He certainly looks the part: a streamlined No. 56 coming off the outside shoulder of his opponent, bearing down on the quarterback. He's shown flashes of what he might one day be; what Irish fans want, and probably need him to be this fall.
But something is missing from Kerry Neal's two-year collegiate resume: production.
Four sacks. Six total tackles for lost yardage; a few scattered fumble recoveries and passes batted down; an interception…hardly the stuff of Irish legend.
No, Kerry Neal's claim to fame after two seasons is roughly the same as it was the first time he put on an Irish uniform: hope. Neal's untapped ability offers fans hope that defensive improvement equates to a unit that controls contests, not simply keeps the team competitive. The 2009 defense can be good without Neal developing into a bona fide player…but it can't be great. Not without a consistent pass rush from both edges.
Blocking Neal's fast track to stardom are a spring season lost to injury and the presence of three capable swing defenders: sophomore weak side LB Darius Fleming, a player who could easily drop down into Neal's pass-rushing role in long-yardage situations; redshirt freshman Kapron-Lewis Moore (currently slotted on the opposite DE); and former starter Morrice Richardson, who, like Fleming, is a threat to Neal's time on the field should the junior continue to show only flashes of his ability.
The late Bill Walsh once shared his secret of player evaluation during his time with the 49ers. Walsh felt that if he saw a college prospect make a great play, just one great play, the 49ers staff could coach that player to make such a play on a consistent basis. (Walsh's example was 1986 fourth-round draft pick and future Hall of Fame finalist Charles Haley).
We've all seen Kerry Neal make a handful of great plays. He first showed his unique blend of speed and burst around the edge with a late second-half sack of MSU QB Brian Hoyer during the lost season of 2007 (while the game was in doubt). Neal carried the momentum of his first impact play into the first defensive series of the third quarter, pressuring Hoyer on third-down and forcing a mid-field punt. But encores have been hard to come by since late September 2007.
Fortunately, the first week of fall camp 2009 provides Neal his third chance to make a first impression.
Neal's Season Outlook:I can't imagine Neal not winning the RDE job over his current competition at the position (John Ryan and Emeka Nwankwo). While Nwankwo provides more ballast at the point of attack, I still believe Neal has the "It Factor" entering his junior season. There's young talent that can be moved to fit into Neal's projected RDE role, but I think the Irish defense will be better off if Neal can win the starting job from the outset. The optimist in me believes Neal has the potential to be a breakout defender in 2009. The cynic knows "potential" has laid waste to many a coaching staff.
Neal's Best Moments of 2008:
- A third-quarter interception (diagnosing a screen pass and making the play) at the Aztec's 20-yardline vs. San Diego State in the season-opener (unfortunately the Irish offense promptly returned the favor).
- A third-quarter sack of Pittsburgh QB Pat Bostick.
- A first-quarter sack of Hawaii QB Greg Alexander. The Warriors were forced to punt and Robert Hughes gave the Irish a 6-0 lead 10 plays later.
Neal's Moments to Forget of 2008:
- A five-game stretch (MSU, Purdue, Stanford, UNC, and Washington) during which Neal started just two games, totaled five tackles, and did not record a single sack.
- We're nitpicking now, but his inability to put pressure on Syracuse QB Cameron Dantley on third down and the game's deciding play (Dantley's go-ahead TD pass with 0:42 remaining). Neal was single blocked by the Orange's left guard due to a well-designed line stunt by the Irish defense, yet Dantley still had an unabated look at the end zone.
- After a solid goal line effort throughout the contest, Neal was turned around and flattened by Michigan State TE Charlie Gantt, paving the way for RB Javon Ringer's game-sealing TD plunge.