Quarterback Erik Ainge must bounce back from an awful sophomore season.
Tailback Arian Foster must recover fully from ankle and shoulder injuries that caused him to miss spring practice.
Wide receiver Robert Meachem must become a consistent big-play threat.
Those three are obvious keys. A less obvious key for the Vols is Josh McNeil. The 6-foot-4, 290-pound redshirt freshman – rated the top center prospect in America as a senior at Collins (Miss.) High School – has the size, quickness and toughness to be a force in UT’s offensive line. And, after redshirting last fall, he now has the strength and knowledge needed to do the job.
McNeil finished spring practice listed No. 2 at center behind non-scholarship player Michael Frogg. The fact senior David Ligon has moved to guard – even though he started the last four games of 2005 at center – suggests the staff believes McNeil is just about ready to man the middle of the line.
“Josh McNeil is going to be a player,” head coach Phil Fulmer said recently. “How soon, I can’t tell you.”
The sooner, the better. The Vols play two top-20 caliber opponents – Cal (Sept. 2) and Florida (Sept. 16) – in Games 1 and 3. Then, after facing Marshall and Memphis, they encounter a four-game meat-grinder that finds them playing at Georgia (Oct. 7), Alabama (Oct. 21), at South Carolina (Oct. 28) and LSU (Nov. 4).
As Fulmer noted: “Our schedule is so front end-loaded that he’s going to have to really make a lot of progress to be in the game the first part of the season.”
With three full-time starters and part-time starter Richie Gandy missing from the 2005 offensive line, Tennessee desperately needs for McNeil to tap into his enormous potential and help solidify a blocking front that struggled much of spring practice. McNeil certainly has all of the tools to handle the task.
“He’s aggressive, he’s tough, he’s smart, he’s responsive to coaching,” Fulmer said. “He just has some real bad habits and bad techniques.
“Will he be a good player here? Yes. How soon? That depends on how fast he can go.”