Safeties split time

By Tony McDaniel

A freshman safety created a depth issue for the Salukis, but it is one they will be happy to deal with.

Junior safety Anthony Thompson and freshman safety Ryan Neal split time in the Saluki defense. Head coach Dale Lennon said Neal was ready to play from the start of practices.

“In pre-fall camp he showed some instincts right away that were pretty impressive,” he said. “He has athletic talent and that physical maturity that you need in a college football player.”

Advertisement

Thompson started for SIU in week one against Taylor University and Neal started every game since. The two players do not look at it as a position battle, but a rotation, so they can stay rested during games.

Thompson said there is a friendly relationship between the two players.

“We get to help each other,” he said. “If he sees something he’ll tell me. If I see something he didn’t see, I’ll let him know.”

They have combined for 22 tackles this season, 18 of which are Neal’s.

“I can’t even lie, I’m kind of surprised,” he said. “It didn’t really sink in until last week when we walked out on Purdue’s field. I was like ‘I’m doing something that’s not common.’ It feels pretty good.”

Thompson said he did not expect to be the starter despite playing in 12 games last season. His goal was to help the team as much as possible, which includes helping Neal.

“When he came in I tried to help him out with the calls since he wasn’t here in the spring,” Thompson said. “He picked it up fast, which is good, then he got his playing time.”

Advertisement

Thompson said Neal picked up the defensive system quickly because of his high intellect. When the coaches told him to correct something, he did it, Thompson said.

Neal said when he came to the university he did not expect to receive significant playing time his freshman season. He said people called him undersized, but it did not concern him.

“I was focused to not get redshirted,” he said. “I thought I would, because of my weight.”

He said he was just concerned with making the roster as a special team player.

“My focus was to make the special teams immediately. I did not think I’d be rotating or starting, but I did think I was going to make the kickoff or some kind of special team.”

Ryan is not the first member of the Neal family to play Division I football; the family has a strong football pedigree. His brother Matthew plays defensive tackle for the University of Idaho. His oldest brother Mike played outside linebacker for Purdue University before being drafted by the Green Bay Packers.

Neal said he and his brothers pushed each other to be better when they were growing up.

“We all went to the same high school,” he said. “My brother would always say, ‘I bet you can’t do this, I bet you can’t make this team or that team.’ So it was definitely competition. I want to be better than my oldest brother.”

Mike won a Super Bowl with the Packers in 2011.

He said Mike’s success makes him push to get the same level.

“He did the Super Bowl, he got the ring. I’ve seen the ring and it just gives you hope,” Neal said. “If he can do it, I can do it.”

Neal said he is still progressing at the Division I level.

“Every week I learn something new,” he said. “Every time I make a mistake on the field or during game day coach tells me to fix it … You just keep doing what you’ve got to do, and you learn something new every week.”

Advertisement