Underrated McNeill provides big production for Cornhuskers

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Most college recruiters had the same kind of grandiose plans for Mike McNeill when they were recruiting him.

Specifically, McNeill heard a lot about catching passes and little about knocking opposing defenders down. And even with the disparity from what everybody else was telling him, McNeill liked when he heard Nebraska offensive coordinator Shawn Watson explain to him that he would develop into a multi-faceted tight end with the Cornhuskers.

Sure, there were would be his fair share of receptions. But the Cornhusker coaches also harped on blocking technique and what a bigger, stronger McNeill could accomplish in the program.

Three years later, the 6-foot-4, 240-pound McNeill has developed into one of the most underrated players in the Big 12 and a prominent reason why many are thinking the Cornhuskers can challenge for the North Division title this season.

"I'm definitely happy with my decision," McNeill said. "In general, I really liked the way they use me in this offense. I'm catching passes, but I'm also getting my hand on the ground and blocking, too. It's not exactly old-school, because I'm catching passes. But I'm still blocking, too."

McNeill developed into an integral offensive weapon last season for the Cornhuskers, setting a school record for tight ends with 32 receptions. He also produced six touchdown receptions and several memorable plays, including a pivotal 53-yard touchdown grab against Colorado.

That strong production could be a foreshadowing of a big season for him in 2009. Some already are projecting him as a potential challenger for All-Big 12 honors -- big claims considering the presence of players like Oklahoma's Jermaine Gresham at his position.

It starts with his soft hands and quickness. But McNeill has also developed his talents as a punishing blocker and his route-running abilities, both skills that have taken time to develop during his time as a collegian.

"My blocking has come a long ways," McNeill said. "I didn't block a whole lot in high school because I was fairly oversized from everybody else. But my blocking has come a long ways. I'm not as timid and learned to fire off one the ball. That's where a lot of development has come."

Coming into college, McNeill was known more as a receiver after a strong high-school career in Kirkwood, Mo., where he as a teammate of former Missouri All-American Jeremy Maclin.

His development as a Nebraska player had a couple of obstacles. He played more soccer than football when he was younger. And his father, a Texas graduate, cheered for the Longhorns above all else during his adolescence.

"It was a little different," McNeill said, chuckling. "But I really didn't follow football too much until high school. I was playing more soccer than anything else."

Earlier in his career, McNeill's development was stunted by a disappointing series of injuries. He struggled with turf toe, a fractured right hand, shoulder surgery and hamstring pulls in both legs earlier during his time at Nebraska.

"It was frustrating going through everything like that at once," McNeill said. "I didn't know if I was ready to play in college football. It was just something I learned to have to push through.

But his return to health last season, coinciding with the arrival of new coach Bo Pelini, was a revelation.

"Once I got the chance, it was great," McNeill said. "I have a lot of confidence going into this season building what I've been able to do so far."

One recurring problem was his inability to keep on weight during the season. He dropped nearly 20 pounds last season, finding meals difficult to cram in because of his busy schedule with classes and practice.

McNeill's chances to develop big numbers might be affected a little by the Cornhuskers' strength at the position. Nebraska's five-deep rotation at tight end is helping alleviate some of the fears caused with the loss of starting receivers Nate Swift and Todd Peterson from last season.

Behind McNeill include junior Dreu Young, sophomore Ryan Hill and talented freshmen Ben Cotton and Kyle Reed. All are expected to contribute over the course of 2009 season, helping with the transition of likely Nebraska starting quarterback Zac Lee.

The Cornhuskers can mix and match their talents at the position, but McNeill is clearly the most adept at a variety of skills.

"I think we've got a great group," McNeill said. "The younger guys are coming on. There are different things we can do well. It should help us with all of the different things all of us can do."