Tennessee center Josh McNeil has something on his side as he battles for his old starting job: his coaches’ respect.
“With out a doubt he’s grinding,” offensive line coach James Cregg said. “He’s doing things in the weight room he never used to do before. He’s been pushed.”
A bigger, more muscular McNeil (by about 20 pounds to 290) is locked in a battle with former walk-on Cody Sullins. It looked like Sullins had grabbed a firm lead in the race during spring practice until McNeil changed his approach.
McNeil’s new attitude was most evident when he went to first-year coach Lane Kiffin last week and thanked him for pushing him so hard in the off-season.
“He wasn’t playing at the highest level he could play at because he had become comfortable that he was the guy and he could just show up on game day,” Kiffin said. “It was neat to see him come in the office to thank us for doing what we did to put him in a competition.”
The weight and strength gain was mandatory.
“If he doesn’t gain and he doesn’t hit the weight room, you know, he’s going to be sitting on the bench,” Kiffin said.
Yet that isn’t the transformation that McNeil is most proud of. His attitude required the most fixing.
After 35 consecutive starts, McNeil wasn’t expecting much of a challenge for his position. Then he got to know Kiffin and his competition-first approach.
“At first I really resented the competition between me and Sullins,” McNeil said. “I didn’t view it the right way. At first I viewed it as, ‘I’m a guy with 35 starts. These guys are coming in here and they’re just wiping it all away, and now they’re saying that I’m fighting for my starting job’ and at first I resented that.
“But now looking back on everything and seeing the bigger picture, I really see what Coach Kiffin was trying to do and it was just trying to make me a better football player.”
Said Cregg, “I think he saw the crossroad coming.”
McNeil, who said his lower body is twice as strong as it was before, said the transition from resentment to appreciation was gradual.
If there was one seminal moment, it came when Sullins ran onto Shields-Watkins Field with the first team for the Orange and White Game.
“I was just like ‘Wow, I’m not going out with the first series right now.’ ” McNeil said. “It had been years since I had experienced that, and it really woke me up.
“I was just like, instead of looking at it as why are they doing this to me, I need look at what do I need to be doing better, to get to where they want me to be and where I want to be which is obviously starting, where every player wants to be and where I’ve been for a long time.”
Part of the problem wasn’t McNeil’s fault. The former top center prospect in the nation has been beset by injuries, especially to his shoulders.
“Whenever you have surgery after surgery year after year it really takes a toll,” said McNeil, who also had knee surgery in 2008. “They really try to work you out less in the weight room and try to save your knee for the season. So, you know, I really think it was more of the surgeries.”
That explains the weight room. His frustration on the practice field, which was evident in spring practice, was a different matter.
The competition continues between Sullins and McNeil, who has been slowed by a concussion this week in practice. Yet McNeil rarely leaves the practice field as most other injured players do.
He’s always in the middle of UT’s offensive practice, where he feels most comfortable. To stay there on game days, he knows he’ll have to continue battling.
“The competition never stops, that’s one thing (coach Kiffin) told me, he’s like ‘We’re proud of the way you’re doing things; you’re doing things 100 percent better.’ ” McNeil said. “But he also told me, ‘You’ve got to keep it going, everyday you got to keep improving and keep working.’ ”