This story originally appeared in the December issue of Hail Varsity. Make sure you don’t miss more stories like this by subscribing today.
What were you doing on July 20? Do you remember? It wasn’t that long ago.
Tre Neal decided to become a Husker that day. It would last 127 days.
The headlines spread quickly about the safety from Central Florida who planned to join Scott Frost in Lincoln. And with only 14 days until the start of Nebraska’s fall camp, Neal had to get moving.
He moved so quickly, in fact, that Neal arrived to a one-bedroom apartment off campus. He had wanted to live with some of his new teammates, but the Nebraska staff wasn’t sure something would become available in time.
When Neal showed up for his new Nebraska headshot, he was told it wouldn’t be possible. Those are typically taken months before the season begins. The Huskers opted to use Neal’s most recent photo from UCF instead. The dark grey background of his photo stands out in a sea of beige on the team roster.
Yet, when Neal showed up to Nebraska’s first practice of fall camp on Friday, Aug. 3, he didn’t act like someone who had just uprooted his entire life in two weeks. He appeared like a seasoned pro, like someone not only familiar with the staff and their expectations but someone with Husker history.
Within a week and a half, defensive backs coach Travis Fisher was calling Neal the “quarterback of the defense.” Neal was volunteering to play on special teams, something special teams coordinator Jovan Dewitt appreciated. Sophomore defensive back Dicaprio Bootle started to think of Neal as “coach.”
Neal quickly became invaluable to not only the Nebraska defense, but to the entire team and its coaches.
It was as if he had been there all along.
However, it was another name that kept coming up.
“Hey, you need to have a look at this kid.”
“This kid does it all. He’s a receiver. We line him up at running back. He’s a defensive back by trait.”
“He’s a leader and one of those kids you’d love to have on your football team.”
That kid was Neal. The Buford coaches raved about the 3-star recruit who helped lead the Wolves to back- to-back Georgia AAA state titles as a junior and senior. Neal was a little underrated, potentially in part because of the talent that surrounded him at Buford. Still, his résumé was impressive.
Neal was an honorable mention all-state selection as a senior, recording 54 tackles as well as 31 catches for 413 yards and two touchdowns as a wide receiver. By the time he graduated, he’d recorded 97 tackles, seven tackles for loss, two forced fumbles, eight pass breakups and four interceptions during his Buford career. He also added 66 catches for 824 yards and five touchdowns as a receiver.
“When I went to that high school, they really told me about him and they really sold me from Day 1,” Beckton said. “As I started to watch him and be around him
a little bit more and meeting his family, he was a really, really big push for us to get him to the University of Central Florida.”
On Feb. 3, 2014, Neal made it official. He committed to UCF, two days before National Signing Day, selecting the Knights over offers from Kansas State, Cincinnati, Miami, West Virginia and quite a few others.
Beckton knew the Knights had gotten something special in Neal. It wasn’t until he arrived on campus, however, that the UCF coaching staff really understood what kind of player they’d just received. They’d heard a little bit about it during his recruitment — “Tre makes sure everyone knows what they’re doing on offense and defense” — but they saw it first-hand the moment he stepped on campus.
“When he got to UCF, he was in the room with (wide receiver) Tre’Quan Smith and (tight end) Jordan Franks, and those two guys are now in the NFL,” Beckton said. “He was the guy that I would go to make sure those guys were in the correct place for us and getting over to meetings and what not. If those guys were late for anything, he took it upon himself to make sure those guys were where they needed to be.”
Beckton, along with the rest of the UCF coaching staff, leaned heavily on Neal. He became the guy that would not only keep his teammates in check but would do so in a way that was relatable and genuine. Neal has always believed holding his teammates accountable would also directly help him improve — “Pushing yourself is hard,” he said — so that’s what he did.
His teammates took notice. Even players that were older than Neal, such as cornerback Shaquill Griffin, quickly realized what UCF had.
“I always tell people he was the smartest person on our defense,” Griffin said. “He’s the one that made everything work and put everything together, like who was in the right spot. It made it easier for him to do that because he is a genuinely good guy. He cares about everybody, and he makes sure everybody is doing great.”
Two of those players that Neal helped to be great — Smith and Franks — recently met again on the football field. This time, they were with their respective NFL teams, the New Orleans Saints and the Cincinnati Bengals.
Beckton laughed thinking back on it.
“I told Tre, ‘Man, you bailed me out on those two and making sure those guys were in place early on in their career because you really were more mature than them,’” Beckton said. “Those guys are now in the big-time limelight thanks in part to you.”
It was the 2015 season that was unexpected. The Knights only returned nine starters that season, but the defensive line, quarterback and running back positions all looked strong. Preseason projections had UCF winning at least six games and heading to a bowl game.
Instead, UCF dropped its first two games — Florida International (15- 14) and Stanford (31-7). Both could be justified to some degree though. The FIU loss was by only one point. The Stanford matchup was on the road. It was the 16-15 loss to Furman in Week 3 when it seemed as if something might really be wrong.
