"It's a big blow to us - to lose somebody with 35 straight starts, up front especially. Only two players touch the ball on every snap, the center and the quarterback, so to lose him has been very difficult for us to deal with - from a football standpoint but also from a mental standpoint, as far as our team (losing) a leader."
With McNeil out - at least for the foreseeable future - Tennessee's first-team center will be 6-1, 260-pound Cody Sullins, a former walk-on who saw mop-up action in just two 2008 games and three 2007 games. He is backed up by his twin brother Cory, a 6-1, 270-pound senior, and Carson Anderson, a 6-2, 267-pound redshirt freshman.
McNeil, a 6-4, 290-pound senior from Collins, Miss., has battled chronic knee problems throughout his career. His latest injury occurred nearly two weeks ago and has not responded to treatment or rest. He recently underwent an arthroscopic surgery to repair some of the damage.
"They (doctors) cleaned it up some," Kiffin said. "Now they're looking at a longer surgery to go back and do some more stuff - a surgery that would take a long time to even have because of the things they'd have to get to have the surgery done."
There's no good news to report on wide receiver Gerald Jones, either. The 6-0, 199-pound junior - UT's leader with 30 catches last fall - will not play in Saturday's opener vs. Western Kentucky and appears very doubtful for Game 2 vs. UCLA because of a high-ankle sprain suffered in UT's Aug. 22 scrimmage.
"He's not close (to returning)," Kiffin said. "It would not be the next couple of games. The hope would be Florida (Game 3) but there's nothing saying he's going to be back by then."
Still more bad news: Two Vol reserves are sidelined due to injuries sustained in last Saturday's situational scrimmage - sophomore tailback Tauren Poole (concussion) and sophomore tight end Ben Bartholomew (high-ankle sprain).
Kiffin said Poole is "questionable for today's practice" and that Bartholomew is "questionable for the game."