McNeal becoming a go-to receiver for Toppers

WKU Sophomore wide receiver, Willie McNeal, (10) catches the ball for a touchdown just before overtime during the WKU-ULM football game.

Lucas Aulbach

The Topper passing game has flourished as one of the most efficient in the Sun Belt Conference this season.

Senior quarterback Kawaun Jakes, the highest-rated passer in the Sun Belt, deserves a lion’s share of the credit, but the breakout performer in WKU’s pass-catching corps has been sophomore wide receiver Willie McNeal.

The Bradenton, Fla., native has emerged as the big-play receiving threat the Toppers have been looking for to complement what senior tight end Jack Doyle does over the middle.

McNeal had a slow start to the season but picked up momentum coming into conference play. He leads the team with 425 receiving yards and has a team-leading five touchdowns through the air.

Coach Willie Taggart said McNeal is a big reason why WKU has been successful through the air this year.

“It’s great to have a receiver of that caliber that can do big things for us,” Taggart said. “I think that’s one of the reasons you see our offense being productive, is because we have guys that are doing that for us right now.”

McNeal has been used all over the field for the Toppers, seeing time as a deep threat as well as a guy who can make moves in the slot. His ability to stretch the field and go deep on any play is his greatest asset, he said, because it helps him throw off defenses on shorter throws.

“Quick routes, stop routes, things like that, it helps me because they think I could be going deep every play,” McNeal said.

Taggart said he has learned to trust the receiver when he gets the ball in his hands.

“Willie’s a special kid,” he said. “He always wants the ball. He’s always in my ear — ‘Coach, give me the ball, coach, give me the ball’ — and you love it because usually when you do it he makes something happen with it.”

A strong redshirt freshman season in 2010 showed what McNeal was capable of, but his rise to prominence in the offense was delayed by a year.

McNeal earned Freshman All-American honors as a kick returner in 2010 and also pulled in 26 catches that year, good for third on the team.

His momentum heading into the next season was cut short when he tore his anterior cruciate ligament in WKU spring practice in March 2011.

Recovery from such an injury takes upward of six months. Although he was medically cleared to practice midway through the 2011 season, WKU chose to redshirt McNeal out of game action, thus saving a season of eligibility.

McNeal, classified as a sophomore though he’s in his fourth year with the program, returned this offseason determined to earn a starting job for the Toppers. He said he’s maintained that focus even after making a full recovery.

“You’ve got to prove it every day, not just coming back, because nobody’s job is safe around here,” he said. “We’re always competing for our jobs.”

His emergence as WKU’s No. 1 receiver impressed Jakes, but the quarterback said some of McNeal’s biggest plays come when he doesn’t have the ball in his hands, but rather when he’s blocking on the outside.

“Willie is just a hard worker,” Jakes said. “You’ll see him up hitting safeties — he really doesn’t care. He just wants to win.”

Taggart said he thinks McNeal is developing into a weapon WKU will benefit from for a long time.

“We’re all starting to see Willie grow up and come into his own right now,” he said. “He’s really starting to play big-time football for us, and a lot of that comes from all the work those guys put in on the offseason.”