Wiedmer: McNeil fights back to the top

Wiedmer: McNeil fights back to the top

August 10th, 2009 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - College

KNOXVILLE -- It wasn't as if Josh McNeil didn't know what he and his Tennessee football teammates were getting when the school hired Lane Kiffin last December. McNeil knew all about the motor that runs 5000 rpm. The work ethic that keeps Kiffin up 25 hours a day. The dark brown eyes that can burn a hole through you from 50 yards away.

He knew because he had visited Southern Cal when Kiffin was still a USC assistant and McNeil was deciding which college to attend after spending the first 17 years of his life in Collins, Miss.

"I'd come out for a recruiting visit the weekend of the Southern Cal-Notre Dame game," said McNeil during Sunday's media event. "I knew in about 45 minutes I didn't want to go to school there. We'd come out of LAX and gotten stuck in seven lanes of traffic, one way, and we weren't moving an inch. I was like, 'This isn't for me.'

"But Coach Kiffin and Coach (Ed) Orgeron were both on that USC staff and they were so intense. So passionate. Their energy was unmatched. I thought they were just revved up for the Notre Dame game, but I realize now that they're that way every day, whether it's a big game or an August scrimmage."

Realizing it and adapting to it were two different things, however. Especially when Kiffin said in the spring that every position was up for grabs. Well, every position save superstar safety Eric Berry's.

"I felt like I'd earned my position and now all that hard work had been washed away," said McNeil, who has started the past 35 UT games at center, which is also the Vols' longest active streak for any starter.

"Plus, everybody knows that Coach (Phil) Fulmer and I have a very special relationship. I started feeling sorry for myself."

Kiffin didn't feel sorry for him. Instead, just as he'd promised, the Lane Train left the station for the spring game without McNeil at the wheel, or at least at center.

"It had been years since I hadn't taken the field for that first series," he said. "That was an eye-opening experience, a humbling experience. That's when I looked at myself and saw things I needed to change."

From the beginning Kiffin had demanded change from the entire offensive line. He wanted them leaner, meaner, quicker, faster. Especially leaner and faster.

At least all of them except McNeil. He wanted the senior to play at least 10 pounds heavier, 20 if possible.

"I knew I'd ended spring training on the wrong foot," said McNeil. "I also knew that the coaching staff knew that. I was determined to change."

The result has been stunning. McNeil is up almost 20 pounds from the end of last season, hitting 290 at the start of practice thanks to six meals a day and a late night snack of three peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and a large glass of whole milk.

Asked what kind of peanut butter, McNeil said, "Smooth."

And the jelly? "Strawberry, apple and grape," he replied. "You eat that many sandwiches you have to rotate them."

The extra weight and extra weight training have left him so much quicker and stronger that defensive end Wes Brown said, "He fires off the line like a rocket. They all do. They're clearly faster than last year."

It was all enough to convince McNeil to pay Kiffin a little visit on Saturday after the Vols' first big scrimmage.

"I just told him that I wanted to thank him for pushing me," said McNeil.

And what did Kiffin say in return?

"He told me he'd been able to tell the difference," McNeil said. "He said the difference was night and day."

Of course, Kiffin being Kiffin, he also said something else.

"Your performance is at the level we want it," the coach told his center. "But it has to continue. It's only day four. Competition never stops."

As McNeil proves daily, neither do competitors.

E-mail Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com