KNOXVILLE — LaDarrell McNeil wants to build off his freshman season, but the Tennessee safety's position coach is more interested in his present than his past.
Though he has had only three months and three practices as the Volunteers' secondary coach, Willie Martinez likes what he sees from the player who made the SEC's all-freshman team in 2012.
"I love his demeanor, and I like the way he's focused," Martinez said after Thursday's morning practice. "He really comes to work. He's got that lunch-pail kind of mentality.
"He comes to work every day, and his willingness to learn and to be the best he can be to help us as a team has been outstanding."
The highest-rated high school player in Tennessee's 2012 signing class, the 6-foot-1, 195-pound McNeil was thrown into the fire on the Vols' back line following the season-ending knee injury to Brian Randolph. He had a 10-tackle game against Troy and eight-tackle outings against Mississippi State, his first start, and Vanderbilt. And he had plenty of freshman moments.
"I learned a lot," McNeil said after Tuesday's practice. "I just try to carry as much as I can into this scheme and work as much as I can. I'm trying to get from level three to level 13.
"I want a huge transition, and I want to become a better player."
The former secondary coach and defensive coordinator at Georgia, Martinez is helping McNeil work toward that goal, but he's using what he's seen in meeting rooms, skill-development sessions and the first practices of spring to evaluate McNeil and the rest of the defensive backs.
"I've watched the film for me as a coach, or as a coaching staff, to gauge on the strengths and weaknesses and what things they can get better with," he said. "I'm really not focused on  film and watching it with them. It's a different scheme, and I want to evaluate these players in the now as far as ability and the things they can or can't do."
McNeil noted the work ethic of his new position coach.
"He likes to work, and that's my type of my dude," he said. "The bond with this staff is much stronger, but we've still got a lot to go through. It was kind of the same with the staff last year. They had to get a feel for us and we had to get a feel for them, but the bond this year is much stronger."
Offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian is pleased with quarterbacks Nathan Peterman and Justin Worley through three practices.
"Things are moving a little bit fast for them right now, but they're doing a good job," he said. "They have a firm grasp of everything we've thrown at them. Right now it's just a matter of executing, making sure our ball location is in the right spot and making sure our decision-making process is accurate.
"I'm happy with where they are and how they're progressing."
The Vols have their first scrimmage of the spring scheduled for Saturday in Neyland Stadium. It's planned as primarily a situational setting since it will be the team's second workout in full pads. Peterman and Worley appear to be splitting snaps with the first-team offense, at least during the open viewing periods of practice.
"Really it's not so much us, it's them creating that atmosphere of competition," Bajakian said. "It's a quarterback battle, and they're both competing very hard and making progress. Right now we're still trying to figure that out."
Defensive coordinator John Jancek said he saw some good things from defensive ends Jacques Smith and Corey Miller during Thursday's practice. "We do need to improve our pass rush, and we can't blitz every time to get a pass rush, either," he said. "Otherwise you're just putting your secondary in a bind all the time." ... Tennessee began keeping score between the offense and defense on Thursday, and the offense took the day and earned the right to wear orange jerseys in Saturday's practice. ... Randolph and tight end Justin Meredith, who redshirted due to a lingering hamstring problem last season, were in gold noncontact jerseys.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...