Is Josh ready?

When Marshall's center cost his team 22 yards with an errant shotgun snap on the first scrimmage play of last Saturday's game with Tennessee, most of the Vols cheered. One Vol winced. He could relate.

That would be Josh McNeil, Tennessee's redshirt freshman center. He was challenging Michael Frogg for the first-team job in August until he made two poor shotgun snaps in the Vols' final preseason scrimmage. So, McNeil felt compassion for the Marshall center whose snap snafu ultimately cost his team a safety.

"That right there's a center's worst nightmare," McNeil said, shaking his head at the recollection. "Me and Frogg were sitting on the sidelines saying, ‘Man, that CAN'T happen to us.'

"As a center, you've got to feel for him, and I felt real bad for him. That's probably the first time he'd done that in a long time but those things happen.

"Better him than me."

McNeil was the top-rated center prospect in America as a senior at Collins (Miss.) High School. He missed the Vols' 2005 season due to shoulder problems but appeared to be the No. 1 center heading into 2006 prior to those two awful snaps in the final preseason tune-up.

"I think the snaps kind of hurt me," he conceded. "I think that made ‘em (coaches) a little nervous. I had to go out in every game and show ‘em I could handle the ball on the ‘gun in big-time situations. I think I proved that to ‘em."

Now that McNeil has proved himself capable of making the shotgun snap consistently, he is putting considerable heat on Frogg for the first-team center job. They're bracketed No. 1 on Tuesday's depth chart.

"Josh McNeil has continued to improve, mostly from a maturity standpoint," head coach Phillip Fulmer said. "Learning how to do all the little things is going to help him be a really outstanding player."

McNeil, a 6-4, 290-pounder, is extremely affable off the field but extremely aggressive on it. He might be the squad's most hardnosed player. He might be the squad's most hard-headed player, as well.

"Josh is tough, and that's a very important ingredient," Fulmer said. "He's physically tough and mentally tough. But, with some of that mental toughness comes a little bit of stubbornness.

"He's maturing and understanding that the fundamentals are just as important as being a tough guy. Pad leverage is important. You're not going to muscle a guy around like you might have done to guys back in high school or to a scout-teamer in practice."

Although McNeil has played center all his life, he has a tendency to let his technique slip from time to time.

"It's almost like there's a bad habit of the week," Fulmer said. "We'll get that fixed, then we'll have another bad habit of the week. It's just a maturing process. It's a young guy that's very talented but strong-willed to say the least."

McNeil hurt his shoulder the first game of his senior season at Collins High but played through the pain. Once he arrived at UT, however, he found the injury downright debilitating.

"It was really frustrating," he recalled. "I came to fall camp and it was hurting pretty bad. I was at a disadvantage. I came here thinking I'd get on the field and help the team out but I didn't get to do that. Watching last season I just felt terrible."

McNeil missed most of fall practice in 2005, underwent shoulder surgery, then missed all of UT's contact work last spring. In terms of experience, he's still a rookie trying to feel his way along. Still, progress is obvious in some areas.

"He's improved his steps, his sets and his pad leverage," Fulmer said. "Now you see more of a finished product than he was a year ago. He had almost no fall and no full-speed spring work, and he was still rehabbing in the summer. When he gets completely healthy he's really going to be good."

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