Neal has competitive spirit, football blood


March was a big month for Florida safety commit Keanu Neal.

He participated in the Nike Football SPARQ Combine, attended Florida’s spring practice, accepted an invitation to the 2013 Under Armour All-American Game and competed in the IMG 7-on-7 tournament.

Neal, a four-star prospect, is an ESPNU 150 Watch List member

He’s done dozen of interviews along the way.

“I’ve been pretty busy,” said Neal, who received a 90.72 SPARQ rating and was one of five honorable mention performers in the March 6 combine.

Neal was in Gainesville on March 17 to watch the Gators practice for the first time in pads. He kept a close eye on the defensive back drills.

“It was a great practice,” Neal said in a video interview afterward. “The DB drills (were the most interesting part). Seeing what I have to compete with. I want to come here and take a spot because I want to get playing time.”

The Bushnell South Sumter star was joined on the trip by his brother — former San Diego Chargers safety Clinton Hart. The 34-year-old Hart played 10 years professionally, including seven in the NFL.

Neal went to many of his brother’s games growing up, and it was an inspiring — and intimidating — experience.

“It was great,” Neal said. “Having a brother that made it to that level inspired me, but it put a lot of pressure on me because people expect me to fill his shoes. But I got to fill my own shoes before I can fill his.”

Neal said he is very close with his brother, who gives him both football and life lessons.

“We have a strong relationship,” Neal said of Hart, who was actually drafted by the Anaheim Angels in the 32nd round of the 2000 MLB Draft before he picked up the pigskin. “We talk daily and he has a real positive influence on my life. He’s always been there for me. The advice he gave me during the recruiting process was do your research and follow your heart. He loved it when I became a Gator because his wife is a Florida alumni. I’m also close to home and he lives in Ocala, so he can come watch my games.”

“I know he’s looking forward to that. He always works with me on my footwork and my hip movement. He just talks to me about different coverages. Florida has a very complex defense. It was hard to comprehend when I went to practice and the meetings. But he’s going to go over everything with me and help me out before I get there.”

The highlight of the month came on March 21, when Neal was invited to play in the Under Armour All-American Game.

“It’s a big honor,” Neal said. “Playing with the best of the best and being able to showcase my talent is very exciting. That was one of my goals and I definitely have worked hard to get to this point. It means a lot to me. I’m truly blessed to be given this opportunity and I’m going to make the most of it.”

The 6-foot-1, 200-pounder wrapped up the month with the IMG tournament last weekend in Bradenton. He had Daytona Beach Mainland linebacker and fellow UF verbal Quinton Powell on his team, which placed third overall.

Neal has taken part in several 7-on-7 tournaments with his high school, but IMG was on a different level.

“There was much more competition,” Neal said. “You had the top recruits from around the state coming together and going against each other. It was crazy.”

Neal said he formed a tight bond with Powell and Marcell Harris, a highly-touted safety and Gator legacy out of Orlando Dr. Phillips.

“Building a relationship with Quinton and Marcell was the best part of the trip,” Neal said. “Me and Quinton were doing the Gator chomp at Marcell all weekend. We were getting to him.”

With his brother’s background, his history with combines and his future as an All-American, one would think Neal is confident in a competitive environment.

It’s quite the opposite.

He wants to feel pressured and underestimated.

That’s when he’s at his best.

“I like to go into everything as the underdog,” Neal said. “Combine or game, it doesn’t matter. I don’t like to go into a situation thinking I’m the best. I want to think that I have to work my way up so I go harder than everybody else.”

Photo by the Orlando Sentinel.