Game Preview: UT vs. Mississippi State
If not for the gray-skied, 50-degree weather outside the Football Training Center on the University of Tennessee's campus Monday, one might have thought it was August.
The rhetoric was replayed.
"These are NFL guys — they're legitimate football players," Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said during his weekly press conference regarding a Mississippi State secondary increasingly gaining respect. "They're incredibly instinctive, long and athletic. … They can just prey on a quarterback, break him down and make the play."
Heard this before?
"You have a first-rounder and probably three or four NFL draft guys back there," Dooley said back in August, praising N.C. State's supposedly invulnerable secondary. "They make you pay for an inaccurate throw."
As it turned out, UT quarterback Tyler Bray canceled those payments by rattling off 27 completions for 333 yards and two touchdowns. N.C. State cornerback David Amerson is still trying to figure out where Cordarrelle Patterson went.
Dooley's praise went uncorroborated by N.C. State.
As for Mississippi State, Tennessee's opponent Saturday (TV: ESPN2, 9 p.m.) ...
The Vols, boasting the SEC's top aerial attack with 329.2 passing yards per game, will face a Bulldog defense ranked 11th in scoring defense (13.4 point per game). Cornerbacks Darius Slay (four) and Johnthan Banks (three) rank among the nation's best in interceptions.
In the UT secondary, a need for speed has opened the door for freshman LaDarrell McNeil.
According to Dooley, the Dallas native is assured more playing time Saturday and may land in the starting lineup.
"He's a real quiet guy, but I don't think the game is too big for him at all," said veteran cornerback Prentiss Waggner, who added that McNeil is "a guy that flies around to the ball, no matter what the play."
Lounging like any ol' SEC fan last Saturday, offensive lineman Ja'Wuan James found it difficult to disconnect in his off week.
"It's funny because if we watch a game collectively, everyone in the room is saying, 'Did you see that? Did you see that?' " James said. "Everyone is looking at different things. You watch your position.
When watching the Mississippi State-Kentucky game, James said he zeroed in on how the Bulldogs lined up opposite UK's right tackle — the spot he'll be occupying Saturday in Starkville.
"They've got good size and they're athletic," he said of State's defensive linemen.
Brendan F. Quinn covers Tennessee men's basketball. Follow him at http://twitter.com/BFQuinn