Neal turns heads despite spring injury

As the Florida defense went into spring trying to replace its starting safeties for the second consecutive offseason, Keanu Neal was supposed to emerge and be one of the starters. A hamstring injury suffered in the first practice kept him off the field for over half of the spring, but when he returned, it didn't take long for Neal to make a statement for a starting job.

The hype around Keanu Neal started to build last season. Florida went into the year with a secondary that had plenty of veteran talent, so he spent his freshman season earning a role on special teams. He became a wrecking ball on kickoff returns, using his size and speed combination to either blow up the ball carrier or the opponent's blockers, allowing a Florida teammate to come in and finish off the play with a tackle.

This spring, Neal wanted the entire 15 practices to show he was ready to start. He battled hamstring injuries in the months before spring, and on the first day of practice, he pulled up during drills and went to the training room. Neal wouldn't return until the final two weeks of practice. The coaches didn't want him to get back on the field too early and pull it severely.

But Will Muschamp also understood the importance of getting him back in time for the spring game. He wanted Neal to be on the field in front of a crowd with coaches off the field. That would mean he had to make calls in the secondary and be a vocal leader.

Neal returned to practice in time for the final closed scrimmage. And he looked like he never was out. The players raved about his performance in that scrimmage, and the coaches were also happy.

"He plays very active and is fast," Muschamp said. "He is a physical player, great toughness, a guy who is really having an outstanding offseason program. He's a guy who really flashed at the scrimmage. When you talk in terms of playing at SEC speed, he was playing at SEC speed. Running to the ball, striking, playing blocks, and playing with the ball the deep part of the field a couple of times. He shows up."

They'll need Neal to show up this fall, too. Florida returns veteran Jabari Gorman and Marcus Maye, who have both played the most snaps out of the entire safety position. Behind them, it's wide open. Redshirt freshmen Marcell Harris and Nick Washington could figure into the position, although Washington figures to fit in more as a versatile defensive back that moves all over the secondary.

If Neal continues to progress in fall camp, the Gators might be forced to find a way to get him on the field. Maye disappeared from action last season after he bit on a play action fake that turned into a long touchdown for Miami, and Gorman has never played as a starter. There are questions all over the secondary, but as Muschamp has said multiple times since the 2013 season ended, the talent in the back end of the defense is better than it has been at any other time under Muschamp.

"Keanu Neal is a guy we're really excited about," Florida defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin said.


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