He's been down this road before. He took over as interim defensive coordinator at Texas Tech during the 2007 season and earned the full-time position for the 2008 and 2009 seasons. He later was named interim head coach at Tech for the 2010 Alamo Bowl and led the Red Raiders to a win over Michigan State. Now, Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley has promoted him after firing defensive coordinator Mike Stoops.
McNeill, who formerly coached the defensive tackles, is thankful for the chance to lead the entire defense.
"I call it a blessing," he said. "I'm grateful and honored to be at OU first. But the interim doesn't bother me. I love challenges, and I love opportunities even more than challenges. ... Sometimes, you get trained for situations like this."
Those previous in-season promotions made McNeill the ideal person for the job, Riley said. When McNeill took over for the Alamo Bowl, Riley was interim offensive coordinator at Texas Tech and saw what McNeill could do.
"At the end of the day, I thought we needed somebody to unite the group, and it was really tough to look past Ruffin's experience," Riley said. "He's done so much in his career. There's very little in college football that he hasn't done."
Riley hired McNeill as assistant head coach in 2017. The familiarity McNeill has built since then should make the transition easier. He also benefits because the Sooners have an off week before playing TCU.
"I'm grateful to be around the family now for a second year, a second season," McNeill said. "Most all the kids know who I am and how I am. I think with the change, it does give some players some opportunities. I'm looking forward to seeing the progress of those kids."
McNeill said his goal is to keep things simple and focus on fundamentals. Tackling has been an issue for the Sooners, and they plan to fix it.
"I'm the simplest man you'll know," he said. "To me, clear mind, fast legs. Cloudy mind, slow legs. With that, we hope that they'll play faster. At the same time, making sure we have enough calls to be effective and adjustments to be effective."
The 11th-ranked Sooners still have a lot to play for. Both times the Sooners have reached the College Football Playoff, in 2015 and 2017, Oklahoma lost a game early in the season. The Sooners could return there if they win out.
Whether they can do that will depend a lot on McNeill's unit, which gave up 501 yards in a 48-45 loss to rival Texas last weekend, costing Stoops his job.
"They're going to be down a little bit because they put so much into it," McNeill said of the Texas game. "But also, having been in it this long, the most resilient people on earth are kids and how they bounce back. The last two days have been some of the most physical practices we've had in a long time. The intensity is there. They know they have a lot left."
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