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Raeshon McNeil: Once a pupil, Irish cornerback becomes a teacher

Sam Werner | Friday, November 20, 2009

Just because Raeshon McNeil is a starting cornerback on a Division I football team doesn’t mean he doesn’t feel the same about his college experience as most students.

“It seems like it’s flown by,” McNeil said. “These four years have just really flown by.”

From his role as a special teams player in 2006 to his full-time starting role now, McNeil said that the anticipation for games in the fall, and looking forward to football season in the spring made his four years at Notre Dame speed by.

It’s easy for McNeil to look back at his recruitment during high school — after all, it feels like just yesterday to him. He said that Notre Dame’s academic prestige, as well as the camaraderie of the team, attracted him to the Irish.

“Meeting some of the other guys, Darius Walker and Chinedum [Ndukwe], I just felt like it was a good fit for me,” McNeil said.

Once he got to South Bend, McNeil said that those same players helped him get acclimated with the program and began his career as a college cornerback.

“Ndukwe was one of the guys that really attracted me to this place, one of the guys I could really see myself hanging out with,” McNeil said. “I really got to be great friends with Tommy Zbikowski, and we still text and talk all the time. Also, Mike Richardson, I liked the way he played, the instincts that he had.”

His freshman year, McNeil played in 11 games for the Irish, and totaled four tackles in mostly special teams duty.

He said that while some players have trouble adjusting to being a role player early in their college career, he was ready for the transition.

“It really wasn’t that bad for me,” McNeil said of his adjustment to college. “I’m really not a bigheaded type of guy. I understood what I had to do, I understood paying my dues.”

While McNeil’s sophomore season, in which the Irish went 3-9, may have been forgettable for most fans, it did have some bright spots of the young cornerback. McNeil recorded the first start of his career at Purdue, and notched his first sack against Stanford.

On a whole, though, he said the season was disappointing, but that it motivated himself, and the rest of the team, to work harder for every win from that point forward.

“Like a lot of guys, I had never been on a team that lost that many games,” McNeil said. Really going though it and seeing that other side, it really made every win that we had in 2008 and this year [2009] that much more special.”

McNeil finally broke out in 2008, his junior season. He started all 13 games for the Irish and had a number of career highlights.

In fact, McNeil said that the most memorable moment of his Irish career came in a 23-7 loss to Michigan State in East Lansing. Early in the game, with the Irish trailing by only three, McNeil broke up an attempted deep pass from Spartan’s quarterback Brian Hoyer to receiver B.J. Cunningham.

“They ran a little combination route, where basically I had to push and help the backside corner and what happened was there was a little breakdown in the coverage and the backside corner wasn’t there, so there I was left on his guy,” McNeil said. “I end up making a play on a deep ball in the end zone, which was probably one of the bigger plays of my career.”

Later that season, McNeil got to experience another memorable moment, when the Irish played at North Carolina, the Cooleemee, N.C., native got to play a college football game just two hours from his hometown.

Prior to the game, McNeil said that there was some competition between himself and fellow Tar Heel state residents Robert Blanton and Kerry Neal for who could get tickets for their friends and family in attendance. McNeil said he had to start planning in the summer in order to get enough tickets for the more than 20 friends and family members that would be in attendance.

“Blanton actually got a pretty good deal,” McNeil told The Observer last season. “He got most of the freshman class. He swooped them up real quick.”

While he said the experience was great, McNeil was fast to admit the game, which the Irish lost 29-24 to North Carolina, could have gone better.

“It was great. It was horrible that we lost, but it was great for me to go back there,” McNeil said.

At the same time, McNeil said he would always remember the experience for getting to play in front of his friends and family.

“I had a lot of family in town,” he said. “A lot of people that aren’t able to make it up here to see my play. My grandmother was in the stands, all my brothers and my aunts were in the stands. It was great being able to go back there and them being able to see me play again.”

McNeil set another career high in his homecoming game, notching a then-career high six tackles.

Later in the season, the junior notched his first two career interceptions in Notre Dame’s quadruple-overtime loss to Pittsburgh.

Now, McNeil is one of the more experienced players in the defensive backfield. He said that over the past four years he’s become close with the other upperclassmen in the secondary. He finished the season seventh on the team with 41 total tackles.

“I’ve gotten really close to a lot of the DBs,” he said. “Me, Sergio [Brown], Leonard [Gordon] and Darrin [Walls]. We’ve been really tight since we’ve been here.”

With the experience, though, comes an added responsibility. McNeil said that he’s had to take on the role of mentor to the younger defensive backs, like sophomores Robert Blanton and Jamoris Slaughter. To McNeil, though, being a teacher is no big deal.

“I just like helping people,” he said. “Being in this role for me is natural, trying to coach up some of the younger guys, keeping them focused during games and stuff. All that stuff just comes naturally to me. It feels good to be in this position.”

So far this season, McNeil has notched eight total tackles while playing in all 10 games to date. After the Irish wrap up their season in two weeks against Stanford, McNeil hopes that it won’t be the last regular season football game he plays in.

“I’m going to give this football thing a shot,” he said of his post-graduation plans. “God willing, I’ll still be playing. So hopefully my last game won’t be Stanford.”

While professional football is still the primary goal, the industrial design major said he has a good backup plan ready.

“[Pro football is] the plan, but if that doesn’t work out, I’m getting some things going with industrial design,” he said. “I plan on working on my portfolio in the spring, and sending out my portfolio and my résumé, try and get things rolling.”

Either way, McNeil said he’s a much more mature person now than he was four years ago, both as a football player and as a person. That personal growth has also paid off on the field, McNeil said.

“I just think that I’ve not only matured as a player, but as a person,” he said. “I feel like that’s only helped my game. Over these past four years, the game has really slowed down, and I think that comes from maturity, being able to see things, being able to understand the game more.”

Things may have slowed down for McNeil on the field, but the past four years have still gone by more quickly than he ever could have imagined.