BY AARON BRENNER | firstname.lastname@example.org
AUBURN, Ala. – Slumped on his couch, taunted by his television, bummed out watching bowl games kick off without him or his team last winter, Demetruce McNeal thought seriously, again, whether he was in the right place.
“I’m always ready to just get back on the field and hit the ground running,” McNeal said. “It was just tough, sitting at home and thinking about it — ‘Man, am I coming back? What am I going to do?’”
Not for the first time, the hard-hitting safety wearing his heart on his sleeve concluded his heart remained with Auburn.
“I thought to myself, okay, we were 3-9,” McNeal said back on the first new day of spring football practices. “Let me come back and try to be a leader for this defense, and just change what people keep saying about the Auburn defense.”
McNeal repeatedly pointed to Auburn’s 2004 team, which went undefeated thanks to the nation’s stingiest scoring defense – 11.3 points allowed per game.
The Tigers haven’t finished in that category’s top 50 since 2008, and were far less consistent than last year’s No. 65 ranking (28.3 points) would indicate.
“That’s basically why I came back, to get this team on the right track before I leave,” McNeal said. “I’ve been down like that before. … It’s motivation because now we know how it feels to have a season like that, and we don’t want to feel that way again. We let so many people down.”
Statistically, McNeal was pretty good amidst the misery – in fact, he’s probably Auburn’s best returning defender. As a junior, he was Auburn’s No. 2-leading tackler (trailing only linebacker Daren Bates), leading the squad with 53 solo takedowns and tying defensive tackle Angelo Blackson with seven tackles for a loss.
But McNeal was just as noteworthy for his behavior behind closed doors – he twice was benched for the opening series in non-conference home games (in favor of Trent Fisher), and Ryan Smith started the opener against Clemson and the finale at Alabama.
“I made mistakes last year. Everybody made mistakes,” McNeal said. “I’m just trying to limit those mistakes and keep playing and go on about my career.”
McNeal knew he was meant to stick around when he started working with new safeties coach Charlie Harbison, who recruited him out of high school when at Clemson.
“The coaches are embracing us, and we’re embracing the coaches. Because in the past, I felt there was a lot of players vs. coaches. Now it’s more free and so much fun,” McNeal said. “I’ve got coaches that interact with me and I can interact with them with a playful mind, but still playing football at the same time.”
In particular, McNeal didn’t appreciate how old coaches demanded precise, stagnant technique – to the point where McNeal said he felt like a “robot” under 2012 defensive backs coach Willie Martinez.
Harbison, however, is different.
“I like him because he’s really the only coach I’ve had since I’ve been here that really allows me to feel comfortable about myself back there,” McNeal said. “In the past, a lot of coaches had me bending my knees so far down, I felt so uncomfortable. Coach Harbison, he’s more of laid-back type of dude. Play at your comfort level, because I’m going to coach off you.”
McNeal played last year as a gangly 6-foot-2, 187-pounder, but he already put on 12 pounds by the start of spring and hopes to weigh in between 210-215 pounds for the fall.
Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson refers to McNeal’s position as a “boundary safety” – which requires physicality, closing speed and a nose for stopping the run, suiting McNeal.
“I’ve had some times, like at (South) Carolina, our big hitter back there was a free safety, (D.J.) Swearinger. But he wasn’t the biggest and strongest,” Johnson said. “He made big hits in the open field. But we had to have a 200-pound kid at the boundary corner and boundary safety to fit the run.”
McNeal’s gung-ho about the opportunity. He admires the work Harbison did with Pro Bowl safety Brian Dawkins in the 1990s, and the same of cornerbacks coach Melvin Smith turning Johnthan Banks into an All-American at Mississippi State last year.
“They feel that I can fill that void and just get a lot of interceptions and make a lot of tackles,” McNeal said. “Now that my mind is made up about what I want to do, it’s basically just learning the whole defense and how fast can I learn it.”
As his team enjoys its new day, McNeal has adopted a new attitude.
“I just want to go out with a bang, man,” McNeal said. “That’s basically it. Leave with a bang, get my name up in the (NFL) draft, try my best to be an All-American.”