JACKSONVILLE — Siran Neal, still wearing most of his uniform, with a tall sprig of hair finally freed from a helmet and standing upright, took a seat behind a table in a sixth-floor room in the Jacksonville State press box.
Were he to perform a mental checklist while waiting his turn in the postgame news conference, it’d be something like this:
Neal is a Jax State defensive back, a junior from Eufala who was in on eight tackles and a forced fumble in the victory over Coastal Carolina.
He has been encouraged by his cousin, Eric Walker, to make a list of three goals for each game. Said Neal, “He’s the type of guy who keeps my head on straight.”
On the occasion of the Gamecocks’ one-point victory over Coastal Carolina, the goals were:
Play hard every play. Focus on my keys. Get an interception.
The interception will likely carry over to this week’s list, as third-ranked Jacksonville State travels to Liberty University for a Saturday night 6 p.m. game in Lynchburg, Va., at 19,200-seat Williams Stadium.
The scouting report from Neal:
“They’ve got a lot of keys and stuff that throw you off. As a defense we have to lock in and focus on what we’ve got to do at every position. We’ve got to lock in. (Liberty) is not like anybody we’ve seen. They’ve got a lot of spread, and they use their receivers a lot. It’s going to be a very big game for the defensive backs.”
The secondary hasn’t exactly been picked apart in the Gamecocks’ first three games, but it has managed only one interception and has yielded some demoralizing long gains. Liberty provides a challenge with two quarterbacks who’ll likely share time and a more varied offense than what JSU saw last week.
Neal’s superb performance against Coastal Carolina was a nice bounce-back from one of the most difficult moments of this young season.
Neal was the first man on the scene at the end of a punt at LSU, slamming into returner artist La’Davious White a split-second after the ball was caught on the Tiger 40. Neal wrapped White up to make the tackle, but the momentum knocked White back on his heels and Neal loosened his grip. White reversed his field, retreating nearly to the 20, before turning the corner and zipping up the right sideline, 10 other Gamecock defenders left in the dust. A 20-10 lead grew to 27-10 at the half.
“That ate me alive after the game,” Neal said. “I wondered if that changed momentum for them. Everybody said, ‘Look, you had a great game,’ but at the end of the day, I know I did this and that I should have made the tackle. … I should have wrapped him up and got him on the ground. My fault.”
Neal’s cousin has provided more inspiration beyond a checklist of goals. Walker is serving in the Navy, and Neal wants to join the service once he’s finished with football.
“I’m not a sit-behind-a-desk, sit-at-home guy,” Neal said. “I’d rather explore the world.”
He’s majoring in criminal justice, figuring that’ll be a springboard into a high rank and good position once he enters the military, whichever branch he chooses.
Though Neal is a junior in eligibility, he’s on track to graduate in December with a degree in criminal justice, the first member of his family with a college degree.
“It’s a very exciting feeling,” he said. “I can’t really explain it. One thing, I’m happy I’m graduating. Another thing, it’s like, ‘Aw, I’m getting old.’ But I’m really proud of myself that I could graduate in 3½ years.”
Consider that another check mark for a to-do list of goals.