Freshman quarterback Riley Neal, and other offensive players, look to the sideline for the next play during the game against Toledo on Oct. 2 at Scheumann Stadium. DN PHOTO BREANNA DAUGHERTY
Born and raised a Cardinal, Riley Neal's story
Before the first time Riley Neal played football, Ball State has been a big part of his life.
Less than eight miles is what has separated the true freshman quarterback from his home and where he would eventually further his education.
Hometown quarterback and football legacy, Neal is following in both his uncle's and dad's footsteps by playing on the Ball State football team.
Riley Neal Statistics
Completions-Attempts - 204-351
Completion Percentage - 58.1
Passing Yards - 2122
Touchdowns-Interceptions - 15-3
Running Yards - 400
Running Touchdowns - 2
For as long as Neal can remember, football has been an integral part in his family's house.
“You can't walk in my house and not see a football. In and around the living room, through lights, I don't know how my mom deals with it," Neal laughed. "My dad always pushed football. Obviously, I love football, so that was never forced upon me but 'highly encouraged.'”
GROWING UP A CARDINAL
Before ever tying flags around his waist to start playing football, Neal was already acclimated with some of Ball State's finest coaches and players.
Having grown up next to a coach's house a few miles away from the university, he got a taste of what was to come from a young age.
“I've known Coach [Joey] Lynch since he was playing quarterback here,” Neal said. "[Jeff] Hecklinski — he was the receivers coach here, and my mom and his wife were best friends. They were literally the house behind my yard.”
Neal had players near his house all the time.
“Back in the day, there would always be players [at the Hecklinskis] — Dante Love, Nate Davis all those guys,” Neal said. "Coach Lynch used to mow their yard so I would always try to see him. I'm obviously really close with Coach Lynch.
When Neal decided to start playing football in kindergarten, he was not at the same position he is playing today.
“I don't even think I played quarterback in flag football, I think I played running back — it was a long time ago,” Neal said. “Third grade, I was a defensive end a backup quarterback. I was probably better than the guy in front of me, but his dad was our coach.”
Throughout middle school, Neal continued to play as he continued to gain attention from coaches and the general public.
Mike Wilhelm, Neal's high school football coach, heard about what he was doing as a grade schooler and started getting excited about the prospect he would soon be coaching.
“He had the opportunity to play for his dad in middle school ... and they really geared that offense for that class,” Wilhelm said. “I think one of his first games ever as an eighth grader he threw ... like 60 times, ... which you just don't ever hear any middle schooler has ever thrown it that much, so we knew he could throw the ball.”
HIGH SCHOOL EXPERIENCE
Neal came into Yorktown High School as an average player on the freshman Junior Varsity team.
It wasn't until a few games into his sophomore year that Wilhelm knew exactly what kind of player Neal could be.
“Believe it or not, he was in a battle to start as a sophomore,” Wilhelm said. “We played two quarterbacks the first two games of the year, ... but I think by the end of that second game he was the starter — and he was the starter from there on out.”
He was able to earn the starting job by an increased focus on improving his throwing motion to become a better quarterback.
Lynch, a former quarterback for the Cardinals and current offensive coordinator, got the chance to see Neal at a football camp he helped run.
“I've known [Neal] for a long time and saw him as a young player really develop,” Lynch said. “I got to see a development from his freshman and sophomore [years] into ... junior year, and I knew he had a bright, bright future.”
Lynch chuckled as he recalled watching Neal play as a freshman in high school.
“[He was a] tall, long kid — still is,” Lynch said. “He was kind of gangly when he was a freshman growing into his body, [but] I knew he had a bright, bright future.”
His future was bright, as Neal kept a mindset of steady improvement that drove him to become the top quarterback prospect in the state by the end of his senior year.
“When I was growing up — as much as my dad pushed it on us — I always loved football," Neal said. "He didn't have to make me workout or go do this. I always wanted to.”
As the top prospect in the state, Neal had colleges from the Big Ten and Mid-American Conference recruiting him. Out of all of the MAC schools who reached out to the 6-foot-5 quarterback, there was no doubt where he would end up.
“Of all the MAC schools, Ball State, that's where I've grown up,” Neal said. “They've had a lot of success with quarterbacks. Nate Davis and Keith Wenning are both having a shot in the NFL, so they don't fall short in that category at all.”
Lynch, being a local himself, was one of the top guys that recruited Neal out of Yorktown. The offensive coordinator didn't have to sell much — being just a few minutes away from home and representing his family's alma mater was enough for Neal.
