With the entire group shuffling in and out to maximize the reps for each, the first week of practice has been somewhat crazy said McNeal. Trying to find a feel for the position and continue to learn Coach Brian VanGorder's defense at a fast pace, the junior said so far things are hectic, but getting better all the time.
"It has been real fast paced and high tempo," McNeal said. "There is a lot of physicality going on out there. There are a lot of guys competing for jobs right now. That's really how we expect it to be throughout this whole camp, just physical and guys trying to get the defense down. Every day we add new things. There are a lot of mental errors going on out there and it's just part of the process. Come Sept. 1 we feel like we're going to be ready."
Playing in all 13 games with 12 starts, McNeal finished third on the Auburn team in tackles in 2011 with 74 stops. Adding two interceptions and two forced fumbles, he had a solid first season as a starter, but he knows it doesn't mean anything this fall because the coaches have made it known that every job is up for grabs.
"At the safety spot it's pretty self-explanatory," McNeal said. "Guys are just competing for jobs. Even though you were the starter last year doesn't mean you're going to be the starter this year. Everybody wants to play. Me, personally, I'm still fighting for my position. I got hurt in the spring so that kind of hurt me. I'm just fighting my way back up."
One of the advantages that McNeal has over his competitors at the safety position is playing experience. While Smith has seen some action as well in his career, McNeal has been there and done that for the Tigers. Because of that he's taking on a bigger leadership role for the team this season, something he admits he's constantly having to work on.
"It's a different feel for me," McNeal said. "A lot of guys are looking up to me and looking for me to tell them what to do out there when they don't know. The coaches want veteran leadership out of me. It's something that is new for me on the college level. I'm grasping that as I go on with this camp. I'll have it down pat by Sept. 1, trust me."
With much more responsibility this season in VanGorder's scheme, McNeal said that's just one of the many changes for him and the rest of the defense. Even though it's tough to learn and get a grasp on, he said there are no doubts among this year's defense that they are headed for bigger and better things on that side of the ball.
"This year's defense as opposed to last year's defense, there are a lot of things that go into it instead of just going out there and running and hitting and playing base coverages," McNeal said. "This year there is more thinking. It's just NFL. He's getting us ready for the NFL and what we're going to see. He's just making us better. A lot of guys have to think more this year and really know football. That's really what this year is about, us knowing football. Out there it's just showing how much we really know from the past, and we really don't really know that much right now. We're getting there.
"It's a good feeling because even though you are in the SEC it's the closest you'll get to the NFL if you don't make it," he added. "You know that if you get a chance to play at the next level then you'll know what to expect and how you have to be in the playbook. Last year a lot of guys weren't really into the playbook like that because it was so easy. This year you've really got to be into it because there are a lot of concepts that go into VanGorder's defense. We're going to be ready for it."
Preparing for the first scrimmage of the preseason on Wednesday, Auburn's defensive group is determined to change the perception for the Tigers in 2012. McNeal said that change starts with this first scrimmage and it's about setting the tone for the defense moving forward.
"I'm looking for us to just be physical and talk more and make plays, that's basically it for the first scrimmage," McNeal said. "We're just going to get better and better and better as more scrimmages come along, but for the first one we just want to be physical, communicate with one another, and just run and hit."