Tuesday, September 22, 2009

McNeill works his way into more playing time

Richard Anderson photos
At top, Wyoming freshman Chris McNeill makes a move after a catch during Tuesday's practice. At left, McNeill talks things over with freshman quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels.

By Richard Anderson
Wyoming Sports.org

A vicious hit during the first scrimmage of the fall sent freshman wide receiver Chris McNeill to the hospital.

It was a short, precautionary stay. Since then, McNeill has worked his way back onto the football field and in the Wyoming receiving rotation.

It was his first two catches last week in the loss to Colorado, not that early big hit, that has officially initiated him as a college football player.

"It helped me to just catch it and secure it. I was nervous at first, because I hadn’t caught anything in college before," McNeill said. "Getting that first one under my belt, I felt a lot better. I just have to keep working, and it starts on the practice field."

While McNeill was one of the top receiving prospects in head coach Dave Christensen’s first recruiting class, his chances to get on the field as a true freshman were likely buoyed by the fact that the Cowboys were a little thin in that position.

Christensen’s "best players will play" philosophy also gave him a boost.

"Coach told us at the beginning of the season, those who work hard, those who make the catches and make the plays, will have a chance to be on the field," McNeill said. "Obviously, practice is the most important thing, so I have been going as hard as I can in practice, trying to make plays for the offense. I’m just going to keep working my butt off and hopefully keep improving."

Not even thinking about that big early hit, McNeill said one of the things he noticed right away at Wyoming is the game is a lot faster than he was used to in high school.

"They are all a lot bigger, a lot stronger, a lot faster," he said. “Adjusting to that has been probably been the most difficult part for me. I think I am getting used to it, starting to adjust. The more experience I get, the better I will be."

Christensen said McNeill has worked his way into the lineup.

"He’s getting the experience of being in a game an making plays," Christensen said. "He got his first catch last week. For a lot of these young guys, it is just a matter of getting them more reps. The more experience they get, the more they will play."

Fellow freshman and roommate, Austyn Carta-Samuels said that McNeill has the talent to contribute right away. One of his catches against Colorado was proof of that.

"We have a lot of talented receivers and I think Chris has the best hands. His hands are amazing," Carta-Samuels said. "If you saw that ball that he caught against Colorado, I had to throw it early because the defense was prepared for it and I had to set him up. The ball was already in flight and he snapped his hands up there. For him to be able to do that as a freshman is special. He was a late recruit. He got bigger in his senior year and kind of exploded in his senior year. We’re lucky to have him here. It’s going to be awesome to see what he can do for the rest of the season."

It’s no secret that the Wyoming receiving corps has struggled this season, as has the offense as a whole. As a unit, McNeill said they are still learning and improving. Yet, he said that there is no doubt in his mind that the offense will turn it around and get better.

"I’m just going to do my part and contributing as a receiver, and I’m sure the other guys are going to do the same," he said. "We’re family, so we’re going to stand by each other and stick with each other and pick each other up when we are down. All of that stuff will help us in the long run to be a better team."

The Cowboys, 1-2, will open Mountain West Conference play Saturday when they host UNLV (1 p.m.). McNeill is looking forward to getting into league play. He said that playing Big 12 opponents like Texas and Colorado will go a long way in getting them ready for the MWC.

"Although we didn’t come out as we planned in the end, I think we’re a better team because of it," he said. "We’ve learned how to face adversity. Going into conference, I think we are more prepared, more ready for the teams that are coming our way because they are just as hungry as we are. We better be prepared as much as we can."

McNeill is also looking forward to seeing hoe his roommate -- Carta-Samuels -- does in his first start on the collegiate level. It’s been a good match for McNeill and Carta-Samuels on and off the field early on in their Wyoming careers.

Maybe it’s that California connection.

"Being that we’re both from California, we can both relate to a lot of the same things," McNeill said. "As far as being out here and being roommates, we help each other with the playbook and our opponents and all that stuff. We definitely have a strong bond going between the two of us."

Carta-Samuels said that he, McNeil and another true freshman, running back Alvester Alexander, are all close.

“It’s awesome. We spend a lot of time together and we’re hanging out all of the time,” Carta-Samuels said. “It’s been a lot of fun, not only this summer, but to see us all work our way up the depth chart.

"Now that we’re all here, one quote that I have heard in various movies, ‘with a great opportunity, comes responsibility.’ I think the three of us are going to take this responsibly and understand that we have a job to do."

That big early hit wasn’t McNeill’s first and it won’t likely be his last. He might have been a little slow to respond, but hard work has the freshman going full speed ahead.

"Sure, it was a big hit; sure, I’m going to get big hits," he said. "But the measure of a good receiver is how many of those big hits he can take and how fast he can get up. I was just excited to get back out there and get the opportunity to play."

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