Learning Curve

Like any freshman, Chris Neild's head was swimming when he came to West Virginia as a freshman. His learning curve was even steeper than most after being moved to a position that he had never played before, but after just a couple years' apprenticeship, he is being counted on to be the bulwark of WVU's defensive line.

Neild, who was a rugged (if slightly oversized) fullback and linebacker in high school, came to West Virginia with a reputation for aggressiveness and tough play. Defensive line coach Bill Kirelawich saw the makings of a nose guard in Neild, even though he had never played one snap as a defensive lineman. That didn't matter to the veteran coach, who, upon observing Neild's stocky build and love of contact, pictured an anchor for the middle of the defensive line.

The switch wasn't an easy one for Neild. He first had to reshape his body, which he did with diligent work in WVU's strength and conditioning program. Then he had to begin learning all the intricacies of defensive line play. Contrary to popular belief, those techniques involve far more than just battering ram hitting with offensive line foes, and take time to master. Many don't, which makes Neild's quick transformation into a likely starter at the nose position all the more remarkable.

"I didn't have any experience at all on the defensive line coming in," Neild said with a chuckle. "The last time I had my hand down was when I was going out for a pass in high school."

After a redshirt year in 2006, Neild began the 2007 with the hopes of grabbing the starting position at the nose. That move would have allowed Keilen Dykes to move outside to his more natural tackle position, and give West Virginia more flexibility on its defensive line. After some early promising returns, however, Neild hit a bit of a wall, which resulted in him filling a backup role behind Dykes for much of the season. He did manage more than 40 snaps in mid-season games against Mississippi State and Rutgers, but again dropped back a bit as the season wound down.

Such ups and downs are part of most players' careers, and it was easy to forget that Neild was seeing his first action in a West Virginia uniform, and was still feeling his way through the transition to the defensive front. As he gained more experience, and logged more practice time, he began to trend upward again, and capped that with a solid performance in the Fiesta Bowl. Although he didn't rack up big stats in that game, his presence at the nose allowed Dykes to move out to the tackle spot as was planned at the start of the season. Dykes, along with defensive end Johnny Dingle, were almost unblockable in the contest, which resulted in the huge 48-28 win.

Using that game as a springboard, Neild is now the frontrunner for the starting nose tackle spot in 2008. The potential of being a three-year starter looms for Neild, who has put in countless hours to get to that position.

"Coming out of the Fiesta Bowl with a good game, and coming out with a win, it gives the team some momentum, and it gives me some momentum too," Neild allowed. "I thought I had an all right game, but coming into the spring I felt pretty good about it. I think I've done pretty good during the spring, too."

Far from resting on his laurels, the big Pennsylvanian knows he still has work to do. He came to the realization late last year that the opportunity to be a major contributor was in front of him.

"I just realized that my tea is counting on me to be the man in the middle, and I have to use all of my abilities to protect the middle. I know if I do that, I have a good chance to start. I ran with the ones [for all of spring practice] but I know I have to keep doing what I do, but also take it up to another level."

Working with Kirelawich is an experience in continuing education, and one that Neild knows will be consistent throughout his career. It's a matter of building blocks – first the basics, then individual techniques that will all come together.

"Day to day, Kirlav will tell me to focus on a certain thing," Neild said as he described the process of improvement. "Of course, he wants you to put it all together at once, but sometimes I'll have to work on one thing, like my hips, or shooting my hands, or something like that. Progressively, I've been doing that, but there's always something to work on. Lately, I've been getting the hang of it more. There are different nose techniques, too. Sometimes we work on the backside of the play, where I trail the play, and sometimes on the front side. It depends on the center and the design of the play."

As Neild improves, so too does the play of the WVU defensive line, which often looked dominant during spring drills. However, the cause of some of those good plays often doesn't see the results of his labors.

"It gets difficult in there sometimes," he said with a laugh. "I don't always see what happens. I might hold up the center, but I won't know whether the quarterback has the ball or handed it off. I am getting used to seeing the reads and reading the line. It's coming along and getting easier as time goes by."

Easier for him and his teammates, but harder for WVU's foes.


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