So when the news reached him that one of his former players, Derek Blacknall, died from a stab wound during a domestic dispute on Monday evening, McNeill felt as if he lost a son.
"It's tough news finding out what happened. He was just a joy to be around as a player, but also as a person. He always had a great smile on his face," said McNeill. "He's a guy who grew up with adversity around him that came to school and coming here was a blessing for him.
"We'll pray for Derek's family and we know we just gained another Pirate upstairs and up above with the big head coach. We'll miss him, but he's watching over us now."
The 24-year old Blacknall, who was commonly referred to as "black" by his teammates and coaches, played defensive back for the Pirates from 2008-2011 – amassing 128 tackles and three interceptions during his career. He experienced, arguably, his most successful year as a senior, after making a move from safety to cornerback, by breaking up seven passes and compiling 31 tackles.
McNeill met reporters in front of a graphic that included Blacknall's image inside the team's defensive meeting room Tuesday, which was ironically where the Greensboro native spent a substantial amount of his time.
While glancing back and studying the image, McNeill said, "We met here a lot of times as a group. So Derek's presence has been here for a long time … It will be a tough day for a lot of the older (players). The younger guys didn't know him, but when they recognize that he's been in this defensive room for the entire time, they will realize that."
One of those older players is Damon Magazu. The senior free safety joined Blacknall in the defensive backfield for the lion's share of his first two seasons, but doesn't think he would have played as a freshman if not for Blacknall.
"I remember one the first days during camp, he told (then-defensive coordinator Brian) Mitchell to let me go in with the (second team) so I could get a couple reps," said Magazu. "He's one of the guys that really pushed me out onto the field and in the eyes of the coaches and I'm forever grateful for that."
Blacknall, was revered for his ability to dish out tremendous hits throughout his four years at ECU. One of his most memorable hits came against the Tulane Green Wave in 2011. At the snap, Blacknall instantly telegraphed a screen pass and planted his left shoulder into Tulane running back Orleans Darka's chest – decleating him.
The home fans at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium exploded following the hellacious collision, while the senior was crowded by his teammates as he went to the sideline. Magazu was on the field during the play and remembers reveling in the moment with Blacknall.
"I can't remember if it was his leg or his shoulder that was hurting (after the hit)," said Magazu, smiling as he thought back on the play. "Me and (cornerback) Bradley Jacobs went up and were smacking him on the helmet when he said ‘I'm hurt. I'm hurt' … but he wasn't going to show it on the film. He waited until he was on the sideline to get it checked out."
McNeill said he has not been able to reach the Blacknall family yet, but will continue to try doing so. The last time he remembered seeing him was during the 2012 season when Derek visited McNeill and the team for a game.
Darren Blacknall, Derek's brother, was arrested and charged with first-degree murder according to Greensboro police.