What can be perceived as a step backwards or, at best, sideways in the development of the talented but still growing Neal was an indirect reason for a few of the Cardinal losses last season.
First and foremost, Neal must learn to not turn the ball over. Quarterbacks will throw picks, we all know that, but throwing 12 is a lot for an experienced QB. Add to that a handful of lost fumbles, and you can see an alarming pattern of ball protection that cost the Cardinals points and possibly losses in close games that should and could have been won.
Also alarming was the inability to throw the ball downfield with regularity and effectiveness. Neal was all too often content of settling for the check down and the short easy throw putting no pressure on opposing secondaries until or unless they were in man coverage. Part of this was surely play calling and game planning, but with the arm strength and ability of Neal to put up big numbers in the air, it is counterproductive to reign him back to a dink and dunk passing game.
Not that all of Neal’s play was bad. He improved in his completion percentage (see paragraph above for main reason) and he showed even more, his ability to torch defenses with his running ability. Neal can connect downfield and can be accurate throwing on the move and did so very well in spurts.
Neal’s play will directly affect the 2017 season, but if he falters next season, all is not lost. There is capable back up Jack Milas, who will be a 5th year senior with starting and playing experience. Milas played decently in his lone start in 2016 – a loss to Top 25 juggernaut Western Michigan – that ended with almost 200 yards passing and a touchdown. Also back will be promising redshirt freshman Drew Plitt, who also is solidly built (6-2 217) with a big arm.
Finally figuring in the mix potentially will be current verbal commit Tyler Vander Waal. Another QB with good size (6-4 200) with a big arm, Vander Waal put of great numbers as a prep in California as a senior. He is coming all the way across the country for college so you have to expect he is coming to compete right away for playing time.
As disheartening as 2016 was from a Quarterback play standpoint, the future is bright. Neal is still projecting and developing towards being a top QB in the Mid-American Conference. If he doesn’t reach his potential, there are options now that the Cardinal coaching staff can fall back on.