Waiting in the Wings

As the news broke in the middle of July regarding star cornerback Darrin Walls' personal reasons resulting in his hiatus for the fall semester, his classmate, Raeshon McNeil, knew he would get his shot.

Headed into this season, Walls had secured a starting spot alongside fifth-year senior Terrail Lambert, with Raeshon McNeil holding down the nickel spot. Now with Walls' absence, all signs point to McNeil to take control of the left cornerback position. McNeil, however, has had to be patient throughout his entire career to achieve an every-down role.

Head coach Charlie Weis knows that the Cooleemee, N.C. native has been waiting in the wings for some time now.

"Raeshon has quietly been one of those guys that has been waiting in the wings for an opportunity to get on the field more," Weis said. "If you go all the way back to high school and the All-American game, here's a guy who has always had a lot of spunk and coverage ability. His time has been more spotty, but obviously now he has a great opportunity for all that upside and ease his way into them instead of throwing him into the fire. I mean now he has been well groomed and he has been doing a nice job on and off the field; doing a nice job in school."

For many members of the media on the outside of the program, McNeil has typically come off as a more reserved and quiet player in the defensive backfield. Weis noted that once he had the chance to interact with McNeil on a day-to-day basis, his true personality began to emerge.

"When you talk to him, and if you don't know him real well, you wouldn't know he has a big personality because he comes across so quiet and reserved," he said. "There's the other side of the fence, and I think to have that spunk that he has, it's the type of attitude you need to have to be a successful corner because there are good plays and bad plays and you have to be able to deal with both of them."

The junior corner echoed the same sentiment, claiming that as a defensive back, this type of attitude is essential for survival.

"I feel like I always try to show my personality, in everything I do," McNeil said. "Especially at the cornerback position, you've got to have a little attitude. You've got to have a little spunk to you. You've got to have something out there playing behind you because it's tough to play out there. If you're not confident and you don't have a little fire about yourself, then you're not going to survive out there."

Just because McNeil isn't afraid to show these flashes of passion and speak his mind doesn't mean that he is one to disrupt the locker-room or go against the grain of the coaches' wants and wishes. This has been a process that he has become used to in his first couple of years with the program.

"I guess coach Weis is right," he said. "I do have a fiery personality. I like to speak my mind. In these types of situations and organizations, sometimes you've got to hold back. You've got to bite your tongue. You've got to give respect where respect is due."

With Walls' departure, one would figure that McNeil had already slated his name in as the starter beside Lambert. For those who are close to the product out of Davie County High School, this couldn't be further from the truth.

"We still have camp and everything we go through," he said. "I know just with Darrin leaving didn't mean that I was going to automatically have the spot. I'm still going to have to work for it and I've still got some great guys behind me."

One of those guys is sophomore Gary Gray, who is coming off of a freshman year that kept him limited to the sidelines because of a shoulder injury. With Walls gone, and McNeil likely to take his spot, now the nickelback slot could wind up being Gray's. As a result, Gray and McNeil have had numerous conversations on the responsibilities of the position.

"It's been pretty good because [McNeil] has been here, and he knows the defense better than I do," Gray said. "Just learning from him and Terrail has been real good for me. Probably because he's played the nickel a lot and he's probably going to be outside, so someone's going to have to step up and play the nickel. I might be me, so he's been teaching me the ins and outs of the nickel and teaching me what to do and what not to do."

Irrespective of who takes the starting spot and who takes the nickel, Weis is sure of one detail. "I would say you can count on both of those guys being on the field a whole bunch," he said.

Although Walls is not with the team, McNeil makes sure to stay in contact with his teammate. Once the recruiting class of 2006 was finalized, both Walls and McNeil came in as a potent cornerback duo for the Irish. Now, their strong bond remains, despite the distance.

"Yeah, I talk to him almost everyday," McNeil said. "We miss him a lot out there on the field. It's tough being out there without him, we just can't wait to have him back."

Now that his classmate and friend isn't there by his side, it's time for McNeil and his teammates to collectively fill the hole that Walls' departure has created.

"Darrin was one of our best cover-corners," he said. "I feel like we've all got to step up a little bit. It's not going to be easy to replace him. Like I said, we're just going to have to all step up to fill his shoes."

Throughout their time together, McNeil has taken away some lessons and new techniques that Walls has shown him in practices and meetings. Perhaps the most important of these, and the one aspect McNeil would like to improve upon is the ability to play man-to-man coverage.

"I think the best thing is the way he plays man coverage," McNeil said. "Like I said, he's one of our best cover corners. He played on the left side, which is where I'm at now and that's where a lot of the action goes because most quarterbacks are right-handed. You get a lot more balls thrown that way. The way he played man coverage and read routes is definitely something I try to pick up off him."

For all the time that McNeil has been patiently waiting in the wings, an opportunity like this has not come his way. Opposing wide receivers and quarterbacks can rest assured that all that time waiting has made him ready.

"I think I'm definitely ready to make an impact," he said. "At this level, things are happening a lot faster. This game, at the college level, is more of a mental game. I feel at this game, especially out there at corner, you've got to have your mind right. It just takes a little time to get locked in."

Lucky for the Irish defense, one luxury McNeil has had is just that — time.

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