Growing Up

If you happen to meet Kerry Neal, chances are that he's not going to divulge a great deal of his personality upon first encounter. In fact, it may take several meetings for him to open up. Once he straps on his helmet and steps on the field, however, the difference is night and day.

"At first it takes me a little while to get to know you," he said. "I'm kind of quiet, but once I get to know you, I'll open up to you."

On Saturdays in the fall, it's a different story. As he walks through the tunnel of Notre Dame Stadium and performs his pre-game ritual, a different Kerry Neal comes to the surface.

"Yeah, it's like two different people," Neal said. "It's like football player, and then the guy and just being myself."

It's this intensity and ardor is one of the major factors that the Notre Dame coaching staff saw in Neal last season, giving him an early start to his career, appearing in all 12 games. The Bunn, N.C. product produced 20 total tackles and a pair of sacks to go along with two fumble recoveries in his first campaign as a freshman.

Coming into this season, Neal will have had a full year in the program and an opportunity to expand his knowledge of the system and defensive philosophy.

"Now I can point out what the offense is about to do, something like a backfield set" Neal said. "I know that now. I know that terminology and last year I really didn't know."

This experience has been absolutely invaluable to his maturation process, picking up on the patterns of collegiate football.

"It's amazing how much you learn over a year," he said. "Last year, I was just out there young, just trying to run around trying to make a lot of plays and this year I know what I'm doing now."

As a result, Neal was basing his play and decisions on the field on pure instinct.

"Yeah, [it was more instinctual,]" he said. "This year I'm much more comfortable in my role. I know what to do now."

To get him through the growing pains, Neal looked to the team's veteran leadership to assist him through the struggles and confusion.

"Mo [Crum], and J.B. [Justin Brown] and all the older guys on the team helped me out," he said.

Another person who facilitated the jump from high school to college has been classmate, Brian Smith, whose early contributions mirror Neal's own. Having someone enduring the same adjustments as him prepared him for the obstacles being a student-athlete threw his way. Both came in as outside linebackers and saw instant playing time. Now Smith has seemingly moved on to inside linebacker, while Neal is getting his reps at defensive end. Getting used to this hasn't been difficult, because of the quality of communication along the entire defensive unit.

"We pretty much just go out there and do our jobs," he said. "And we communicate. Me and Brian are real tight so before the play I'm like, ‘come on, Brian. Let's make this play.' And we tell each other, ‘let's make this play.'"

"Even on the practice field, I was talking to Brian," Neal said. "We were on the third team. I was like, ‘we were on the third team, remember last year?' And he was like, ‘yeah, we came a long way.'"

What else has changed for Neal? A year in a collegiate strength and conditioning program has seen him gain significant muscle mass and speed as well.

"Just hitting the weight room," Neal said. "Adding more weight and stuff like that. Last year I was only benching something like 325 when I came in. Now I'm up at like four-something. And I've gotten my weight up so I'm at 248 now."

This increase in weight would be counterproductive if Neal was to become slower on the football field. Realizing the pitfalls, he has kept his velocity in mind.

"As long as I keep my speed, I'm fine," he said.

Another alteration that has been manifested throughout the spring and carried over into the fall is Neal's participation with the defensive line as opposed to his first duty with the linebackers. For Neal, working with defensive line coach, Jappy Oliver and the rest of the unit has allowed him to play with his hand on the ground — something he is very familiar with.

"Yeah, I did a whole lot of it in high school," he said. "I feel more comfortable in it. From my sprinter stance, because my stance is pretty much like a sprinter's stance, you can get of the ball real quick because you're close to the ground."

The coaching staff's decision to move Neal around in the defense has allowed Neal to be freer and granted him some flexibility in his style, even though the two positions are strikingly similar.

"It's pretty much the same thing," Neal said. "Playing the Will is putting both together. I'm like the outside linebacker/defensive end." Even though Neal has been working with the defensive line, he still plays outside linebacker from time to time.

"It's about 50-50," he said. "Sometimes I'm up and sometimes I'm down."

So what's next for Neal?

"Continuing to learn and get better each and every day," Neal said. "Get my team in the best position to win." Top Stories