Like every college football player around the country Keanu Neal was chomping at the bit to get the 2015 season kicked off.
The start of spring and fall camps are exciting but the long days spent in the hot sun hitting the same guys over and over becomes repetitive and wears on you mentally. The light at the end of the offseason tunnel is the opportunity to put on your game jersey and run out on to Florida field for the Florida Gators.
Neal was so close to that moment he could taste it. Then, in the blink of an eye and the overexertion of a hamstring, it was all put on hold.
“It killed me,” Neal said. “Just not being able to play, just watching my boys go out there and do their thing, it killed me inside not being able to help.”
Neal was forced to sit on the sidelines as his teammates kicked off the Jim McElwain era without him. It’s not how the junior — who has become one of the leaders of the secondary — envisioned his third season in Gainesville would begin and it especially hurt the way the defense has performed this season as well.
The Gators are currently ranked 88th in the country in passing yards allowed per game. Sure, that number may be skewed given the fact that New Mexico State was forced to spend most of the game playing catch up, passing on most downs but, for a defense that wants to wear the moniker of “DBU” it’s not acceptable.
“We want that. We wanna be the best in the country and best defense in the nation,” he said. “That’s what we preach and what we wanna do, and we gotta do it.”
It’s part of the reason that Neal took the initiative to call a players only meeting on Sunday night with the secondary. Getting a look on the sidelines gave Neal a unique perspective. Not being able to help Florida on the field made Neal want to help in anyway that he could, like getting the whole secondary together to watch film and go over their assignments. That leadership isn’t new. Neal and Marcus Maye would regularly gather the secondary after workouts in the offseason. They would take the younger players down to the field to work on drills and footwork, leading the group through it all.
“He’s very serious in that he takes everything that he does seriously, whether that’s practice, technique, film study and obviously that’s another thing that you want those young guys to continue to see,” defensive backs coach Kirk Callahan said of Neal. “That’s a guy that does things the right way. You reap what you sow. The things that he puts in off the field is going to show up on Saturdays when he’s out there.”
The timing couldn’t be better for the Florida Gators. The Kentucky Wildcats are 2-0 and more confident than they have been in 28 years. Everyone in Big Blue Nation believes that this is finally the year that Kentucky has the talent to matchup with and against the Gators and Florida will want to be at full strength, or as close to it as possible, when they take their act to the road for the first time in 2015. Neal will play. He will start and his teammates are sure that his presence will be an impact and just what the secondary needs.
“It’s going to be great. We all like to be on the field together with each other,” sophomore cornerback Quincy Wilson said. “Keke’s a big part of the defense and the other guys that have been filling in have been doing a great job but it’s going to be nice to have everyone back.”