KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Tennessee safety LaDarrell McNeil is out indefinitely and wide receiver Alton “Pig” Howard has been suspended for the season opener, continuing a series of preseason hits to the Volunteers’ depth.
Vols coach Butch Jones said Thursday that McNeil was undergoing evaluation for “neck instability” and would miss “an extended period of time.” Jones said Howard was suspended from the Sept. 5 game with Bowling Green for a violation of team rules.
Jones also said wide receivers Jason Croom and Vincent Perry are undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery Friday without addressing a potential return date for either player. Croom missed Tennessee’s TaxSlayer Bowl victory over Iowa last season with a knee injury.
The Vols did get one bit of good news Thursday with the announcement that freshman wide receiver Preston Williams had been cleared by the NCAA. Williams, rated as a five-star recruit by 247Sports and Scout, hadn’t practiced with the Vols while awaiting word on his eligibility.
No. 25 Tennessee already had announced guard Marcus Jackson (biceps) is likely out for the season and that defensive back Rashaan Gaulden (foot) and guard Austin Sanders (biceps) are certainly out for the year. Before the start of training camp, defensive back Devaun Swafford decided to end his career for health reasons.
McNeil, a senior from Dallas, has 31 career starts and ranked fourth on the team with 76 tackles last season. Senior safety Brian Randolph is the only Tennessee player with more career starts.
“This one came kind of out of nowhere,” Jones said. “Very, very unfortunate. I feel for him.”
Howard, a senior from Orlando, Florida, had 54 catches for 618 yards to lead the Vols in both categories last year. He had a team-high 44 catches for 388 yards in 2013. He has five career touchdown catches.
Jones didn’t specify the violation that resulted in Howard’s suspension.
“This isn’t something that just occurred,” Jones said. “This is something that dates back many months. However, to Alton’s credit, I like the way he’s approached training camp. He’s had the best training camp he’s had since we’ve been here.”
Croom had 21 receptions for 305 yards and four touchdowns as a sophomore last season. Perry, a freshman, got injured during Tuesday’s practice.
“It was a non-contact drill.. … (Perry) just cut on the grass and twisted his knee and went down,” Jones said.
The secondary and receiving corps figured to be two of Tennessee’s deeper areas before all these preseason losses.
Tennessee returns all seven players who caught 20 passes or accumulated 200 yards receiving last season, a group that includes running back Jalen Hurd and tight end Ethan Wolf.
The receiving corps also got a boost from the addition of freshman Jauan Jennings, a former quarterback who has adapted quickly to his new position.
“I didn’t want to sit down on the sideline,” Jennings said. “I wanted to explore my talents and see what I could do. Playing receiver, I didn’t really play it until I got here. I never had played receiver before, but with my talent and skill set, it kind of is natural.”
McNeil was expected to be one of three returning starters in a secondary that includes Randolph and junior cornerback Cam Sutton. McNeil’s injury could create an opportunity for sophomores Todd Kelly Jr. and Evan Berry. Kelly made three starts and had 33 tackles last season.
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