The Tennessee football team hopes to return to prominence sooner rather than later under second-year head coach Josh Heupel and his staff.
As important as coaching staffs are to a football program, though, players ultimately have to make plays on the field — or get exposed in the process.
It’s often said that a player’s biggest improvement comes between his first and second year on campus. One full year’s worth of experience on campus, whether a player redshirts or contributes, tends to make most players much more comfortable with their surroundings and much more ready to help their team.
With those previous few paragraphs in mind, GoVols247’s 12th annual Second-Year Surge series will examine Tennessee’s group of second-year scholarship players, dissecting reasons for optimism and hesitation about each player’s immediate and long-term future in the Heupel era.
The Vols need significant improvement from players in their 2021 signing class if they hope to continue climbing back toward their traditional place near the top of the Southeastern Conference.
Will that happen, though?
Let’s start that conversation now.
Second-Year Surge continues with a look at redshirt freshman defensive lineman amari mcneill.
Position: defensive line
Size: 6-foot-4, 285 pounds
Hometown/Previous school: Suwanee, Ga./Peachtree Ridge HS
Recruit ranking: No. 799 overall prospect in the nation according to the industry-generated 247 Sports Composite. No. 73 offensive tackle prospect in the nation according to the 247Sports Composite, No. 86 offensive tackle prospect in the nation according to according to 247Sports. No. 76 overall prospect from Georgia according to the 247Sports Composite, No. 73 overall prospect from Michigan according to 247Sports.
2021 stats: 1 game, 0 starts; preserved a redshirt while practicing all season with the defensive line.
STRENGTHS SHOW: It’s a bit of a cliche that many “two-way lineman” prospects who want to play on D-line but are better physically suited to play O-line. Like many cliches, though, there’s some truth in it. McNeill was a late addition to Tennessee’s 2021 class as a “two-way lineman” prospect, but the view on this end was that he’d end up on offense at some point. McNeill preferred defense, though, and to this point he’s stayed on the defensive line. McNeill is athletic enough to play defense, at least on the inside, and he plays with a mean streak that’s fun to watch. He’s not a polished product — not even close — but he’s definitely a turn-him-loose kind of player up front. You need a mean streak to survive up front at this level, and McNeill has one. I have plays hard. He seems to prefer running over rather than around offensive linemen, and when his footwork and technique are on point, he’s capable of doing it. I have flashes at times. He can get into the backfield. He’s worked on his body since arriving at Tennessee, too, and he’s made strides in that area. He looked better this spring than he did during the fall. He looked a bit bigger but also a bit quicker. It was a step in the right direction. He got plenty of reps — mostly second-team and some third-team reps — during the spring, and that was good for him.
STEP-UP NEEDED: When Tennessee’s current staff was at UCF, it recruited McNeill hard … but as an offensive lineman. Tennessee’s previous staff promised McNeill an opportunity on defense to start his college career, though, and Tennessee’s current staff agreed to the same terms and conditions. McNeill has remained on defense and hasn’t flirted with the NCAA transfer portal, so clearly there’s belief from the player and his coaches that he can make an impact on defense. To do that, though, he’ll need to continue improving. Attempting to glean too much from limited practice periods open to reporters can be a mistake, but the bits we saw this spring from McNeill were better than the bits we saw from him last season — though, in fairness, seeing anything at practice during the season it was somewhere between difficult and impossible. Generally speaking, though, it’s fair to say McNeill still has a lot of work to do. Fortunately for him, the same could be the same for every other interior defensive lineman on Tennessee’s roster. Even those who seem likely to play the most snaps — we’re looking at you, Omari Thomas — need to continue improving before they’ll even approach the standards set by veteran D-line coach Rodney Garner. McNeill’s footwork and technique are not as consistent as his engine, but that’s not the worst thing in the world. If a kid works hard and wants to improve, they’ll almost always improve. The ones who refuse to play hard and compete or don’t have an aggressive mindset are usually harder to fix. McNeil had an early off-the-field incident at Tennessee, but from this vantage point that incident was a boys-will-be-boys incident that isn’t hugely problematic unless it’s repeated. He wasn’t the first 18-year-old to be in a car that got pulled over and had marijuana in it, and he won’t be the last. The other player involved in that incident is no longer at Tennessee, but McNeill is, and that should tell you something.
SYNOPSIS (TL;DR): The loss of matthew butler to the NFL created a huge hole on Tennessee’s defensive line that’ll be tough for any one player on the current roster to fill. Butler was quietly one of the better interior defensive linemen in the SEC — and perhaps all of college football — by the time he left Tennessee. That’s not hyperbole. The Pro Football Focus metrics support it. Regardless, Butler is now a Las Vegas Raider, and the Vols have to replace a very productive, very reliable player who was the anchor in a unit that was otherwise rotated heavily throughout the season. It’s at least a semi-safe guess that Thomas will be an anchor-type player in that group this season, and that senior LaTrell Bumphusjunior Da’Jon Terry, senior Kurott Garland and junior Elijah Simmons will get plenty of reps. Garner doesn’t mind rotating a lot of bodies in those spots, though, and players like McNeill, sophomore Bryson Easonsophomore Dominic Bailey and freshmen Jordan Phillips and Tire West will have a chance to get themselves in the mix. It’s a huge offseason for everyone in that group, including McNeil, and there will be a lot of competition throughout preseason camp and probably throughout the season. Aside from Butler, the starting lineup up front changed quite a bit last season, and that’s something Garner has done at times in his long career. If McNeill earns the reps, he will get the reps. But he’s got to go earn them.