Hailing from Sumter, South Carolina, J.C. Neal inked with the Wolfpack after considering offers from programs such as Virginia Tech, Clemson, North Carolina, and South Carolina among others.
His stock soared through the roof after a MVP performance in the 2004 Shrine Bowl. Playing safety for South Carolina, Neal picked off two passes and had several big hits. He would eventually pick NC State, as the Wolfpack held off the in-state Gamecocks.
"They were on me pretty hard after I committed," Neal said of South Carolina. "Coach Spurrier was at this banquet I went to and he was saying that he thought he was coming by on an in-home but it wasn’t a big deal."
Neal's prep exploits were well-known. Rated a four-star prospect by Scout.com, he totaled 1,401 yards and 19 touchdowns as a senior at Lakewood. Defensively he added 88 tackles and six pass breakups as he earned all-state honors after being tabbed 3A Back of the Year.
His ability to play on both sides of the ball made him a priority recruit. Regarded as the No. 15 safety prospect in the country by Scout.com, Neal enrolled initially without a set position for the Wolfpack.
"I actually came up here as an athlete," said Neal. "When I got here they basically told me to pick which side I wanted to play on. When I saw the playbook, I knew I'd rather play defense."
Neal arrived ready to help out, as he played in all 11 games during his freshman season. He logged 150 special teams snaps, and played 41 snaps from scrimmage, including 14 in the bowl win over South Florida.
Because of NC State's depth at safety, Neal remained a reserve in 2006 when he played in all 12 games, recording 21 tackles. Garland Heath, Miguel Scott, and DaJuan Morgan played the majority of the snaps and in games late in the season Neal started to receive some snaps at cornerback.
"That wasn't too hard because I thought I was a natural corner anyways," he said. "Just getting in corner shape was the biggest change. You do more running than at safety so I had to get my body in shape to where I would be able to sprint back-to-back.
"Playing safety, I really enjoy it. Anywhere I can play on defense I like... there wasn't much difference between corner and safety for me."
When Tom O'Brien took over, the defensive coaching staff moved Neal permanently to cornerback, and he opened the season as the starter against Central Florida. He would go on to start both games against Wofford and Clemson, but saw his snaps dwindle with the emergence of DeAndre Morgan. Despite the "demotion," he remained focused and practiced hard everyday.
"I just kept telling myself to not get upset over decisions you can't control," said Neal. "I just came out here and worked hard, and when I got my opportunity I made the best of it."
Neal remained a big factor on special teams. He blocked a punt as a true freshman against Akron, and this year he returned a blocked punt for a key touchdown against East Carolina. Playing special teams is a role that Neal embraces.
"Playing hard on special teams was my way of letting the coaches know that I'm not giving up," said Neal. "I'm not losing focus, and I'm here for the team. I lost my spot, but it didn't matter because that was my way of getting on the field and helping the team."
Then against Miami, starting strong safety Javon Walker was lost for the season with a knee injury, and the coaches elected to move Neal back to safety. What did he think when first approached about the move?
"I had no idea what was going to happen when [Javon] got hurt," he stated. "I really thought they would just be doing some rotation with the safeties and I would remain at corner. When I came in that week they said they'd like to see what I could do at safety.
"I came out that week and worked hard. I learned the plays, and I think the results showed on Saturday."
Making his first start at strong safety, Neal stepped up with the best game of his career. In 64 snaps, he totaled 11 tackles, including eight solo hits, while also playing 29 snaps on special teams. Lining up on the slot receiver, he did a good job of keeping explosive wideouts Brandon Tate and Brooks Foster in check. Regardless of the stats, Neal was just happy to get the win against the rival Tar Heels.
"That was a big game," said Neal. "I'm from out-of-state so I didn't know too much about the rivalry when I got here. After playing a couple of years you learn about this rivalry.
"I thought it was a big win for the program. They are a good team, but I think we had a better day."
It doesn't get any easier for Neal and the Wolfpack. After facing Tate, a player UNC loves to get in space via reverses or quick passes, Neal now will have to prepare for Wake's Kevin Marion and Kenny Moore, the ACC's leading receiver. Both players excel in space and the Demon Deacons use a variety of screens and reverses to get them touches.
"Carolina used Tate about the same, but I think Wake uses their guys a lot more than Tate is used at UNC," said Neal. "I think we've got to watch more film on them and be familiar with them.
"They are really good players. Wake gets the ball to them a lot so we've got to contain them. We need to slow them down to help our chances in winning the game."
The junior believes the Wolfpack's recent success is a credit to the coaching staff.
"We came in and started real slow but everybody started buying in to what our coaches wanted," he said. "Now we've won four games straight and we all are on ship with the coaches. Everything is working out."