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McNeil swears allegiance to UT family

McNeil swears allegiance to UT family

By: By Beth Rucker, Associated Press Writer

KNOXVILLE (AP) — Tennessee center Josh McNeil has all the garb and accessories required for any die-hard college football fan — hats, T-shirts, pants, jacket for the late-season games and cowbell.

Cowbell?

The Collins, Miss., native has his family to thank for growing up a Mississippi State fan. McNeil swears he won’t be secretly enjoying the sounds of the Mississippi State noisemaker of choice or wearing his Bulldog stuff when the No. 25 Volunteers (3-2, 1-1 Southeastern Conference) travel to Starkville, Miss., on Saturday.

“They’re definitely put up forever in my case,” he said.

McNeil is part of an offensive line which has only given up two sacks this season, the fewest allowed by any team in the nation. The line performed its best against Georgia last week, opening up plenty of holes for the running backs’ 190-yard effort.

McNeil is touted as a leader among Tennessee’s offensive players, even as a sophomore. He’s quick to defend his coach or program if they’re getting what he thinks is a bad rap and he’s not afraid to “just say what needs to be said sometimes.”

Quarterback Erik Ainge said his center does a good job getting the rest of the line energized and ready to practice each week.

“He’s a real smart kid,” Ainge said. “He’s the crazy guy whose going to run around and dive after people. He definitely does a good job of bringing his energy to practice every day.”

McNeil said he learned a lot about being tough and energetic in approaching football from his brother Chris, a center for Mississippi State from 2002-2005. McNeil spent a lot of time with his brother at the Starkville campus and has gotten to know quite a few of the players along the way.

He was recruited by a number of programs, including Southern California, which was coming off a national championship win. His family’s beloved Mississippi State recruited him as did the Bulldogs’ cross-state rival, Mississippi, coached at the time by former and future Tennessee offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe.

“He just said hello to me and goodbye,” Cutcliffe said of his attempt to convince McNeil to choose Ole Miss.

Coach Phillip Fulmer has said he knew he had a chance to sign the star center when McNeil called the Tennessee coaches during a recruiting visit at Southern Cal. McNeil told him the big-city life of Pasadena was not for him.

Chris McNeil certainly tried to talk his younger brother into attending his alma mater, but McNeil knew he didn’t want to spend the rest of his career being compared to his brother.

“It came down to me wanting to blaze my own trail,” he said.

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