Josh Conklin came up with a canine analogy to describe LaDarrell McNeil, his fearless freshman safety.
"If a dog doesn't bite when he's a puppy, he usually doesn't bite when he's older," said Conklin, Tennessee's first-year safeties coach. "LaDarrell bites."
For now, McNeil is yapping and nipping at the heels of the bigger, older dogs on Tennessee's roster. When next week rolls around, McNeil likely is to be a first-team safety on the Vols' depth chart.
Tennessee (3-2, 0-2) plays at No. 20 Mississippi State (4-0, 1-0) on Oct. 13 (TV: ESPN2, 9 p.m.)
McNeil is the only true freshmen in the two-deep on Tennessee's defensive chart. In seven days, he could be the lone starter.
Much of the freshman class has been vexed by injuries, and most of the major contributors have come in the secondary. McNeil and cornerbacks Deion Bonner and Daniel Gray (currently out with concussion symptoms) have seen the most action, as coaches hope their raw speed and athleticism make up for inexperience.
McNeil played aggressively against Georgia, never shying away from full-speed collisions with running back Todd Gurley, the league's leading rusher.
"(McNeil) went out there and played well," said defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri. "I'm really pleased with the kid. He's a kid who flies around and makes plays. He's going to make some mistakes, and we understand that. But he's also a guy who makes plays."
What of the rest of the freshmen class?
Three freshmen are making meaningful contributions on offense: running back Quenshaun Watson, fullback/Wildcat quarterback Justin King and receiver Alton "Pig" Howard, who also has been a quarterback in the Wildcat formation.
Kicker George Bullock, tight end Justin Meredith and linebackers Kenny Bynum and LaTroy Lewis are out with injuries. Running back Davante Bourque left the team in August.
Receiver Drae Bowles, quarterback Nathan Peterman, running back Alden Hill, defensive back Tino Thomas and defensive lineman Danny O'Brien have yet to take a snap and likely will redshirt barring an unexpected change.
Receivers Cody Blanc and Jason Croom, and defensive linemen Omari Phillips and Trent Taylor have played only sparingly.
For the three defensive backs, the path to more playing time started on special teams. McNeil played a bit in the secondary against Akron and then got even more snaps last week against Georgia.
"It was valuable because you see a renewed confidence in him," Conklin said. "He kind of questioned himself for the first three or four weeks because he wasn't getting the reps he thought maybe he should be or didn't feel comfortable taking the reps he was getting."
Now McNeil feels like he belongs.
"It's fun to coach," Conklin said. "I think he brings some energy back there. We've got a young guy here that's not afraid to stick it up in there and get after it."
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/TennesseeBeat.