McNeal ready to make big plays at receiver for WKU football team

Redshirt freshman receiver Willie McNeal’s breakout moment came last April when he had 30 yards receiving and rushed three times for 81 yards and a touchdown in Western’s Spring Game. Now McNeal is looking to start at wide receiver.

Zach Greenwell

This story was originally published Aug. 18, 2010.

The 2009 season was frustrating for receiver Willie McNeal, as it is for most freshmen who redshirt their first year.

It wasn’t that McNeal felt he deserved playing time. He said he was just anxious to start making plays.

So when the Toppers took to the field this past spring and McNeal got in on the action for the first time, he hit the ground running.

“Every day, I try to play as if I have something to prove,” McNeal said. “But yeah, because I sat out so long, I was kind of rusty still. That made me feel like I had something to prove.”

McNeal earned the praise of the coaching staff during practice, as well as the MVP award during Western’s annual spring game.

The Bradenton, Fla., native caught one pass for 30 yards and ran the ball three times for 81 yards and a touchdown during the spring game, and Head Coach Willie Taggart said he’ll be an even bigger part of the offense this fall.

“Willie’s a playmaker. Willie’s a football player,” Taggart said. “He always wants the ball, which I love. He doesn’t just talk about it, but he is about it. He constantly plays fast. If you watch the kid, he’s just going faster than everyone else. He’s not necessarily faster than all of them, but he plays faster.”

At just 5-foot-10 and 165 pounds, McNeal is one of the smallest receivers on Western’s roster, but Taggart said you’d never know it on the field.

“The kid loves to play,” Taggart said. “The kid never stops talking. He’s always talking. He’s the littlest guy out there, but he talks like he’s the biggest guy. He’ll talk to the linebackers, the D-line – he doesn’t care. They all try to get him too when he comes in that area.”

And getting to McNeal is no easy feat.

He’s lined up in several different ways so far in fall camp, catching balls over the middle and hauling in passes downfield. After his performance in the spring game, defenses can’t afford to overlook his rushing ability, either.

“I think the offense will be nice overall,” McNeal said. “I think everybody could have an opportunity to be a playmaker with the type of offense we’re running.

“Wherever I can be at to get the ball in my hands, I feel good.”

McNeal entered fall camp as a starting wideout alongside senior Quinterrance Cooper.

Western receivers coach Terry Obee, who played receiver in the NFL for eight years, said that McNeal’s character and willingness to learn have been crucial to his quick ascent up the depth chart.

“He came in really hungry,” Obee said. “He was receptive to a lot of things and went out competing, and that’s what he’s done from day one. He’s really persistent and works hard at it. If you listen and focus on what you need to accomplish, and then when you try it out on the field, it works.”

McNeal said he’s acknowledging that there’s still plenty of work left to be done. Just because he had a big spring doesn’t mean he can’t end up back on the sideline, he said.

“It’s helping us a lot offensively, and it’s fun at the same time, because everybody catching the ball is bringing out more competitiveness for all the receivers,” he said. “We haven’t set the depth chart right now, because anyone could be a starter. It’s a cleared sheet from what it was in the spring.”

But Taggart said it would be hard to imagine McNeal, along with the team’s other “playmakers” – namely running backs Bobby Rainey and Avery Hibbitt — not out on the field for Western in some fashion.

The way the West Coast offense is set up, it’s made for guys like McNeal to simply outplay their competition, he said.

“All of those guys can have a field day in this offense, because we can do a lot of different things with them,” he said. “Those are the things you’ve got to do as a coach – get the ball in their hands. All of those guys can get in some space, and you let them play backyard ball.”