published Wednesday, August 26th, 2009

McNeil career on the line

Vols' center is having arthroscopic knee surgery


by Wes Rucker
Audio clip

Vlad Richard

KNOXVILLE -- Josh McNeil's recurring football injury problems might vanish today -- because his football career might be finished.

McNeil, a fifth-year senior center with 35 consecutive starts for the Tennessee Volunteers -- despite a rash of not-just-nagging injuries -- will have his knee scoped today.

"That's anywhere from three weeks to his career being done," UT coach Lane Kiffin said about McNeil's options. "I don't know any more than that right now, except that he won't be with us for a while."

McNeil's career hasn't come close to meeting its mammoth expectations -- he arrived from Collins (Miss.) High School as the nation's top center prospect -- but teammates and coaches said that hasn't been his fault. The 6-foot-4 player has struggled to maintain a typical Southeastern Conference lineman's weight in part because this summer was the first time in three years he'd been healthy enough to consistently do back squats or power cleans in the weight room.

"I'm just praying for Josh, man," said guard Vladimir Richard, a fellow fifth-year senior. "Stuff like that just isn't right. I hope it's not as bad as it could be."

McNeil entered preseason camp with renewed vigor after what he called a "great" return to summer lifting. He said his weight finally cracked the 280-pound barrier.

The senior's spirits never publicly wavered despite his failure to separate himself from former walk-on Cody Sullins on the depth chart. McNeil admitted he wasn't initially happy when Kiffin arrived in January and reopened competition at a spot he'd anchored since his fourth career game, but he stopped by Kiffin's office early in camp and sincerely thanked him for a decision he called "absolutely what our whole team needed."

McNeil nearly signed out of high school with Kiffin, then Southern Cal's offensive coordinator, but the unabashed "country boy" committed to UT after convincing himself that Los Angeles "wasn't exactly my kind of place."

But McNeil loved the Trojans' coaches and administrators, some of whom followed Kiffin to Knoxville. The lineman struggled through emotional goodbyes to ousted Vols head coach Phillip Fulmer last winter -- a decision that left him openly disgusted -- but previous relationships with UT's new staff helped him turn the page.

"I ain't going to stand here and lie to you and tell you I feel like I haven't had a bunch of surgeries, because I definitely do," McNeil said days before the team's first preseason practice. "I don't feel as good as the first day I moved to campus, and I probably never will, but I haven't felt this good in a long time."

That changed 10 days ago, when Kiffin said McNeil "came down weird" on his knee.

"He kept playing through it, but it's been bugging him some more," Kiffin said. "It really, really was an issue for him Saturday, so we're sending him for some more tests.

"You can't just send him for an MRI, because he's had so much damage, (doctors) can't really tell anything."

Sullins will at least temporarily stand alone atop the depth chart. Twin Cory Sullins has worked as Cody's primary backup the past two days, but several guards might also be asked to chip in at the position.

"We feel good about anybody on our team going in there and being good enough to get the job done, because we're all Tennessee football players," senior quarterback Jonathan Crompton. "But you never want to see anyone get hurt, especially a senior. I hope (McNeil) is OK."

about Wes Rucker...

Twitter - @wesrucker Facebook - /tfpvolsbeat

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