After starting all 14 games as a sophomore last fall, McNeil missed spring practice following a minor knee surgery. In his absence, guard Anthony Parker slid over to handle the snapping duties. His work was so good that he now ranks as the No. 1 backup option should McNeil encounter more health problems.
"We were a little bit jumbled inside, not having Josh McNeil, so we moved Anthony Parker to center," said Greg Adkins, Tennessee's offensive line coach. "I don't think that's where Anthony's going to end up but you can never have enough centers. Those are the guys that make the line calls, handle the communication and call the fronts.
"Probably in a perfect world, Anthony would prefer to play guard. But I think giving him all of those reps at center is only going to give us depth and make us better. That also allowed Vlad (Richard) and Jacques (McClendon) to get a lot of reps at guard."
Should the Vols need to go three-deep at center, Cody Sullins would get the call. The 6-1, 285-pound junior walk-on from Cottontown has won a roster spot – and his position coach's respect – with all-out effort on the practice field.
"Cody Sullins has a great work ethic," Adkins said. "He's a guy that's hard to get off the field, to be honest. He'll be in the mix somewhere. He brings a lot to the table as a center."
Adkins has the luxury of having all five guys back who made up last year's starting O-line. McNeil started every game at center and Parker every game at left guard. Ramon Foster opened all 14 games at right tackle. Chris Scott started the first eight games at right guard, the last six at left tackle. McClendon started the last six at right guard.
Obviously, that kind of continuity should help the Vol front develop cohesion, which is a critical element for any offensive line.
"Working as a group is the key upfront," Adkins said. "One single weak link can bring the whole group down. Ultimately, that's the challenge in front of us."
With offensive coordinator Dave Clawson installing a new West Coast Offense in the spring, Tennessee's offensive linemen had more information to process than anyone except the quarterbacks. Unfortunately for Tennessee, the blockers didn't pick up their new assignments as quickly as their position coach would've liked.
"I think we had too many peaks and valleys in practice," Adkins said. "I would've anticipated us to be a little more consistent than we were. Some days we were good, some days not very good."
Perhaps things would've gone a little smoother if McNeil had been snapping the ball. Regardless, Adkins says his linemen have a lot of progress to make before Tennessee opens the season Sept. 1 at UCLA.
"The consistency is what we've got to have within that group," he said. "Maybe practicing every other day hurt us from that standpoint. Maybe when we go every day (in preseason camp) that will help this group get in the groove."