He sits atop the post-spring depth chart. He started 12 games last season, led the Irish in passes defended (10); finished with two interceptions (tied for second on the squad), played tough in run support off the corner (28 solos/41 total tackles) and arguably ranked as one of the top 10-12 Irish players over the course of the '08 season.
But it seems the majority of Irish fans are trying to decide where senior CB Raeshon McNeil will fit with the '09 defense.
You have to admit, it's a welcome problem for Irish faithful to ponder – or at least a more manageable problem than the days of falling one reliable CB short in every big game. No more "Freeway 15"; no more converted offensive players that tackle as such; and no more obvious targets for opposing QBs.
The '09 Irish have three, and likely four CB capable of starting and playing well over the course of a 12-game season, and McNeil is at the top of the list. Then why do all of us (myself included) believe the (re)ascension of Darrin Walls to his vacated starting role is just a fall formality? Why are we certain that playmaking sophomore Robert Blanton is ready to hold up vs. the run for four months? And why do we think Walls and Blanton won't encounter the similar small number of mistakes that plagued McNeil last season?
McNeil was beaten on a few prominent and costly plays last year (see below), but find a CB on an Irish squad (at least since Shane Walton in 2002) that hasn't suffered that fate. Twelve games on the corner in today's era will provide plenty of tests for any athlete and McNeil held up well while often matched with the opponent's best receiver. His experience, savvy, and versatility might prove a bit tougher to replace in the Irish lineup this fall than most of us think.
McNeil's Season Outlook:I listed McNeil among my top 10 Irish players at the end of 2008. The rankings/opinion took into account a player's performance over the 12-game regular season, one in which McNeil played among the most critiqued and demanding positions among the defensive 11. (For full disclosure, after quite a bit of video review I probably could have moved one or two players ahead of McNeil, bumping him out of the top 10).
At the end of spring practice 2008, McNeil was comfortably slotted in the role of nickel back (eventually manned by Sergio Brown last year), positioned behind Walls and 5th-year senior Terrail Lambert on the CB depth chart. He won the starting CB job by default due to Walls' dismissal but eventually proved he belonged.
I think McNeil is again best suited for that nickel role in '09 (of course, so is S Sergio Brown, a dilemma to be detailed in a column later this week).
The refreshing aspect of this conversation is that each athlete will have a chance to earn his playing time through fall camp and weekly in-season action, not in a May preview column.
McNeil's Best Moments of 2008:
- Pittsburgh: Posting a 2nd Quarter interception (and 43-yard return) to set up an Irish touchdown. McNeil added a 3rd Quarter pick deep in Pittsburgh territory, but ND failed to capitalize and extend its 17-10 advantage.
- Michigan State: A 1st Quarter pass break-up what would have been a 49-yard score. McNeil was beaten on play-action, recovered, and stripped (using a crafty arm bar, I might add) Spartans receiver B.J. Cunningham of a sure TD on a beautiful post pattern.
- Michigan: With the Irish leading 28-17, McNeil broke up two 3rd down pass attempts in the third quarter. The plays occurred during a key game stretch in which the teams combined for 10 possessions without notching a score.
McNeil's Moments to Forget in 2008:
- An inexplicable coverage error late in the 4th Quarter vs. the Midshipmen that gave Navy a 1st and Goal at the Irish one-yard line with 1:36 remaining. Navy scored two plays later, cutting the Irish lead to six. The Midshipmen recovered the onsides kick attempt but could not penetrate inside the Irish 35-yard line in ND's 27-21 win.
- In Chapel Hill, McNeil was beaten for four first downs, three of them in third down situations, including coverage in which he afforded an ample cushion to UNC WR Brooks Foster on 3rd and 3 with 3:26 remaining in the fourth quarter.
- A 4th down, one-on-one matchup with Pittsburgh freshman WR Jonathan Baldwin. With 3:16 remaining in regulation, Baldwin beat (out-jumped) McNeil for the game-tying score. McNeil had defended the same pattern perfectly on the previous play.