Thursday’s media availability with Butch Jones turned into a listing of the walking wounded. Tennessee’s head coach confirmed several injury concerns as the Vols prepare to move into game week for Bowling Green.
Perhaps most important among several notes was that starting safety LaDarrell McNeil will miss “an extended period of time” due to a “neck instability.” Freshman receiver Vincent Perry will also have a scope for a meniscus injury suffered earlier in the week. Receiver Jason Croom will also have a scope done Friday to check the progress on his injury, according to Jones.
Jones also announced that starting receiver Pig Howard will be suspended for the opener against Bowling Green on Sept. 5 in Nashville due to an unspecified violation of team rules, further depleting the depth at receiver for the time being. And providing the first formal mention we’ve heard about the eligibility of incoming freshman receiver Preston Williams in a couple weeks, Jones said that Williams took his ACT on August 10th and that the situation is “out of our hands” at this point.
“We’re hoping to find something out here very, very shortly,” Jones said of Williams’ situation. “I think it is unfortunate that this young man has had to go through this lengthy process. Again, these are young adults, and not just their career as a football player, that’s secondary, their life as a student-athlete, this young man has weathered this, it’s been on his mind constantly – his family’s mind – and again, I think moving forward we have to have a timeframe that really respects our students, and with going to classes, drop and add is coming up, and the stress and the pressure.
“I just think that’s something we need to look at because he’s done anything and everything that everyone has asked of him in terms of the test, showing up on time, being there, and for it to wait this long, I don’t understand where it’s come to this. We’re hoping to have some clarity in the situation here today, tomorrow, next week, whenever they deem that they want to share the results.”
2:30 p.m. UPDATE on Williams situation: Jones indicated just hours after these comments that Williams has been cleared to join the team.
While no specific timelines were given for the injured players, it adds more injury concern for a team that has already confirmed the loss of three players for the year to injury in offensive linemen Marcus Jackson (biceps) and Austin Sanders (biceps) and nickelback Rashaan Gaulden (foot). Assuming McNeil misses Week 1 (though Jones didn’t put a precise time table on any of the injuries), the Vols will be without at least four starters against Bowling Green (Jackson, Gaulden, McNeil and Howard).
A few quick thoughts on what each new injury/absence means for the team:
LaDarrell McNeil: An undervalued veteran who provides the Vols with experience and stability, McNeil maybe isn’t the most important player on the defense, but he brings a ton of value, especially in run support. He did split some time with then freshman Todd Kelly Jr. last year, so Kelly can certainly pick up a lot of slack if needed. Evan Berry, another young player with a ton of upside, is another option to help fill in at safety. This is a spot the Vols had some wiggle room at in terms of being able to absorb an injury, but this is certainly not a good development.
Jason Croom: This isn’t really a new development as he’s been in and out throughout much of camp, and Jones said this is more of a check-up procedure for him. But it certainly confirms that there are some concerns about his availability going forward, and for a unit that was hoping to go two or three deep at each spot, it’s a blow to depth for the time being. Jauan Jennings, Von Pearson, Josh Malone and Johnathon Johnson are the only scholarship receivers at this point who we can say are pretty close to 100% healthy and eligible to play against Bowling Green. Marquez North is working his way back from a sprain and Josh Smith has been held out of practice with a “strain,” according to Jones.
Vincent Perry: Perry was further down the depth chart, but especially in light of some of the other receiver losses, he’s a guy who probably would’ve been able to help the Vols out, especially against Bowling Green. He’s shown some good things in camp, and while probably not ready for a starring role this year, he’s done enough to show that he could be a contributor.
Pig Howard: The finite nature of him only being out one game – a game that the Vols are heavily favored in no less – makes this loss a bit easier to absorb, but it’s always a big deal to loss a leading returning receiver for any amount of time. His absence will give players like Jennings and Malone a great opportunity to step up against the Falcons, but the Vols will look forward to Howard’s return against Oklahoma in Week 2.