O’Leary resigned on Oct. 24 following the Knights’ 59-10 loss to Houston. UCF finished 0-12 for the third time in program history.
Things looked bleak in Orlando. Righting the UCF ship seemed like an impossible task, and the team was fractured as a result. That was until Central Florida hired an up-and-coming coach — Scott Frost.
The former Nebraska quarterback immediately restored a love of football in Neal and his teammates. Frost went to work repairing what was broken at Central Florida and the Knights finished the 2016 regular season 6-6, earning a trip to the Cure Bowl. Neal finished his sophomore season with 21 total tackles (11 solo).
Through it all, Frost saw the same thing every coach before had also seen in Neal.
“You don’t have to talk to him very long to recognize his intelligence,” Frost said. “He’s one of the football players that you know is going to have everything down and have the capability to lead other people because of how smart he is. That was evident really early on.”
It was especially evident as Neal went up against senior safeties at Central Florida for playing time. Neal also wasn’t afraid to do what was needed to help the team. Want him on special teams? He’ll do it. How about another position? No problem.
That mentality paid off for Neal. He started all 13 games his junior season, helping lead Central Florida to a 13-0 record. Neal racked up 68 total tackles (including 41 solo stops) and a pair of tackles for loss along the way, as well as three interceptions and three pass breakups. His final interception of the season was vital, too. It was the game-ending interception in the second overtime of UCF’s victory over Memphis in the American Athletic Conference Championship Game, which propelled the Knights into the Peach Bowl to face Auburn.
Neal’s performance in Atlanta was just as strong. He had seven tackles and a pass breakup, as well as a recovered fumble that he returned 36 yards.
Neal’s time off the field was just as impressive. UCF selected him as one of four defensive players to address the media at a formal press conference and in a breakout session leading up to the game. It wasn’t an easy environment either, as players such as Neal fielded questions from both Central Florida and Nebraska reporters.
Frost had been named Nebraska’s new head coach roughly a month prior to the Peach Bowl. Neal and others did their best to focus on the task at hand, just as Frost did the same to prepare the team for one last game together.
Yet, it was never going to be Neal’s final game with Frost. He may not have known it then, but it was only a matter of time until things changed for Neal once again.
Neal started looking around at possible graduate transfer options. That’s when he saw it. Nebraska — where Frost and the entire UCF coaching staff were now — had a dental college. Even better, there was a program within it that he thought he might
put all my marbles into that because it’s not smart for my future.”
“It was one of those things where I need to set myself up for the future, 40 years from now. I can’t play football forever,” Neal said. “If I can play in the National Football League, that’d be great, but I can’t put all my marbles into that because it’s not smart for my future.
“Once I found out that Nebraska had a dental college, it was an easy decision. I could come up here, work on my dental stuff and help these guys get the program where they want it. It was a win-win for both of us.”
While the decision was made, tough conversations still had to happen. Neal started talking to friends, family and teammates about the possibility of leaving UCF. He was quickly met with plenty of support. Griffin told him “to go play for them.” He knew Frost and the rest of the staff would look out for Neal’s best interests at Nebraska.
Plus, Griffin had seen first-hand what Frost had done for a guy like Neal. He had done the same for Griffin and his brother, Shaquem.
“I could tell the difference Frost and the coaches made in his game,” Griffin said. “When those coaches came to UCF, I feel like we needed that change. They brought the passion back to the game and that love. After you spend some time playing for coaches like that, you gravitate toward them.
“You fall in love with the coaches like that, and it becomes more than football. It’s a family. We all fell in love with those coaches.”
It was still hard for Neal to leave the guys he’d spent four years with. He could still remember the day he arrived in Orlando, vividly. He could even feel the heat of the day on his skin as he walked on campus for the first time. He’d miss his friends and the ability to wear shorts in December.
Neal had to take the leap anyway.
He also became the glue for the secondary, which quickly gravitated toward the senior after practices and games. So much so, quarterback Adrian Martinez — whose locker was next to Neal’s — would find his locker area overrun by defensive backs.
It all started after Nebraska’s loss to Colorado. The secondary was standing in the middle of the locker room talking, which wasn’t the most convenient of places to rehash what had just happened. Neal moved the group toward his locker, a corner spot a little more out of the way.
From then on, players like Bootle would meet at Neal’s locker after every practice and game. They’d often sit in their practice gear or game pads, lost in time and conversation.
“It’s free game, really,” Bootle said. “We chop it up some, talk about some things that
happened at practice or in a game and then from there, we might spend an hour or an hour and a half just in the locker room talking, getting closer and creating a bond.
“These are the people and moments that you’re going to remember for the rest of your life.”
