PANAMA CITY — Keith McNeil isn’t experiencing a holiday break like most high school students. As a member of Bay’s boys basketball team he’ll be participating in the annual Barnstorm Classic tournament that begins on Thursday and runs through next Saturday.
Once that event ends, McNeil will trade his sneakers for cleats and begin practice for the All-American Bowl Game Classic high school football showcase that is scheduled for Jan. 3 at Tommy Oliver Stadium.
The competition against some of the better high school seniors nationwide will be good preparation for McNeil playing Division I football beginning next fall. He has verbally committed to the University of South Alabama and the added exposure could garner other offers before national signing day in February.
It is somewhat of a whirlwind two weeks for McNeil, who used his 2013 season as preparation for the next phase of his life.
McNeil is The News Herald’s Defensive Player of the Year off his consistent performance for the most consistent defense in the county this fall.
A 6-foot-3, 230-pound defensive end, McNeil has progressed a long way from being able to bench press only 95 pounds when he first arrived at Bay.
“He got stronger and a lot more technically sound,” Tornadoes head coach Jimmy Longerbeam said. “He matured a lot as a student, as a kid, and he matured a lot as a football player.”
McNeil freely admitted he wasn’t known for having a great motor in 2012.
“As a junior, I took some plays off,” he said. “Coaches talked to me about my attitude for the game.”
McNeil not only had 49 tackles, but that statistic was augmented by seven sacks and being among county leaders in quarterback hurries and caused fumbles.
His consistent play elevated him among a group of defensive standouts that included Dario and Dominique Batiste of Arnold, Banton Price, Aaron Mendoza and Zack Warnick of Mosley, teammate Markeis Goodman at Bay and Austin Johnson of Rutherford.
“I’d be willing to be that most people we played wanted to find out where he was on every play,” Longerbeam said.
What stood out to McNeil was rocketing off the line to cause two fumbles against Marianna before the ball carrier had time to secure the handoff and the performance of the entire defensive unit in a win against Rutherford.
“The way I rushed the quarterback and played as a team player,” McNeil listed his attributes. His leadership also was critical on a unit that at times featured as many as eight or nine underclassmen on the field.
“I think I need to improve on using my hands coming off the ball and I still need to get stronger.”
The latter is a given considering that McNeil’s maximum bench press still is well shy of 300 pounds. Both coach and player think he will continue in his present defensive end position at the next level.
“He’s long and explosive,” Longerbeam said. “I think he’s got a good chance to be real good down the road.”