CEDAR RAPIDS — For Demetruce McNeal, it’s all about getting healthy and back to the National Football League.
If his early play is any indicator, it might not be a long wait.
McNeal recorded a game-high eight tackles and intercepted a pass on the first defensive drive of the game as the Cedar Rapids Titans defense rudely welcomed the Iowa Barnstormers to the Indoor Football League with a 51-20 thrashing Saturday in the inaugural Iowa Bowl before 5,275 fans at the U.S. Cellular Center.
“It’s just all preparation,” McNeal said. “Just knowing what’s going on in that defensive backfield, and that’s all about communication. When we communicate, that’s what happens out there. We eliminate easy touchdowns and deep balls.”
Last summer, the 6-foot-2, 200-pound defensive back survived the final cuts during training camp with the Green Bay Packers, but injured an ankle later in camp.
The Packers recommended McNeal take the 2014 season off. Now, he’s ready to prove he is healthy in the Indoor Football League.
“It’s been a great adjustment for me,” McNeal said. “Adjusting to a new game and new rules. One thing about this game that is different than the other one that I like more is (that) it’s kind of easy to guard receivers at this level because it’s little routes that they can run.”
The high-motion offenses of the IFL have provided McNeal with his biggest challenge. With receivers charging off the line of scrimmage at full speed, McNeal has been forced to speed up his backpedal and when he comes out of his breaks.
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“Athletic kid and showing that he can do it,” Cedar Rapids Coach Mark Stoute said. “He’s a little bit more of a man (coverage) guy, more of a safety running downhill. We’re going to ask him to do some different things because he is very long ... but he’s stepped up to the challenge. We’ve had some conversations with some NFL teams and what they project him as, so we’re trying now to feature him and move him in the direction that we think gets him marketed back to the next level.”
McNeal was recruited out of Banneker High School in College Park (Ga.) by former Iowa State Coach Gene Chizik at Auburn. McNeal played three years for the Tigers, including 13 games as a freshman on Auburn’s 2010 national championship season.
“It showed me how to win,” McNeal said. “What it really takes to get to that big stage.”
McNeal grew up competing against fellow Georgian Cam Newton, who won the Heisman Trophy for that Auburn national championship team.
“It was a great experience just to see a freak of nature like that,” McNeal said. “I’ve been knowing Cam since we were real little, toddlers. We’re real tight.”
McNeal was dismissed from Auburn before his senior year after an arrest for marijuana possession, and transferred to Division II West Alabama for his senior year.
His impact with the Titans has been immediate.
“Everything just slowed down,” McNeal said, “And the game just came to me. Just knowing where to be and what’s coming.”
After former Iowa Hawkeyes and current NFL players Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens officiated the coin toss, the Barnstormers jumped on top early when former Cedar Rapids defensive back T.J. Simmons returned a fumble 45 yards for a touchdown. But the Barnstormers offense never really got off the ground as the Titans ran off 30 unanswered points to blow the game open in the second quarter, 30-6.
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The Barnstormers moved from the Arena Football League to the IFL during the offseason, and in a league geared toward offense, it was the Cedar Rapids defense that dominated. The Titans registered eight sacks, defensive lineman Xzavie Jackson blocked two field goals, and McNeal and backfield mate Arius Wright combined for three interceptions.
“It looks like we’re all gelling together,” Wright said as he cradled the Iowa Bowl traveling trophy. “We’re where we’re supposed to be on time. We have to thank the d-line for getting the pressure that they do. Without those boys, none of this would be possible.”
Cedar Rapids quarterback Sam Durley threw for 141 yards and a pair of touchdowns with one interception.
“Definitely got in a little comfort zone,” Durley said. “Got to get those first-game nerves out of the way those first couple of series...I think when we’re in a rhythm, we’re going to do really well.”
Running back Washaun Ealy ran for 46 yards and three short touchdowns, while receiver Bryan Pray caught five passes for 69 yards and two scores.
“A good win, a good start,” Stoute said. “And now let’s get ready for Sioux Falls for the big battle next week.”
Defending IFL champion Sioux Falls, which put up 66 points in its victory at Bemidji Saturday, will play Cedar Rapids next Saturday at the U.S. Cellular Center.
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