated at a real quick pace. That's going to help us in the future."
McNeil came to Tennessee from Wilmer-Hutchins High School with an impressive pedigree. He was a consensus four-star recruit, and Rivals.com rated him as the nation's No. 86 overall player. He was named a Parade All-American and played in the prestigious U.S. Army All-American Bowl.
Yet when he arrived in Knoxville, the size of college players and Tennessee's defensive playbook were eye-openers.
"I thought I would never get this," McNeil said. "I was like, 'This defense is just hard, I'd never get it.' But [my coaches], they improved my knowledge of the game, and that's why I play like I do.
"I need to work on all aspects of the game, especially coverage-wise, open-field tackling and just mainly making sure I know my job."
He already has impressed with his dedication and extra effort in improving that last item.
"I think [it's] very rare for a freshman to be as focused and driven the way he is," Dooley said. "What separates him is I think he understands, 'Boy, I don't understand this stuff.' A lot of freshmen, they don't really care -- just go play.
"The one thing's the mental part, and it certainly hasn't been easy on him. Then the physical beatdown you go through as a freshman, the emotional pressure you feel, because there's a lot of pressure on how much we're depending on him to hold up back there. Over the course of time, it can really take a toll on a player. It's hit LaDarrell for a couple of weeks, but he's got a great attitude, he has a big-time future, he's going to be a great football player, and I believe that."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrowntfp.