Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Sounding Off | Braden River's Willie McNeal earns invite to work out for Buccaneers

When the NFL Draft had come and gone, Willie McNeal was wondering what happened.

The former Freshman All-American kick returner at Western Kentucky did not hear his name and did receive any calls Sunday or Monday when teams contacted undrafted free agents.

But things brightened Tuesday when the Braden River High product got a call from the Tampa Bay Bucs inviting him to a personal workout May 15. The Bucs are going to fly him down from the WKU campus in Bowling Green, where McNeal is working on his master's degree.

"They told me to come in and do what I do. They told me I would run routes and that it would be something like a pro day," McNeal said. "I am excited. I was disappointed that I wasn't drafted or signed as a free agent, but now I get my chance and that's all I wanted."

The 5-foot-11, 170-pound McNeal had an exceptional freshman year playing under then-head coach and former Manatee quarterback Willie Taggart, now head coach at USF.

He was named to the Football Writers Association Freshman All-American team as a kickoff returner. For that season in 2010, he returned 44 kickoffs for 968 yards, including a 90-yard return for a touchdown, and averaged 22 yards per return and 117.3 all-purpose yards.

Ray Woodie, a current USF assistant head coach, was an assistant at WKU when McNeal played there and recommended him to Tampa Bay.

Woodie worked in the Bucs minority internship program last summer. He also is former head football coach at Palmetto, his alma mater, and Bayshore.

"Willie is a survivor. He lost both his parents at a young age and at times had to scramble just to get food. You never count those kinds of kids out," Woodie said. "He may not have the measurable for an NFL guy, but he has the heart. He is quick in space and his ticket might be special teams. He is more than just a receiver."

McNeal tore his anterior cruciate ligament his sophomore year and sat out the season. He returned and for the next three years put up some good numbers as both a slot receiver and on the outside.

He also excelled on special teams leading the Hilltoppers in special team tackles and was among the leaders in kickoff return yardage when he was full time there.

"I think my quickness being able to read defenses and understand ways to get open helps me. And I played about every position on special teams," McNeal said.

The 25-year-old already has his undergraduate degree in disciplinary studies and is working on a master's degree in sports management.

He was the first Braden River athlete to sign a scholarship with a major college football program and would be the first to sign with an NFL team.

McNeal said he would look into the Canadian Football League if things didn't work out, but feels confident. Last season, he had 56 receptions for 666 yards (11.9 avg) and caught eight TD passes. He also returned 14 kickoffs for 303 yards.

Alan Dell, Herald sports writer, can be reached at 941-745-7056. Follow him on Twitter @ADellSports.