Top 35 Plays of 2015: #33 – McNeil’s Comeback

The number 33 play in our countdown to determine the best plays of Tennessee’s 2015 season is LaDarrell McNeil’s first interception of the season.

PLAY #33 – LaDarrell McNeil’s Interception

Near the end of fall camp, some devastating news came to senior safety LaDarrell McNeil; his football career might be over. After a big hit in practice, McNeil suffered a serious neck injury. Coach Butch Jones announced that McNeil had some “neck instability” and would miss “an extended period of time.” The Vols went into the 2015 season with the understanding that there was a good chance that McNeil’s season, and career, was over.

But McNeil wasn’t ready to quit. After returning to his hometown in Texas, McNeil met with another doctor to get a second opinion. “I went down to Dallas to get a second opinion, because they felt like it was a chance,” McNeil said. “I still had a chance and an opportunity. And he basically just said, ‘I think you’ll be all right. I think you just need to heal up, take some time.’”

Less than a month after the original injury, McNeil was cleared for full contact and was on the field for the Vols’ 55-10 win over Western Carolina. Not only did McNeil get back on the field, but he had one of the biggest plays of the game when he intercepted a pass from Catamounts quarterback Troy Mitchell.

On McNeil’s interception, the Vols were in a coverage called Cover 1 Green Dog. Let’s break this down one piece at a time. First, Cover 1.

Cover 1 is simply man coverage with a deep free safety in zone. In this case, McNeil is playing the deep free safety position. His job is to cover the deep middle third, read the quarterback’s eyes, and help defend the deepest route.

The Vols’ other defensive backs (corners Cam Sutton and Justin Martin, nickel Micah Abernathy, and strong safety Todd Kelly Jr.) are each responsible for a receiver in straight man coverage.

This brings us to the “Green Dog” part of the coverage. Green Dog is simply a check that tells the linebacker responsible for the running back to blitz if the back stays in to block. The linebacker will check to see if the back is running a route or blocking. If he is releasing downfield, the linebacker must cover him in man coverage. If he stays in to block, then the linebacker will blitz.

The Vols combine the Green Dog concept with a “Fiddle” concept. Fiddle is a combo coverage between two defenders and one receiver. Here, the Vols two linebackers, Colton Jumper and Jalen Reeves-Maybin, are playing a Fiddle concept on the back. If he releases left, Jumper will cover him, and if he releases right, Reeves-Maybin will cover him. Whichever linebacker is not covering the back will blitz. If the back stays in to block, both linebackers blitz.

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The first thing to note about this play is McNeil’s technique as the deep safety. He is backpedaling to the deep middle, keeping his shoulders square to the line of scrimmage so he can break in either direction. He keeps his eyes on the quarterback the whole time.

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As soon as McNeil sees the quarterback turn his body to throw to (McNeil’s) left, he is breaking on the ball.

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McNeil’s early break on the ball allows him to be in outstanding position to high point the ball and come down with the interception. This is textbook free safety play.

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You will also note the technique of cornerback Cam Sutton. The Vols’ corner knows that he has help inside from McNeil, so he plays the receiver with outside leverage. Because Sutton is defending the route on the outside, he forces the ball to be thrown inside, giving McNeil an opportunity to make the play.

After McNeil caught the ball, the other ten players on the field become blockers. This was a great team effort, and McNeil finished the play with a 57 yard return. On the very next play, Jalen Hurd was able to score a touchdown.

For McNeil, this interception had multiple meanings. First, it was outstanding free safety play by a Cover 1 safety. McNeil read the quarterback all the way, broke at precisely the right time, and was able to track the ball in the air.

But even bigger than the great play by McNeil was what it meant to him and the team. This was a guy who was never supposed to play again. And then he makes a huge play in his first game back.

Coach Jones said after the game, “It’s a great story of resiliency, perseverance. It was a very trying two weeks for him and his family, and then the emotion of your football career’s not over with, you don’t have to have surgery, and just getting him back in to the fold. We wanted to ease him into the game tonight. We didn’t want to give him an inordinate amount of reps, just because he hasn’t played football in a while. Very fitting, though. He does his due diligence and video study and all that, so it was very rewarding when he had that interception.”

Rewarding is a great way to describe the play. I remember getting very excited when I saw that McNeil had intercepted the ball, and I know most of Volnation reacted in a similar way. This was a great way for McNeil to make his return to the football field, and that’s why it is number 33 on our countdown.

BONUS PLAY

A week after McNeil’s interception, the senior safety picked off another pass against Florida. Watch this clip below and see if you can notice the similiarites to McNeil’s interception versus the Catamounts.

The Vols are in the very same coverage! The call is Cover 1, and the linebackers are playing with the same Green Dog technique.

A lot of credit on this interception goes to Cam Sutton. He got a great jam at the line of scrimmage and disrupted the timing of the route. McNeil read quarterback Will Grier’s eyes from the start, and he came over the top to intercept the overthrown pass.

This was a huge play for the Vols, as it destroyed Florida’s chances of scoring right before halftime. This play narrowly missed our countdown, but I wanted to point it out because of how similar it was to McNeil’s first interception.

Be sure to check back later this week to see what play will be number 32 in our countdown.


You can read previous installments of this series by clicking below:

Play #35 – Evan Berry’s Pick Six

Play #34 – Preston Williams’ First Touchdown

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