MAGNOLIA — As South Pike prepared for its first home game of the 2021 season, head coach Brinson Wall knew he needed to get DJ McNeil much more involved.
The senior wide receiver, one of just two returning starters on the Eagles’ offense, had been kept quiet in the team’s first two games through no fault of his own. As South Pike found its identity with a young team after missing two games in quarantine, the passing game wasn’t working.
To make sure McNeil got more touches against Stone County on Sept. 24, then, the staff decided to give him more chances as a running back.
“When you’re throwing the ball, you’re not guaranteed you’re gonna get it to DJ. A lot of things have to happen right for us to get it to him,” Wall said. “If I just hand it to him, I know he’s gonna get it. So that was kind of our thought process behind it, and it worked and we’ve continued to add to that each week.”
South Pike called a handoff to McNeil on its first offensive snap that night despite only installing the play one day before. The senior broke loose for a 95-yard touchdown.
“I said, ‘We run this (on the) first play of the game, we’re gonna score.’ … The referee gave us the ball on the 5, and Coach Wall was like, ‘Forget it,’ and he called that play,” McNeil said. “I remember I just saw a hole and my linemen were blocking, and I knew once I got out in space, nobody was gonna catch me.”
McNeil ran for 156 yards on five carries that night. And he’s morphed into an all-purpose back for the Eagles as their season has progressed.
Watch McNeil once and it’s easy to see what makes him so dangerous — pure, blazing speed. He’s run the 40-yard dash in 4.3 seconds, and it carries over to the game. Wall saw the potential when McNeil was on South Pike’s junior-high team; he was the fastest player on the field even back then.
“We knew early on that he was a kid that could really run, and that’s what it’s all about,” Wall said. “If you can run, you can play this game, and you see it on every level from junior high to the NFL. If you’re fast, good things can happen.”
McNeil started as a sophomore on an Eagles team that went 13-1 and reached the third round of the playoffs. With fellow wideout Alex Adams playing for LSU in 2020, McNeil became South Pike’s top receiving threat. And it helped that quarterbacks like Dontavious Turner in 2019 and Chris Royal in 2020 were adept at delivering him the ball.
This year, though, was always shaping up as a transition year for the offense. And the pause of nearly three weeks — for both virus and hurricane reasons — only added to the uncertainty. South Pike didn’t know what it could and couldn’t do before taking the field against East Central in its opener Sept. 10, and was still seeking that identity following a shortened game against Tylertown.
Eventually, it became clear to the staff that the 2021 Eagles would have to be a run-heavy team. Quarterbacks Martavious Jones and Malik Reed have been a part of that, but haven’t established themselves as throwers. So McNeil simply wasn’t getting enough opportunities early on.
“I was very frustrated,” he said. “I didn’t really say anything to anybody, but I remember the first two games I cried because I was hurting. I felt like I should be getting the ball more.”
South Pike had 199 yards of offense in its first two games combined and 301 against Stone County, with McNeil’s five carries contributing to more than half of that total. He’s made the most of his chances in district play as well, scoring on a two-point conversion against McComb and putting the first touchdown on the board during the Eagles’ 39-0 homecoming win over Wingfield.
Even when the offensive touches weren’t coming, McNeil made his impact in the return game. South Pike is now giving him more playing time at cornerback as well, and while he’s still learning the position, the upside is clearly there.
The Eagles sit at 2-5 overall, but are 2-3 on the field and 1-1 in district play, the number that affects playoff seeding. They’re preparing for a pivotal home contest Friday against Raymond (6-1, 2-0). Before McNeil turns his attention to representing South Pike on the hardwood — basketball was his first sport before he took up football at age 11 — he believes the Eagles can do special things on the gridiron.
“I feel like we’re coming together, slowly but surely,” McNeil said. “At first we couldn’t really do nothing, but now I feel like we’re clicking together. Our chemistry is getting way better.”
While McNeil’s athletic future is still uncertain, 4.3 speed is always in demand. He’s a player without a surefire position but one whose skill set clearly translates. And South Pike hopes to make the most of his talents while he’s in an Eagles uniform.
“Nobody can have enough speed,” Wall said. “Whether he’s returning kickoffs or he’s returning punts or he’s playing receiver … he can make things happen when the ball is in his hands. I think he would be a great addition to football teams at the next level.”