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McNeal Is a Natural for Westwood

High schools: The Gardena Serra safety is hoping to make a big impact at UCLA, the school he's long loved.

July 12, 2002|ERIC STEPHENS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Eric McNeal downplays his choice to attend UCLA even though he's been a lifelong Bruin fan and his parents attended the school.

"I wouldn't say it was because my mom and dad went there," McNeal said as he prepared for the Shrine Football All-Star Classic on Saturday. "That really didn't matter. It was up to me. You want to go to the place that's best for you."

Scott Altenberg, his high school coach at Gardena Serra, says McNeal was destined to go to Westwood.

"He has wanted to play at UCLA his whole life," Altenberg said with a laugh. "Last year, they were doing really well and then they lost to Stanford. When I saw him [at school] on Monday, he looked like his puppy had got run over. He just loves that school."

McNeal figures to start at safety for the South team as the Shrine game returns to a North-South format after seven years in which all-star teams from California and Texas played against each other.

At 6 feet 3 and 200 pounds, McNeal was a coveted recruit. Many coaches from across the country were impressed with videotapes that showed the second-team all-state performer make crunching hits or use his 4.45 speed to return interceptions for touchdowns.

"Last year, about 50 college coaches came by in May," Altenberg said. "They would look at highlight tapes that I put together. Eric was just ridiculous in them. He would return an interception 90 yards on one play then throw the ball 65 yards on the next play.

"Everyone who saw it said, 'We'd like to offer him a scholarship.' "

UCLA defensive coordinator Phil Snow was one of those who was impressed.

"He showed on tape that he really hits you," Snow said. "He has good athleticism. He has a knack for getting in there and delivering a big hit."

McNeal's choice was made easier when he realized that UCLA's starting safeties, Marques Anderson and Jason Stephens, completed their eligibility last fall.

"You don't want to go somewhere where there are two starting players returning and they've got a redshirt freshman waiting," McNeal said. "I'm not saying that I didn't want to compete with everybody. You just want a chance to compete."

Snow said McNeal will get that and possibly more. A former defensive coordinator at Arizona State before coming to UCLA last year, Snow envisions the safety fitting in the mold of a hybrid safety/linebacker position that future NFL starters Pat Tillman and Adam Archuleta flourished in for the Sun Devils. Both were selected as defensive player of the year in the Pacific 10 Conference.

"He's almost 6-4 now and he's still growing," Snow said. "I told Eric when I recruited him that if he got any bigger, he might have to play linebacker. We're going to give him an opportunity to play."

Altenberg said McNeal shouldn't have a problem at any position UCLA wants him to play. At Serra, he played for three years at quarterback and defensive back, spent time at wide receiver and also returned punts and kickoffs.

In a 38-17 victory over West Hills Chaminade last season, McNeal returned an interception 54 yards for a touchdown, had a 43-yard punt return for a score and added a one-yard touchdown run. Serra's football season was cut short with an upset loss to Pomona in the first round of the Southern Section Division VII playoffs, but McNeal started at guard on the basketball team and helped lead it to the Division IV-A championship game against Verbum Dei.

"He just loves to play," Altenberg said. "I found that I had to find ways to slow him down. He literally wanted to play all the time."

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