That would be redshirt freshman Josh McNeil, Tennessee’s starting center. The 6-4, 290-pounder from Collins, Miss., has two powerful reasons to be pumped up about this weekend’s SEC showdown.
1. He narrowed his college options to Tennessee and LSU two years ago before ultimately picking the Big Orange.
2. He’ll be facing the best defensive line he’s ever encountered.
“LSU and Tennessee were my two final schools, and it came down to the wire between them two,” McNeil said this week. “I’m thankful I picked Tennessee; I wouldn’t have it any other way. But I know a lot of guys down there (Baton Rouge), and I’m looking forward to playing against them.”
He’s also looking forward to facing LSU’s front four, even though it may be even better than the Florida front that held UT to minus-11 rushing yards on Sept. 16.
“By far they’re the best defensive front we’ve seen,” McNeil said. “Their defensive tackles are outstanding. Glenn Dorsey is on some All-America lists, so that speaks for itself as far as his talent goes. Marlon Favorite is a great player, and their backups are good, so it’s a great challenge this week.”
Tennessee has allowed just six sacks in eight games, tying for the SEC lead in that category. Although McNeil and his fellow blockers are doing a terrific job in pass protection, he says line coach Greg Adkins deserves much of the credit.
“Coach Adkins has done a great job,” McNeil said. “We know who we’re supposed to block. That’s the big thing in pass blocking against the blitz – knowing who to pick up. I think our pass pro is pretty good. We work on it a lot. It’s technique, and some great coaching by Coach Adkins.”
Tennessee’s pass protection will need to be at its very best this weekend. For one thing, LSU leads the SEC in sacks with 26. For another, Vol quarterback Erik Ainge is less mobile than usual because of a sprained ankle.
“Everybody knows that ankle injury makes it a little harder to move,” McNeil conceded, “so it’ll be that much more important to keep guys off of Erik so he can stand back there and have some time … so he and the wide receivers can have a good day.”
Tennessee leads the SEC in passing offense (288 yards per game) but LSU leads the league in pass defense (139 yards per game). Assuming the Tigers can slow down the Vol passing attack a bit, Tennessee’s ground game must pick up some of the slack.
“We have to have a running game,” McNeil said. “That’s something we HAVE to pick up. It’s not been where it’s supposed to be and we’re working hard every day to fix that.”
Tennessee managed just 57 rushing yards against Alabama in Game 7 and 71 against South Carolina in Game 8. What’s wrong?
“It’s a combination of things,” McNeil said. “One play four guys do the right thing and one will miss. Another time the running back will go in instead of going out. It’s a number of things on different plays.
“As offensive linemen, we love to run block. I don’t know a lineman that doesn’t. It’s very frustrating, and that’s why we’re working hard every week to try and fix it.”