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McNeil excited about playing near home

Bill Brink | Friday, October 10, 2008

Raeshon McNeil has looked forward to the North Carolina game since he saw it on the schedule. Little did he know it would force him into a mad scramble to find tickets for his friends and family.

“It’s started a long time ago,” the junior cornerback said. “We’ve been swapping and trying to do everything since the summertime trying to get more tickets. We’re up to about 20 now. I need as many as I can get.”

McNeil grew up in Cooleemee, N.C., about two hours from Chapel Hill. When the Fighting Irish face No. 22 North Carolina in Chapel Hill tomorrow, McNeil’s family and friends will get a chance to see him play in person, something many haven’t done since Notre Dame played the Tar Heels in South Bend in 2006.

“This will be a great opportunity,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of family and coaches there, so it will be great.”

McNeil had to compete with fellow North Carolinians Robert Blanton and Kerry Neal for tickets.

“Blanton actually got a pretty good deal,” McNeil said. “He got most of the freshmen class. He swooped them up real quick. I’m waiting on the scout team player of the week to see who gets picked up so I can get those tickets.”

Many people from McNeil’s graduating class attend UNC, McNeil said, but the in-state school wasn’t for him. His mother and grandmother wanted him to go out of state so he could experience more than what his small town had to offer.

“I didn’t really do too much traveling due to financial reasons,” McNeil said. “My mother and even my grandmother, who I stayed with a lot during high school, wanted me to get out and go see some other things because I come from a small town.”

McNeil’s high school coach, Doug Illing, will attend the game and watch McNeil play. Illing watches McNeil’s games and calls him afterward to discuss his play.

“He stays on top of me … lets me know he’s proud of me,” McNeil said.

Safeties David Bruton and Kyle McCarthy received most of the attention on Notre Dame’s secondary so far, but defensive coordinator Corwin Brown said the secondary is still in the learning process.

“You always want guys to play better, no matter what level you’re at,” Brown said. “They’ve made a lot of plays for us this year. We ask our guys to do a variety of things. They play man, they play zone, they play combo coverage, they blitz, we ask our guys to tackle.”

Brown said he wants to see his cornerbacks become more consistent on a play-to-play basis and make every play, as unreachable a goal as that may seem.

“Those other guys are going to win too,” Brown said. “You say that might be unrealistic, but that’s what you want as a coach and as a player.”

McNeil said fellow cornerback Terrail Lambert has progressed more quickly than he has because of his experience, but McNeil has progressed with more playing time.

“This is really my first year getting extreme exposure to the game,” he said. “I feel like I’m making strides as it goes along.”

Brown said he needled McNeil about going home, but hasn’t discussed it with him. McNeil said he’s been jacked up this week, and it’s been rubbing off on his teammates, no matter what position.

“All throughout practice I’ve been telling my guys, this is Carolina week,” he said. “Emotions are definitely going to be high. It’s definitely something I’m going to have to control throughout the game.”

The most interesting thing to watch will be how McNeil’s friends portray their dual affection for the Tar Heels and Irish. McNeil said a friend of his has a plan to split his allegiances at the game.

“He told me he was gonna wear a Notre Dame shirt and Carolina shorts,” McNeil said. “He was talking about painting his face half blue and half green with a question mark on both sides.”