College Football: McNeil returns to N.C. with Irish
By Nick Bowton
CHAPEL HILL ó Notre Dame faced a third-and-goal from the 7-yard line less than a minute before halftime Saturday, and Irish cornerback Raeshon McNeil stood atop a bench on the sideline, watching the play from a higher vantage point while the rest of his teammates stood on the grass at Kenan Stadium.
McNeil wasn’t trying to get a better view. He just couldn’t contain his excitement.
A former Davie County standout, McNeil played in his home state for the first time since high school yesterday. A different outcome would have made the day complete, but McNeil enjoyed the experience despite a 29-24 loss.
“I think I was a little too pumped up there toward the beginning,” said McNeil, who went to Notre Dame after an all-state senior season. “I had to tell a couple of my guys, ‘I gotta tone it down a little bit. I’m a little out there right now.’ ”
Don’t fault McNeil for being over-amped for this game. He spent the past few weeks scrambling to get tickets and the entire game scrambling to cover receivers.
McNeil and teammates Kerry Neal (Bunn High School) and Robert Blanton (Matthews) had a three-way battle to find tickets for family and friends. Neal won that contest with almost 30 tickets, while McNeil said he corralled about 20.
Once the game started, McNeil’s supporters watched him get more passes thrown his way than he has in any game in his three-year career.
UNC all-purpose threat Brandon Tate left early with a right knee sprain, so the Tar Heels looked to former Independence star Hakeem Nicks on almost every big play thereafter. And McNeil, as he did in both high school and the Shrine Bowl, shouldered the burden of covering Nicks most often.
McNeil, who leads the Irish with four passes broken up, had a career-high six tackles against the Tar Heels. He gave up several completions but no touchdowns.
“I got a lot of passes my way this game, which was definitely something new,” he said. “Me being mostly in the boundary where their best receiver was, especially when Tate went down, was definitely where the most attention was going.
“(Nicks) is a great receiver. Ever since I went up against him in high school he’s been a great receiver, one of the best I’ve been up against. It’s good getting back over here and getting to go against him again. The last thing we said to each other was, ‘See you at the next level.’ ”
McNeil has a ways to go at this level before he starts thinking about the NFL, but his junior season has clearly been his best one.
Coming out of high school, McNeil teamed with Darrin Walls to give the Irish their most highly touted cornerback tandem since the early 1990s. McNeil, however, played sparingly on special teams as a freshman and spent last season primarily as a nickel back while Walls started as a sophomore.
Walls and senior Terrail Lambert figured to be the starting corners again this season, but Walls left Notre Dame over the summer to return to Pittsburgh for personal reasons.
That thrust McNeil, who would have missed this season while studying in Rome had he not changed his major from architecture to design, into a starting position.
“I think everything happens for a reason,” McNeil said. “For whatever reason, all the circumstances, I’m still here, I’m not going to Rome, and I’m starting now, which is pretty big. As bad as I want to be an architect, I’m glad I got this opportunity to step in and be a starter my junior year.”
He’s also glad he got the opportunity to play in front of such people as his parents, brothers, grandma and Davie coach Doug Illing on Saturday.
McNeil said he spoke with Illing before the game, and he got a chance to chat with former Davie teammate and current UNC receiver Cooter Arnold as well. McNeil tackled Arnold once, preventing him from converting a third down.
He said he enjoyed that brief encounter, just as he enjoyed most of his trip back to North Carolina ó every bit of it except the outcome.
“To me, this was like a national championship game,” McNeil said. “My first time coming home to play, getting to play in front of my whole family. It was a really big game.
“It always hurts to lose, but it hurts even a little worse to come back home and lose in front of my family.”