“[I have known Neal] and his family for a long time, so ... I think there was a natural trust between us, myself and the Neals," Lynch said. “I think also with his dad and uncle both being former Ball State football players that both did a special place in his heart, and I think [he'd] be excited to follow in their footsteps.”
CONTINUING THE FAMILY LEGACY
As a student-athlete, Neal understood that his collegiate experience was about the education first, while also balancing playing for a Division I football team.
“You're here for school first because no matter how much in the NFL you play — even the greatest players are lucky to play into their 40s — you still got half your life to live,” Neal said.
Before the season started, there was a battle for the starting quarterback, as Jack Milas was officially named as the starting quarterback for the Cardinals before the season began. This was a spot he won from Ozzie Mann midway through last season.
Neal may not have expected to win the starting job so early, but realizes it's something that every freshman wants coming into college.
“I don't know what I expected, but that's definitely what I wanted,” Neal said. “Everyone wants to come in and play as soon as they can, but I didn't know what to expect, really. I just knew that I was going to come in and do my best and see what happens from there.”
Since earning the starting role for the Cardinals, he has shown what he can do on the field.
Neal is averaging 212.2 yards per game in the 10 games he has played this season. And his total passing yards this season ranks seventh among freshman quarterbacks this season.
His 58.1 pass completion percentage is good for tenth among freshman quarterbacks as well.
Out of the 351 times he has thrown the ball this year, he has only thrown three interceptions.
The ability to throw downfield as well as scramble out of the pocket makes Neal a dual-threat quarterback to deal with.
While the running ability complements his game well, Neal admits that it is a relatively new addition to his game.
“I just kind of go with the flow of whatever needs to be done. I just kind of play,” Neal said. “It's kind of a natural thing, though. ... A lot of the times, if you're running you either have it or you don't have it.”
Neal has accounted for 21 percent of the team's carries, which is good for 400 yards this season.
Though Neal is no longer playing for Yorktown, his old coach still shows his support by attending every home game and watching all the away games on TV.
The two talk occasionally, but mainly so Neal can teach his old coach how to run things on the field.
“I seek information from him, more than anything else, on how Ball State goes about doing what they do and how he's coached,” Wilhelm said. “I guess it's more for me.”
Wilhelm let out a laugh.
“I just want to learn from what he's learning and try to become a better coach for our current players, so those are most of my questions,” Wilhelm said.
INSPIRING HIS BROTHER
Football runs deep in the Neal household. Neal's younger brother, Reed, has begun playing football as well.
“When I was growing up, I was athletic, but you can tell [Reed's] the best athlete on the field every game he's played,” Riley said. “I was watching him, and I think he threw three [touchdowns], ran two and had a 94-yard pick-six. I almost had as much fun watching him as I did playing, it's weird.”
Riley got to see his little brother play but got a bit of a surprise in a numerical change to his uniform.
“I went to his first game of the season and he had been wearing number 12, which is what I wore in high school,” Riley said. “I go to [another] game, and he's wearing number 11, [but] obviously, I don't care at all. I texted him at the end and said, 'Hey, good game and all, what's up with the number?' He — sarcastic little guy — he responded and said, 'I'm trying to start my own legacy.'"
Reed will begin his high school career next season, and Riley has confidence that he will be able to build that legacy soon.
Being the younger brother, Reed wasn't as interested in pursuing football from a younger age, but as Riley developed his game, Reed's interest piqued.
“My brother is kind of different. He's his own person,” Riley said. “He wasn't so into [football] growing up, but I think once he saw me having success it's made him want to go train. We always train with this guy down in Fishers, [Ind]. I can just tell he's more into it.”
Wrapping up his freshman season, the future is bright for the Yorktown quarterback, but the focus is here and now.
“Every kid grows up wanting to play in professional sports,” Riley said. “Obviously, I'm years and tons of experience from that, if it was even a thought, but I think just about 100 percent of people who play college football would love to take their shot at the NFL.”
Lynch is also taking it day-by-day with the young quarterback, but still sees the possibility of Riley elevating his game to the next level.
“It's a long way away, we just worry about today and tomorrow,” Lynch said. “I think he got a little bit better in practice and he's going to do the same thing tomorrow, but he's got a bright future and, naturally, has the frame size. He'll get bigger in the weight room, but he has a long way to go. But he'll keep working, and who knows.”