Neal will be a senior this fall, and it's equally difficult to believe he's registered just 4.5 sacks in the 33 games he's played since his first QB take down that September '07 afternoon in South Bend.
Shuffled between two positions over his first three seasons, Neal alternately appeared a fish-out-of-water as an undersized defensive end (especially last season) and a playmaker-in-waiting on the edge in contests vs. Stanford (and MSU) in '07; San Diego State, Purdue, Pittsburgh and Hawaii in '08, and against Washington and Boston College last year.
But a quick review of past schedules shows few instances of game-to-game or back-to-back consistency.
Neal put forth the best effort of his career in a 7-point overtime win over Washington last October. He responded with a statistical shut-out – his fourth such outing through six games at that point – in Notre Dame's next matchup, a battle with rival USC.
He's flashed potential, but maddening inconsistency serves as Neal's calling card entering his final season.
Neal's Season OutlookNeal, who ranked third on the '09 squad with six official QB hurries, returns to the position for which he was recruited: a 3-4 outside linebacker role in which he'll be asked to rush the passer but also tangle with tight ends and corral running backs in short zone coverage.
Neal appeared to finish the spring session behind Fleming for one of two starting spots, and it would serve as a legitimate upset if he were to unseat the team's returning leader in tackles-for-loss (12) in August camp.
Yet, new defensive coordinator Bob Diaco noted Neal's acumen in the OLB role early in camp, and after fighting through a calf injury (missing limited practice time), Neal received a vote of confidence from head coach Brian Kelly who noted the senior's toughness in his efforts to fight through a "pretty significant calf injury."
Diaco sees the 6'2" 244-pound Neal (six pounds down from a year ago) as a prototype OLB for the his defense.
"Those guys (Neal and Filer) are what you're looking for… they're quick-twitch guys so they can defend in space, re-route wide receivers, break on the ball, be active on outside breaking routes. But they're also physical enough to attack and be ‘combat zone' players and push on tight end and offensive tackles."
Neal showed elements of his ‘combat zone' potential as part of the Irish goal line defense last season vs. Washington, combining with Harrison Smith on a 4th and Goal stop inside the one-yard line vs. QB Jake Locker to keep the Irish within five points entering the final period.
Seemingly undersized for a goal line role, Neal has continuously earned a spot on the team's short-yardage, back-to-the-goal unit, a fact I discussed with him last August.
"It's something every football player should take pride in. It's us-against-them, and scheme (still) comes into play, but it's really about making a play."
Brian Kelly and his staff pride themselves on developing playmakers.
They have a seasoned piece to mold in Kerry Neal – its time to turn potential into production.
Neal's Best Moments of 2009:
- Purdue: After losing his starting spot in Week Three vs. MSU, Neal responded to the challenge in West Lafayette, recording his first two tackles of the season, including one for lost yardage vs. Boilermakers redshirt-freshman Ralph Bolden. Bolden's first four carries resulted in 27 yards before Neal slid over the right side to drop the talented runner for a loss at midfield and a resulting punt two plays later.
- Washington: With the Huskies facing a 2nd and 10 from the ND 25-yard line in overtime, Neal blew by Washington left tackle Ben Ossai for a game-changing sack of QB Jake Locker and a 9-yard loss. The sack set up 3rd and 19 for the visitors and two plays later, Kyle McCarthy and Harrison Smith combined for the game-ending pass breakup inside the 5-yard line and a 37-30 OT victory to move the Irish to 4-1 on the season.
Neal recorded 7 tackles, including a 3rd down stop of Locker at midfield and a 4th down stop of the quarterback at the goal line; two quarterback hurries (one in the 4th period) and the noted crucial sack vs. the Huskies to highlight the best game of his college career.
- Boston College: Trailing 16-13 late in the 3rd Quarter, Neal ran an inside stunt from his right defensive end position. His unabated penetration forced Boston College quarterback Dave Shinskie into a poor throw, easily intercepted downfield by safety Kyle McCarthy.
- Washington State: Leading 9-0 at the start of the 2nd Quarter, Neal combined with defensive end Ethan Johnson to sack QB Jeff Tuel for an 11-yard loss. The Cougars punted two plays later and Notre Dame cashed in with a 16-yard touchdown run by Golden Tate for a 16-0 lead in the eventual blowout win.
Neal's Moments to Forget in 2009:
- Nevada, Michigan, Michigan State: In the season's first three contests (two of which he started), Neal did not tally an entry on the stat sheet (tackle, sack, pass defended, etc.).
- USC: No tackles or QB pressures in a starting role.
- Pittsburgh: In a full film review of the Pittsburgh contest, I did not record Kerry Neal's name once in the second half. (He played well in the first half with two tackles, a QB pressure, and a pass breakup.)
Neal's Career Totals: 37 games played (25 starts); 70 tackles (35 solo and 9.5 for loss); 5.5 sacks, 11 QB hurries, 6 passes defended, 2 fumble recoveries, 1 interception.