CEDAR FALLS, Iowa — Ask Northern Iowa’s Ronelle McNeil what it’s like to sack a quarterback, and he’ll say what you’d expect to hear from a defensive lineman.
“How can I say this? It feels great,” said McNeil, a senior defensive lineman. “I’ll just keep it simple. It feels really good, when you hit the quarterback, to hear that sound of pain coming out of his voice.
It’s kind of relieving.”
In his first and only year as a starter for the Panthers, McNeil’s performance has been sound. He leads UNI with four sacks in five games and 7 1/2 tackles for loss. While the Panthers dropped a painful, 20-19 decision at Indiana State last weekend, McNeil enjoyed a good statistical day. He sacked Sycamore quarterback Mike Perish twice on the way to eight total stops. McNeil also forced a fumble, recovered by teammate Mac O’Brien.
While McNeil, a 6-foot-3, 250-pounder from St. Louis, Missouri, is listed as a defensive end, UNI head coach Mark Farley says McNeil is essentially an outside linebacker. It’s a relatively new spot for McNeil, and he’s making the adjustment.
— Ronelle McNeil
“Each week, he’s gotten a little bit better,” Farley said. “He understands it. He’s playing a position he’s made for but never played at all.”
McNeil’s getting a chance to showcase his range of skills. That opportunity didn’t come in a hurry.
At Hazelwood East High School, the same school that produced former Iowa standout Christian Kirksey, McNeil earned all-district honors and helped his team win a state championship. As a junior, he attended a combine in Texas, one of only a handful of players from St. Louis to go.
Yet, he said, he didn’t attract a horde of recruiters. Iowa and Missouri expressed some interest, but McNeil instead went to Iowa Central Community College as a walk-on.
According to McNeil, he played just one season of football for the Tritons in 2012. He used his time as a spur to prove himself to four-year programs.
“I had a lot of … angry thoughts,” McNeil said. “The whole time I was thinking, ‘You’re gonna regret passing up on me. You’re gonna remember why you should have picked me up instead of walking on somewhere.’
“It was all motivation.”
Then UNI came calling. Farley was recruiting another player on the Iowa Central roster and saw film of McNeil.
“We started the recruiting process there,” Farley said.
“Thankfully, UNI recruited me.” McNeil said. “Honestly, it was one of the best decisions I ever made.”
McNeil was listed as a backup linebacker in 2013 and made 13 tackles, including a pair of sacks. He also learned from Panther veterans about technique and how to work on the practice field.
With Collin Albrecht and Chris Jepsen gone, McNeil stepped into the openings along the defensive front seven.
“I feel like this year I’ve really gotten a chance to show what I can do,” he said. “We lost two great seniors at defensive end. That allowed me to step up my playing time and my roles. I took an emphasis on really trying to dominate this season instead of being a backup like last season.”
According to Farley, McNeil has helped solidify part of that defensive front. Now it’s a matter of finding the other pieces to go along with the senior and Xavier Williams.
“We’ve got half of it built,” Farley said. “We need two other guys to step up and pick up the other half.”
Meanwhile, McNeil wants to pick up his own game. He’s looking for the signature, go-to move for his pass rush.
“I don’t have a best move,” he said. “I just have moves. That’s something I hope to master by the end of the year.”