None of it surprises sophomore quarterback Noah Vedral, either. He spent his freshman season at Central Florida and was in the same corner of the locker room with Neal in Orlando. He watched as players were drawn to Neal like a magnet then, similar to how they were at Nebraska this season. Vedral and Neal may be in a new locker room in an entirely different program, but only a few lockers still separate them. Like Martinez, he often loses his space to the defensive backs on the team. He doesn’t mind because Neal’s advice and help reaches far beyond just those in the same position group.
Even Martinez found himself often leaning on Neal throughout his freshman season. He’s not sure if the coaches purposely put him right next to Neal, but he’s glad they did.
“He’s been great for me,” Martinez said. “He’s always been able to put things in perspective really well. When we were going through that losing streak, he would keep a level-head and could see the bigger picture.
“He’s just been there from the beginning, showing how to be a leader.”
And that leadership was important, especially for a secondary that needed a boost. Nebraska was ranked 102nd in S&P+ in 2017, as well as last in the Big Ten in pass break-ups. Things needed to change.
Neal didn’t watch much film from Nebraska’s 2017 season, but he did watch one specific game: The Huskers’ 56-14 loss to Ohio State.
“They looked like they were afraid to make tackles, to make plays, to make plays on the ball,” Neal said. “Probably because they got killed for it, punished for it. I guess I don’t know. What I do know is that when we were 0-12 at UCF, that was the same thing we were doing.”
He watched as cornerback Lamar Jackson hesitated to turn and look for the ball, as well as playing the technique correctly.
“I was like, ‘Dude. You’re 6-foot-3, 215 pounds,’” Neal said.
He saw Jackson’s talent, just as he saw Bootle’s as Bootle matched up with Ohio State wide receiver Parris Campbell. That one game told Neal a lot and it inspired him. He wanted to be a wealth of knowledge for the Huskers, and he was ready to help however Frost and the coaches needed.
By the end of Nebraska’s 2018 season, Bootle led the Big Ten in pass break-ups (15). The Huskers were first as a team in PBU in the conference as a result. Nebraska also improved 48 spots in S&P+ to 54th in 2018 from the season before.
“I think there are a lot of guys in the secondary that have really improved as the year has gone on, and I think a lot of that has to do with Tre Neal,” Frost said. “He’s an example of how to do things and how to do them right.”
“Tre has meant a lot. It’s hard to put it into words,” Bootle said. “Just having him in the secondary this year, it really made us better.”
“But it has to be somewhere warm,” Neal joked.
And if the NFL doesn’t work out? Neal has options. He’d happily come back to Nebraska and finish his dental degree. Or maybe he’ll coach. He hasn’t really decided what he’ll do yet if the NFL doesn’t pan out, but that will come in time.
Frost wants Neal to chase his dreams. However, he already knows Neal would make a great coach. He often catches him in the graduate assistant offices, watching film and talking about the defense. So, if it doesn’t pan out professionally, Frost will be waiting.
“Usually when someone wants to get into coaching, you either have a spot for them or you help them go somewhere,” Frost said. “Best thing I can say about him is that I’d love it if it were here.”
However, Griffin expects Frost will be waiting a little while.
“One of the first things I ever told him when he got to UCF is that one day he’ll be a coach,” Griffin said. “He definitely will be one day. I definitely see that in his future, but Scott Frost is going to have to wait.
“Tre’s going to have a long NFL career first.”
It’s hard to predict what the future has in store for Neal. What isn’t hard to predict is the impact he will have left on Nebraska when he leaves. Both his coaches and teammates expect his legacy to live on long after he’s gone, even if his name will never live on the walls of Memorial Stadium or in the Husker history books.
Neal is OK with that, too.
“I hope that my legacy is that guys will say, ‘Oh, yeah. I remember Tre talking about this or Tre doing this.’ I hope they remember the things we talked about, like, ‘I remember Tre telling me to watch out for this on this play or this on that play,’” Neal said. “If I have that kind of legacy, I think I’m fine not going down in any record books.”
As Neal got off the plane in Lincoln following Nebraska’s 31-28 loss to Iowa, his collegiate career was officially over. The Huskers had just ended their season, 4-8. He had started all 12 games, ending with 57 total tackles, including a career-high-tying two tackles for loss. He also forced two fumbles, intercepted one pass and recorded five pass breakups.
There was a lot Neal could have been thinking about at that moment. He was instead focused on something else that evening. He was watching UCF and his former teammates defeat South Florida. It was hard to believe he had been in gold and black not long ago. Even more unbelievable was that he was now dressed in scarlet and cream and heading back to Memorial Stadium with his new teammates and a lot of new friends.
It had only been four months and four days since the news broke that Neal would leave Orlando for Lincoln. It was a whirlwind and it went hardly as he expected it to, but he was content. Even if he couldn’t really understand where the time had gone.
“This journey was long, but it was short,” Neal said. “It’s something I’ll never forget.”
Neal’s Nebraska career lasted only 127 days. He’ll be a Husker much longer.