McNeil ready to start?

Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer's search for a reliable center may be near an end. There were four fumbled snaps Aug. 12 in full-scale scrimmage No. 1 but zero mishaps last Saturday night in scrimmage No. 2.

That's a testament to the improvement of redshirt freshman Josh McNeil. The 6-4, 290-pounder worked with the No. 1 offense last Saturday night and performed his duties flawlessly. He and first-team quarterback Erik Ainge worked well together.

"I feel like me and Erik are working fine," McNeil said. "We haven't had any center/quarterback exchange problems. From that standpoint, it's as normal as can be."

Asked where he has made the most progress, McNeil smiled.

"I think I've made progress everywhere pretty much," he said. "Going into fall camp I was a little behind mentally and technically but I feel I've improved both of those. I'm nowhere near where I need to be but I think I've made a big step."

McNeil believes Ainge has made progress this preseason, as well, despite being bombarded with criticism following a poor performance in the first scrimmage.

"We all know Erik can play," McNeil said. "I think a lot of people put too much pressure on him. As a quarterback, you're going to try to make things happen. He's just got to relax and let things happen on their own. Erik's our guy, and we support him 100 percent."

Senior Michael Frogg remains in contention for the first-team center job but McNeil seems to have a slight lead as the Sept. 2 season opener approaches.

"The key for me is to keep on improving in the little things – techniques, knowing assignments, seeing the things a veteran player would see," McNeil said. "If a linebacker walks up (to the line of scrimmage), that may not be in the call but you know that makes a difference in your blocking scheme. That's something that comes with experience, and that's what I'm trying to learn right now."

McNeil, Frogg, David Ligon and Anthony Parker have all played center at various times. Naturally, you wonder if all of the shuffling in and out has hurt the offensive line's continuity.

"I don't know that we've been shuffling people in and out too much," head coach Phillip Fulmer said. "We've been trying to find the right center. Other than that, I think we're set on who the starters are."

One of the key figures in the 2006 blocking front will be Ramon Foster. He can play just about anywhere.

"Ramon Foster will either be a starter or a backup at almost any of the positions," Fulmer noted.

Vladimir Richard, switched from defensive tackle to offensive guard at the start of preseason drills, is making progress but still has miles to go.

"Vlad is going to be a really good player," Fulmer said, "but this is his first time ever to play offense, so this is all new to him."

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