KNOXVILLE -- Senior center Josh McNeil's football career is "probably" finished, Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin said Tuesday afternoon.
Kiffin said McNeil, who has started 35 consecutive games for the Volunteers, probably has accumulated too much damage to his knees. The final blow happened three weeks ago. McNeil tried playing through the pain before scheduling tests last week.
Constant injuries and weight-gaining difficulties prevented McNeil from fulfilling all the promise he brought to Knoxville as the nation's top high school center, but several NFL draft analysts -- including ESPN's Mel Kiper -- still had him rated highly as a professional prospect until the most recent injury.
"There's a good chance Josh won't be playing for us, and probably won't play football ever again, unfortunately," Kiffin said. "If that's the case, we've been excited to be around Josh. It's a big blow to us ... to lose somebody like that up front, especially as a center. Only two guys touch the ball every snap, the center and the quarterback.
"To lose him has been very difficult for us to deal with from a football standpoint, but also from a mental standpoint, as far as our team and a leader, especially in that (offensive line) room."
Kiffin didn't offer specifics on the most recent injury, but McNeil's injury history has been well documented. Kiffin said last week that MRIs on McNeil's knees would be "useless," because the player's past injuries would make new setbacks difficult to determine without a closer inspection.
"Josh did have a scope (last week)," Kiffin said. "They cleaned it up some. Now they're looking at a longer surgery to go back and do some more stuff -- a surgery that would take a long time to even have because the things they'd have to get to have the surgery done."
Senior Cody Sullins -- a 6-foot-1, 260-pound former walk-on -- will start Saturday's season opener against Western Kentucky in place of McNeil. Cory Sullins, Cody's twin, will be the primary backup.
Senior guard Vladimir Richard said the team "definitely" has faith in the Sullins twins but McNeil's situation is never far from anyone's mind.
"You just think about his situation and pray for him and wonder why," Richard said. "Everybody knows football is a tough, physical game, but that doesn't make stuff like this easier to take."
Kiffin finally admitted Tuesday something that's seemed clear for weeks. Diminutive freshman Nu'Keese Richardson is a potentially dynamic punt-return threat, but he's had problems consistently catching the ball cleanly.
Questions on the topic resurfaced after the team's depth chart had Richardson listed at No. 1 punt return specialist.
"Nu'Keese has been an issue with ball security," Kiffin said. "A lot of freshmen are in general, especially if they're on special teams, so we'll continue to work with that. But you can't work with it if you don't play him.
"We'll continue to work on that. I guess, like I say, you've got to get it out of your system at some point. We think he's getting it out of his system now and having them in preseason games instead of a real one."
Senior quarterback Jonathan Crompton was similarly confident that he wouldn't have to limit his pre-snap audibles for Richardson and the team's other first-year players.
"If they're on the field, they know what they're doing, and they've earned that spot to be out there," Crompton said. "If I have to check and make an audible, that's what's going to happen."
Kiffin said the Vols could rotate as many as nine players Saturday for the four defensive line spots, but the main offensive line rotation will be one-third smaller.
Coaches haven't decided whether junior Jarrod Shaw or redshirt freshman Aaron Douglas will start against Western Kentucky, but right tackle Chris Scott, center Cody Sullins, Richard and fellow guard Jacques McClendon will be for most of the meaningful plays.
"We do have confidence in a number of the (offensive line) backups, but we will not rotate them like the defensive line," Kiffin said.
Junior wide receiver Denarius Moore (fractured foot) dressed for Tuesday's practice but was limited to individual drills. Kiffin wasn't available for comment after practice, but he said Monday that Moore was "ahead of schedule" and could play before his originally slated return at Florida on Sept. 19. ... Kiffin said before Tuesday's practice that sophomore third-teamer Ben Bartholomew suffered a high ankle sprain over the weekend and was "questionable" for Saturday.