Aug. 6, 2009
Josh Pate, UT Sports Information
Josh McNeil has made 35 consecutive starts at center for Tennessee - more than anybody on the team - yet he knows nothing is safe.
McNeil was listed evenly with senior Cody Sullins on the depth chart going into fall drills, although Sullins has appeared in only five games. Such is life under a new offensive system and coaching staff. And McNeil is no stranger to a blank slate.
The senior is working on his third offensive blocking scheme in the last three years, and the intensity level is sky high. No problem for McNeil, either. On his iPod before putting on the uniform is the hard rock group Shinedown to set the table for practice. It keeps McNeil at an electric pace before he walks onto Haslam Field.
First Down: Third time's a charm ...
Under his first blocking scheme at Tennessee, McNeil was part of a line that allowed just 19 sacks in 2006, and only four in 2007.
Last year's system asked for complicated assignments in the trenches, and McNeil said the linemen struggled to grasp things quickly. This year, however, has been smooth.
"Compared to last season, we've adjusted to this system a lot faster, which has really helped a lot as far as getting out there and playing at game speed," McNeil said. "We've adjusted a lot faster and moved a lot faster than we did last year."
Second Down: Doing the legwork ...
This time last year, McNeil was still working on gaining strength in his legs following knee surgery in February 2008. He still started every game last season, but the difference this time is he's had a full year to build muscle and sharpen his footwork for blocking.
"Last year I really couldn't work out my legs because of a couple of surgeries I had," McNeil said. "This past year I have been [working out] since January. I've been working my legs because of the surgeries, so that's been a big help."
Third Down: Rebel of a rivalry ...
Circle Nov. 14 on the calendar. McNeil will.
McNeil, who is from Collins, Miss., said braggin' rights are as real as a sweat-drenched August practice. He knows quite a few players on the Ole Miss squad, although the majority of his personal rivals have graduated [McNeil redshirted at UT in 2005, placing him a year behind his Mississippi classmates].
"Yeah, I especially knew some of the guys that played last year and got drafted. But I know a few guys on that team from high school ball and things like that," McNeil said. "It's like when we play Mississippi State - there's always a couple of guys you know and it's always fun playing those guys. You go out there and try to beat them so you can have the bragging rights back home."
McNeil said Mississippi and Tennessee are similar in a lot of ways, and he has love for them both - at least for now.
"Just all country, friendly people," he said. "Knoxville is obviously the biggest city I've ever lived in. Tennessee is a lot bigger and has bigger cities, but other than that, not much is different."
Fourth Down: Welcome to town ...
As the team continues to adjust to Kiffin's full-speed approach, this isn't McNeil's first rodeo. He was a major prospect coming out of Collins High School, and Kiffin recruited him for USC. McNeil was skeptical at first - of the city, not the coach.
"I really wasn't that interested at first, but Coach Kiffin convinced me to take a trip out there," McNeil said. "USC was just an outstanding program and has a lot of outstanding coaches. I loved the program, but the city of Los Angeles didn't really fit my personality." Four years later, it's Kiffin who has come to McNeil's team.
"I really couldn't be happier to be playing under this staff," McNeil said. "It's just funny how things work out."