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Perfect Combinations: Todd Kelly Jr. & LaDarrell McNeil

One of the best stories of an up-and-down early season is what the Vols can offer at strong safety.

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After a difficult week for all of Big Orange Country, it's helpful to remember what's going right for Tennessee.  The Vol defense was on the field for all but five snaps of the fourth quarter, eventually succumbing due in large part to lack of depth.  It's an issue for Tennessee up front, with three starters against Bowling Green sidelined in the fourth quarter against Oklahoma.  It's an issue at linebacker, where Jalen Reeves-Maybin will be surrounded by freshmen if the Vols go to a 4-3 look.  And it's an issue at corner, exposed against the Falcons with a number of options getting thrown over.

But it is not an issue at safety.  Brian Randolph has held down the free safety spot for most of his career.  And thanks to a pair of returns from unusual health situations, strong safety may be the position where Tennessee most looks like the program it aspires to be.

Todd Kelly, Jr. was on a short leash in the season opener after battling a post-operation infection.  Apparently getting your tonsils removed as anything other than a small child is a big deal.  He returned to form against Oklahoma, scoring a pair of interceptions to move his career total to five just 15 games into his young career.  After picking up 33 tackles as a true freshman last fall, Kelly had eight against the Sooners.

Of course, the reason Kelly saw so much action against Oklahoma was the absence of senior safety LaDarrell McNeil.  Derek Dooley's highest rated recruit in the 2012 class, McNeil really came on in John Jancek's defense, finishing fourth in tackles last fall as a junior.  However, his season and perhaps football career were feared lost in late August when he was ruled out with neck instability, one of the scarier phrases in sports and life in general.  But after additional evaluations, McNeil was cleared to return to action this week, and the Vols should get his 2015 season started against Western Carolina tomorrow.

Before McNeil's injury the battle to start at strong safety was one of the happiest questions facing the Vols in fall camp.  No matter which player earned the starting role, Tennessee would be the real winner.  For a program still playing so many freshmen and newcomers in so many different places on the two deep, having these two at one and two in any order is a glimpse of the program the Vols once were and hope to be again soon.  Not only having two reliable options who can provide rest for each other, but two guys who are going to play at a high level reminds Vol fans of Phillip Fulmer's prime, when you just assumed the next guy up could get the job done and were usually right.

McNeil's return is one of the good stories in a rocky start to Tennessee's season between injuries and heartbreak; here's hoping he stays fully healthy the rest of the season and throughout his career.  And Kelly's story is just beginning but is already off to an incredible start.  The two combine to give Tennessee a perfect picture of the quality depth it will need to compete for championships.