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March 29, 2013

Collision course


AUBURN | Demetruce McNeal wears his emotions on his sleeve, he's just that kind of guy, and the past three months have been anything but happy.

In fact, he's been miserable. The Tigers' 3-9 season a year ago put a frown on the rising senior's face and dumped a dose of melancholy on one of the team's most affable personalities.

Finally strapping on a chinstrap Wednesday was the only thing that could snap McNeal's emotional skid.

"It was tough, man," he said. "Now we know how it feels to have a season like that and we don't want to feel that way again. We let so many people down. It made me a better player. My play last year is something that I'm going to build off of and just make myself better coverage-wise, hitting-wise and everything."

Early returns are positive.

McNeal was, at least from a statistical perspective, one of the Tigers' most productive defensive players during the 2012 season. He finished with 90 tackles including seven for loss as a box safety. McNeal isn't a refined pass defender, but his hyper-aggressive approach toward tackling gave the team energy if nothing else.

Now defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson wants to channel that energy in a slightly new direction. McNeal is in the process of jumping to 215 pounds in order to play boundary safety this fall.

He currently weighs 199.

The job description at boundary safety fits McNeal's profile: The first safety called to assist with run defense who can stick with third- or fourth-option receivers in space. Johnson said he's been impressed with what McNeal has shown so far.

"He's been really good and it's easy to tell his experience level. He picks up things quickly," Johnson said. "We're trying to talk about a defensive unit that hasn't put pads on yet, so I'm a little reserved on my comments, what they will be or can be. He seems to pick things up quickly and understands the flexibility of our defense, -- and has done a real good job."

McNeal says he already feels like he's playing better in Johnson's new system than he did at any point last season. His previous position coach, Willie Martinez, was a stickler for players following exact procedures when in coverage.

The current safeties coach, Charlie Harbison, provides his players more creative freedom provided they're able to manage all responsibilities. The free-spirited McNeal savors the change.

"Coach Harbison, the first day he came out, he'd say: 'Get in your stance. What's your stance? How do you want to stand,'" McNeal said. "And I'd say: 'Coach, I like to stand like this. I like to move like this.' And he's like: Okay. Well we're just going to tweak this a little bit and I can deal with that. It's just something that I want to do. I just feel rangy because it's like back in high school for me. This time, I'm doing it within the scheme, but I can do it how I want to do it and just make more plays."

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