Former walk-on running back Jaron Toney is pushing to play a regular role on defense.
The graduate of Alcoa High School, now on scholarship and playing cornerback, could push past Eric Gordon as the "star" nickelback, which is used so frequently by Tennessee that it might as well be considered a starting position.
Defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri said Toney first caught his eye on special teams.
"I usually look at things really simple: When a young man goes out and starts making plays on special teams and starts getting 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 has done a good job and he will have an opportunity to get out there and show what he can do."
Cornerbacks coach Derrick Ansley stopped short of saying that Toney had won the job outright, but said the junior had done "everything we've asked of him."
"It's nothing that Eric's done wrong," Ansley said. "We're just trying to create competition at that position. We're going to play the guy that has the best week of practice. They've got one more day to compete and then we'll make a decision on Friday."***Freshman safety LaDarrell McNeil has followed up the best game of his young career against Georgia with a solid week of practices, Sunseri said.
McNeil is expected to start or at least play significant snaps in place of Brent Brewer on Saturday at Mississippi State.
"I'm really excited about LaDarrell. He's done a great job this past week," Sunseri said. "That young man is flying around making plays and he is going to be a heck of a player at the University of Tennessee.
"This kid is extremely quick, extremely fast and has football instincts. When you have those type of intangibles, you are going to play for a long time, whether it is here or the next level."
Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said he'd like to shrink Mississippi State's two lanky cornerbacks. Darius Slay is 6-foot-1, and Johnthan Banks is 6-2.
"I wish they were 5-4 and 5-5," Chaney said. "They're opportunistic, have great instincts and they see what is happening in front of them because they keep the play in front of them a lot. They play the ball in the air exceptionally well, they have good ball skills, and they are everything you are looking for in a large corner."
Mississippi State's 5-0 record has invited skepticism because the victories have come against two of the weakest SEC teams (Auburn and Kentucky), a Championship Subdivision school (Jackson State) and two lower-tier Bowl Subdivision schools (Troy and South Alabama).
The Bulldogs' worst game of the season likely was Sept. 15 at Troy. MSU allowed 572 yards of total offense but escaped with a 30-24 win.
How did Troy do it, a reporter asked Chaney, and could Tennessee do the same?
"Troy lined up a lot in open formations, played at a rapid pace, handed it off, threw the ball in the perimeter and did a lot of nice things," Chaney said. "That's who they are, and they played a good ballgame that day. We do similar things, but we have a more physical game lining it up with the fullback and tight end."
Mississippi State has recovered since the close call against Troy. The defense surrendered only 224 yards last week at Kentucky.
Tennessee is relatively healthy after a two-week break, but linebacker Curt Maggitt's lingering turf toe remains a concern. Maggitt was held out of practice last week and appeared to run gingerly at times this week.
UT coach Derek Dooley has said that Maggitt's progress has been hampered by both the injury and the missed practice time caused by the injury.
Sunseri said Wednesday that Maggitt "is ready to go."
"Managing him has been tough. Young kids playing in this conference is tough," Sunseri said. "You know the physicality in this league. The bottom line is that I think he's better. He's more rested and his toe is feeling better, so things are good."
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/TennesseeBeat.