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Tennessee safety LaDarrell McNeil defends against South Carolina wide receiver Ace Sanders in 2012.

KNOXVILLE - LaDarrell McNeil was once a college freshman himself.

After signing with Tennessee in 2012, the safety from Dallas came to Knoxville as the highest-rated high school player in his class with a starting spot with the Volunteers in his crosshairs.

"I saw it as a great opportunity coming in as a freshman," McNeil recalled Thursday evening after Tennessee's practice -- two years, 19 starts and 112 tackles later. "I knew I had to learn the scheme of the defense. I had to play it as fast as guys that was already here. I was really nervous, but I was up for the opportunity."

Come June, the Adidas cleat will be on the other foot for McNeil and Tennessee's other safeties.

While most of the Vols' 14 early newcomers have been making their presence felt on offense, nearly all of the summer arrivals from Tennessee's touted 2014 signing class will be defensive players.

Up front, four-star recruits Derek Barnett, Dewayne Hendrix, Joe Henderson and Michael Sawyers join a group full of unproven commodities. Linebackers Dillon Bates, Chris Weatherd and Gavin Bryant figure to get a good shot at playing time. Safeties Todd Kelly Jr., Cortez McDowell and Rashaan Gaulden also will compete for starting spots.

"It's going to help the competition," said A.J. Johnson, the Vols' All-SEC middle linebacker. "When you've got competition, that helps everybody elevate their game, because you can't slack. You've got somebody right behind you, who's pushing you. If you mess up, they're going to hop right in and take your spot. That's one thing competition does bring. It brings a lot."

That meant this spring was crucial for a handful of returning players.

"I believe I had a good spring," McNeil said, "because I improved tackling in space, I improved my cover skills and I improved my knowledge of the scheme."

It took the 6-foot-1, 199-pound McNeil four and a half games to break into Tennessee's starting defense in 2012. After Brian Randolph was lost for the season, the freshman entered for the struggling Brent Brewer midway through Tennessee's 51-44 loss at Georgia, made his first start at Mississippi State the following game and has started every game since.

After a 58-tackle debut season that earned him Freshman All-SEC honors, McNeil was the Vols' fourth-leading tackler with 54 stops last season, though he often struggled with open-field tackling and pursuit angles.

"I was happy with my overall performance," he said, "but I wanted to get better and keep moving forward from that."

With Randolph, who should start at one safety spot as long as he's healthy, out this spring coming off offseason shoulder surgery, McNeil has been a constant on Tennessee's back line while teammates have rotated in Randolph's vacated spot.

Walk-on Devaun Swafford, a nickel back last season, rising sophomore Lemond Johnson and fourth-year junior Geraldo Orta all have gotten first-team work at safety at some point this spring with McNeil, who's on nearly every one of Tennessee's coverage units on special teams.

"He still has a lot of room for growth and development," Vols coach Butch Jones said. "Our entire safety position needs to step up. We had way too many missed tackles last year. The overall communication, they're responsible for us getting the back end lined up and also the linebackers as well.

"Come June, we welcome three more safeties at that position, so it's going to be a lot of competition as we continue to go. LaDarrell's played a role for us in the past. His role is going to continue to increase in terms of the special teams game, but the competition, especially on the defensive side of the ball, will pick up once June occurs."

That's no secret to McNeil, either.

"We're hungry," he said of the Vols' secondary. "We really want to improve from last year and keep moving forward.

"I look forward to helping those guys make the transition from high school to college," he added. "I've got a lot of experience. I've been learning from guys like Brian Randolph and Justin Coleman. I feel like I'm a veteran now."

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