After starting all 12 games in 2008, McNeil was the favorite to retain a starting spot in the secondary for the first season under new head coach Gene Chizik.
The 6-2, 206-pounder from Davidson High in Mobile was having his best spring at Auburn when he went down with a serious injury. A broken fibula ended spring ball and eventually caused him to take a redshirt that fall and miss the entire season.
The slow to heal injury was still bothering him in the spring of 2010. He practiced, but didn't look like his old self. "Last spring I was limping, just trying to feel my way through," says McNeil, who notes that he is now "feeling good" and showing no ill effects of the leg problem.
Asked when he returned to full speed, McNeil says, "During the summer just working out with Coach (Kevin) Yoxall getting my strength back up and just getting my confidence back and things like that."
McNeil's position coach, Tommy Thigpen, says that he is excited to have the redshirt junior back at full speed along with two other veteran safeties who are making comebacks from injuries, Aairon Savage and Zac Etheridge. Savage has missed the last two seasons and Etheridge went down for the season in last year's victory over Ole Miss.
With McNeil, Etheridge and Savage in the mix, the Tigers have three safeties with plenty of starting experience not counting Daren Bates, who has moved to outside linebacker for his sophomore season after starting every game last year at safety.
"It is good competition with the veterans who have played in the big games before," McNeil says of the battle for spots in the starting lineup. "Just working with Coach Chizik is real good and is challenging. He challenges us every day to become better and pick each other up and lift up the young guys under us."
Chizik, a former defensive coordinator and secondary coach, has been active in helping teaching the defensive backs in the first four days of preseason drills, something McNeil says he appreciates.
"He takes a lot of pride in the defense, especially the defensive backs," the safety notes. "When we make a mistake it is six points. When a D-lineman or linebacker makes a mistake we have got to make a tackle so it is different."
McNeil notes that Chizik is demanding on the defensive backs. "We get a lot of tough love, and that is what we need to make it better and make it easier for us on Saturday."
After putting on the full pads for the first time this preseason on Monday the Tigers are scheduled to scrimmage on Wednesday. That will be McNeil's first chance to go full speed in a scrimmage for nearly 16 months.
Auburn's coaches were hoping to get him back for the 2009 regular season, particularly after injuries sidelined Savage and Drew Cole and later ended the season for Etheridge. Also, there was attrition at the safety spot in the offseason during the coaching staff transition that thinned the ranks.
McNeil says it "hurt" to be on the sidelines helpless to contribute last fall. As the season progressed and he was still not full speed, the head coach met with the safety and suggested he take a redshirt season.
McNeil played in 13 games as a true freshman reserve in 2007 and made 22 solo tackles with 13 assists. In 2008 he started all 12 games and made 42 tackles with 23 assists while recovering a fumble and making a sack.
McNeil is shown during the 2008 season.
"I sat down with Coach Chiz and we talked about it in his office and he told me he felt there was no need for me to come back this year and take any risks," McNeil recalls. "He told me I?needed to sit out, handle my business in the classroom and get started back next year. It is tough to hear, but when it is the right thing I can't do anything but appreciate it."
Not being able to play last season was a new experience for the defensive back. "This was my first injury,"?he points out. "I never really had an injury where I?had to miss a game. I have been playing since I was seven and I am 21 now so it was pretty tough for me."
If everything goes as planned, McNeil could be back in the starting lineup when the Tigers open the season on Sept. 4th vs. Arkansas State.
"I am really excited," he says. "I missed the game and the way I go out and play this year you will be able to tell I was missing the game."
McNeil notes that while he was sidelined he spent time watching video with Thigpen to learn more about "the small things and keys to the game that help you play faster, things to recognize--do you have your eyes in the right position and that sort of thing.
"It is going to make a lot of difference,"?McNeil adds. "When you can prepare for a team the preparation is going to make you play faster so you can call out their plays like you are the quarterback of the defense. That is where you want to be."