After struggling through much of his first two seasons on the Plains with a back problem that kept him from practicing at times, the 6-9, 332 McNeill set out to be in better shape this season and his work in the winter has made a huge impact on his game this season. Relatively pain free this season, McNeill says that when you have a season going like this one you don't let anything keep you off the field.
"When you are winning, I told Trav (Travis Williams) the other day that when you're winning everything just seems like it's worth it," McNeill says. "When you roll your ankle and it hurts you're going to get out there and play because it seems like it's worth it.
"When you're winning games like this you're playing hard. Even though you're injured you still want to do it because it feels good. It feels like every little injury, every bump and bruise means something to you and shows your dedication on the field."
Marcus McNeill looks for a defender in an earlier Auburn game.
Much of the reason for Auburn's offensive success this season has been the addition of coordinator Al Borges. While his offensive scheme is one that by design should be successful, McNeill says it's the preparation Borges does each week in getting the team ready to play that is the biggest difference this season as compared to last.
"Whenever he says something and then it happens almost immediately that gives you a boost of confidence," McNeill says. "He knows what he's talking about and when you have a guy that knows what he's talking about like Coach Borges it makes you want to play for him that much harder. You know that if you do what he says you're going to do nothing but get better. We do that every down now.
"It leaves us with the mindset that we can only stop ourselves," adds McNeill. "When you're only fighting yourself that is one less person to fight against. We can't worry too much about the opponent's defense even though we have to execute. We know that if we execute there's nobody that can really stop us, especially with the game plans that Coach Borges puts together.
"He spends countless hours up here watching tape and fixing little things," McNeill notes. "It shows up on the field on Saturdays because everything he says happens week in and week out. I'm real proud of Coach Borges and what he's established coming in as offensive coordinator."
Another improved area this season for the offense has been the play of the offensive line as a whole. Last season the line struggled early, and the result was a barrage of sacks on Campbell in key situations. This season Auburn's quarterbacks have been sacked just 12 times in seven games. McNeill says that the patience and teaching of Coach Hugh Nall has paid off for the unit as they continue to improve.
"We're really not setting out looking for props," McNeill says. "We just want to do our best. We want to live up to our potential and Coach Nall lets us know how wonderful we are, but when we do bad he also lets us know we have to do better. When you have a coach doing that for you every day you can't do anything but want to get better for him. We try and do that week in and week out."
As much as anything, the improvement in the offense can be contributed to an vast improvement in the play of the wide receivers. Last season dropped passes cost the Tigers several big plays and directly led to one loss late in the season. McNeill says that having consistent big-play threats on the perimeter is now forcing defenses to take a second look at Auburn's offense rather than just loading up on the run.
"You see that every week," McNeill says. "We have great receivers and we really needed them to exploit some defenses around the SEC. We have different types of receivers with different types of athletic ability. Just looking at them knowing you can throw the ball to them and they're going to catch it and make big plays, that backs a defense up and keeps the linebackers back on their heels and the corners back on their heels. That also stops the blitzes a lot and that helps us in pass protection."
Al Borges (center) is flanked at practice by walk-on QB Dusty Goodwin (left) and starting quarterback Jason Campbell (right).
Several factors have obviously made Auburn's offense a much different animal to deal with in 2004, but the biggest is the play of Campbell and his leadership on the field, says McNeill. A quiet person his first four years in Auburn, Campbell has been a vocal and commanding presence in the huddle and on the sidelines this year. That's something that has been a welcome change for one of the team's most popular personalities.
"Jason is a much better leader than he was last year," McNeill says. "Last year was the first year he actually got his starting position without having to fight for it and I think he was still a little shaky every once in a while. The offensive line didn't block well early in the season either and everything contributed to his lack of success last year. This year he's on his high horse. He's really taken command of this team. Him being a leader is a big part of this offense. We really needed a leader to step up like that and he's doing a wonderful job his senior year of doing that."