KNOXVILLE -- Josh McNeil was due a break.
Four surgeries haven't kept the University of Tennessee senior out of the lineup, but the setbacks undoubtedly have slowed the former high school All American's development.
His buffet-line blessing has never wavered, though, and that's a big deal around these parts.
The 6-foot-4, 283-pound McNeil is in the vast minority of Volunteers linemen who fit the new coaching staff's svelte preferences.
McNeil has been, in all likelihood, UT's only veteran offensive lineman to avoid calorie counts this offseason. Former tight end Cody Pope, the walk-on Sullins brothers and various underclassmen have also been placed in this category. A majority of the upperclassmen, though -- including starters Chris Scott and Jacques McClendon, and potential starters Jarrod Shaw and William Brimfield -- have been placed on various weight-trimming programs.
McClendon, whose 6-3 frame looks much slimmer than its reported 330-plus pounds last season, joked earlier this summer that coaches are "killing me."
"But it's for the best," the former Baylor School standout said.
Offensive tackles and tight ends coach James Cregg receives a weekly weight report card every Monday morning. He calls it his "baby."
All jokes are off when the report doesn't go well, though.
"We're all happier when this list reads right," Cregg said, chart in hand.
Even 6-6 towers like Scott and Brimfield are discouraged from staying too far above 300 pounds, and both were listed at precisely 346 on the spring roster. Shaw, at 6-4, was listed at 332.
"We get punished or rewarded based off our totals for that week," McNeil said. "That creates a competition between us, but it also keeps us on each other's case.
"If you know a guy's overweight, you're always checking with him saying, 'Come on, man. You've got to eat that salad. Don't eat that hamburger.' And then, the guys that need to add weight, they're giving us the hamburger, and we'll give them our salad. It's just something that's a group effort, and the more somebody stays on you, and the more people you get trying to look after you, the better you're going to do."
The reports are generally positive.
"We're getting there," Cregg said earlier this month. "The guys have been receptive, for the most part. They know what we want, and I really think they're trying to get it done."
Former UT offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe made similar demands in 2006, when he returned to Knoxville for a two-year stint before accepting Duke's head coaching position. Cregg, like Cutcliffe, said the Vols' linemen had gotten too large to contain top-flight, Southeastern Conference defensive linemen.
"I really think, ever since this summer, we've been doing an outstanding job," McNeil said. "I don't know the exact numbers -- I wish I did -- but it's really been outstanding. The people who need to gain weight are gaining weight, and the people who need to lose weight are losing weight.
"When we go out to eat, guys understand what they need to eat. If we go to a buffet, guys like me can get six plates, and that's just how it is. But it's never mean spirited, like 'I can eat ice cream, and you can't.' Some people's bodies are just different."
McNeil has struggled to maintain weight since arriving in Knoxville. He has occasionally dipped below 260 pounds earlier in his career but said this summer is the best he's felt "in a long time." He recently did back squats and power cleans in the weight room for the first time in nearly two years.
"When I showed up my freshman year, that was four surgeries or so ago, I felt better body-wise then," McNeil said with a smile. "But as far as since I've been playing here, yeah, I'm doing a lot better.
"The big (knee) surgery that I had two springs ago, you may be playing six months later, but it takes a year and a half or so to really get back to full speed."
Defensive end Wes Brown -- also an injury-plagued, fifth-year senior -- said a healthy McNeil "would mean a whole lot" for the Vols.
"Everybody knows what Josh is capable of when he's healthy," Brown said. "And it looks like he's feeling a lot better."