McNeil's a fighter

Center appears to be a jinxed position for the University of Tennessee football program.

Thirteen months ago projected first-team center Richie Gandy tore his ACL playing intramural basketball. David Ligon filled in until he suffered an ankle sprain last August that forced guard Rob Smith to start the 2005 opener at center.

Gandy returned in time to start Game 2 but was ineffective, so sophomore Anthony Parker started at center in Game 3. When Parker struggled, Smith reclaimed the starting job for Game 4, although he clearly was more effective at guard. Gandy wound up starting Games 5, 6 and 7, then surrendered the job to Ligon, who started the final four games.

Tennessee's hopes for a more stable center situation haven't panned out this spring, either. Ligon has been solid as the No. 1 guy but projected backup Josh McNeil was limited the first two weeks of drills while recovering from shoulder surgery. McNeil is finally available for full-scale duty this week but, with just five workouts left before the spring game, you wonder how much progress he can make.

Head coach Phillip Fulmer isn't worried, though. He's seen enough of McNeil to know that the feisty freshman from Collins, Miss., will be ready to contribute as soon as he possibly can.

"Josh has done enough to this point," Fulmer said. "Josh can be a player. It's a matter of how fast he can develop, mature, get stronger and understand what needs to be done."

McNeil is one of the roughest and most aggressive players on the team. The 6-4, 290-pounder does not shy away from contact, and Fulmer likes that a lot.

"I know he's a fighter," the head man said. "How quickly he comes along and learns is the key."

Tennessee's offense certainly could use some fighters this spring. The defensive players reportedly have been dominating their offensive counterparts lately.

"In the board drills the offense got their butts kicked again," Fulmer said following Tuesday's workout. "That's just man on man, who wants it the most."

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