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McNeill: Nebraska Still the Best Place to Play
Mike McNeill has been in the statewide spotlight all week. Open the newspaper, turn on the TV or tune into your favorite radio station, and you’ll read, see or hear McNeill talking about growing up with Missouri receiver Jeremy Maclin in Kirkwood, Mo., a St. Louis suburb.
McNeill and Maclin text, talk, and test each other’s sense of humor and sense of loyalty.
Nebraska’s sophomore tight end has three touchdown catches in four games, but he isn’t about to compare stats with Missouri’s Heisman Trophy candidate. “Jeremy can put up more yards in one game than I have the whole year,” McNeill says. “I tell everyone I don’t want to get in a stat a battle with him.”
McNeill, however, is more than willing to compare programs, tradition, facilities and fans, all important factors in why he thinks Nebraska is second to none in college football.
Missouri is one of the hottest teams in the country right now, and McNeill says the Tigers deserve all the recognition they’re getting. But he wouldn’t consider trading uniforms with Maclin, and he hasn’t once second-guessed his choice to play at Nebraska instead of Mizzou.
“The thing that stuck out to me on my recruiting visit – and still sticks out to me now – are the sellout crowds that Nebraska has had since the early ‘60s,” McNeill said. “Lincoln was my first recruiting visit, and I knew there was no place like this place. This stadium is always full, and it doesn’t matter who we’re playing. Our fans come to every game, every year.”
Last week, McNeill was “shocked” when he turned on the TV and saw “a half-empty” Dolphin Stadium (35,830) where Miami hosted North Carolina. “How can no one go and see Miami play when they’ve been so good for so long?” McNeill asked.
He’s also surprised there were 14,000 empty seats this season in Columbia when Mizzou hosted Nevada. The Tigers didn’t sell out the Buffalo or Missouri State games either. “That doesn’t happen at Nebraska,” McNeill said. “Whether it’s a weaker opponent or a big game, our fans are in their seats going crazy, and it just amazes me every time I step on the field and see how special this place really is.”
No disrespect to Mizzou, but McNeill grew up a Longhorn fan because his dad, who owns a small commercial printing company in Fenton, Mo., went to Texas.
Home-state Flak Mostly Just Good-Natured Fun
“I have two older sisters who graduated from Mizzou, and I have some high school buddies who still give me flak for leaving the state, but it’s all in good fun,” McNeill said.
This week, someone suggested that Chase Coffman, Missouri’s All-America tight end candidate, was a better player than McNeill, and even McNeill wouldn’t dispute that at this stage of his career. But who would engage in that kind of trash talk on McNeill’s own Facebook page?
“It has to be Uncle Ted,” O’Neill said with a healthy chuckle, explaining that Ted Winters is really his mom’s cousin who has served notice that he might have a red shirt on Saturday night when the Huskers host the third-ranked Tigers, but he will also have something on that says Mizzou underneath it.
McNeill’s family takes as much ribbing as he does for deciding to cross the state line with his talents. “A lot of my friends from high school go to Mizzou,” he said. “The razzing hasn’t been just for this game. It’s a year-round, all-the-time thing back home.”
Described by tight end coach Ron Brown as a “conscientious, smart, competitive and a very respectful and courteous young man,” McNeill absorbed more verbal jabs last year than he dished out as Missouri rolled to its best season in decades and smacked the bowl-less Huskers in Columbia, 41-6.
Finally, he’d had enough. “Man, when we went to the Cotton Bowl two years ago, our fans were upset,” he told his buddies. “You guys went to the Cotton Bowl and had a commemorative ball come out saying it was one of your greatest seasons ever. And you give me grief?”
McNeill smiles and acknowledges that verbal sparring is meaningless, especially from a player who, just a year ago, was laboring in the shadow of nagging injuries, debilitating losses and absolutely no playing time. He’s had turf toe, shoulder surgery, a fractured right hand and pulled both hamstrings.
New Coaching Staff Gave McNeill a New Sense of Purpose
No one welcomed a new coaching staff more than McNeill did last winter. He felt a renewed sense of purpose and a real chance to prove himself.
“Coach Brown is super tough on our tight ends,” he said. “Our individual period is like a practice in itself. We get tired of hitting each other, but he wants us to play hard and physical. He’s brought that mentality to all of us. Coach Brown expects 100 percent on every play. He’s really demanding. His favorite drill is the ram drill where you just line up across from each other and battle it out. For a full 10 seconds, all you do is hit each other. He’s just a collision kind of guy. Sometimes, it takes a toll on you, but it really does help you in the long run.”
McNeill “is really growing as a player,” Brown said. “He’s made some big plays this year, but he’s still just a pup. He’s learning the importance of focus, play in and play out. He’s in there watching film all the time. He’s learning what it means to be a physical tight end. He has finesse, moves and quickness. He can catch the football and has the ability to run after the catch. But what I really want him to be is a tenacious, smack-you-in-the-mouth kind of tight end. That’s the challenge with this entire group of young tight ends who are coming up together.”
It’s a challenge McNeill expects to meet head on. He was a soccer player from kindergarten through junior high school and didn’t play football until high school. He remembers playing tackle football with Missouri’s Maclin during recess at Westchester Elementary School, but most of their playground activity revolved around baseball and basketball.
“He’s a heckuva basketball player,” McNeill said of Maclin. “Basketball was really, really important to me. I thought it was going to be my future. Then, in high school, they moved me from point guard to post. I wasn’t too happy about that, but that’s where they put me, so that’s where I played.”
Huskers Hope to Prevail in a Back-and-Forth Kind of Game
McNeill remembers one edge he had on Maclin growing up. “I don’t remember the last time we played ping pong, but I’m sure I’ve gotten at least a few games on him,” he said with a laugh.
Ping pong might be an appropriate metaphor for Saturday night’s game. For Nebraska to upset the Tigers, the Huskers need to survive Mizzou’s proven bursts of offensive explosions.
“They can put 60 points up in 10 minutes,” McNeill said. “That’s why they scare people. None of the experts think we can win. Ever since our new coaches came in, we’ve talked about bringing Nebraska back. Playing the No. 3 team in the country at home is a great opportunity for us. It’s a chance to change how people think about us. It’s a chance we all want, and we’ve all been looking forward to having. Obviously, it’s a little more personal for me.”