Tre Neal OK with trading unbeaten UCF for rebuilding Nebraska

LINCOLN, Neb. -- High above a vast stretch of Illinois and Iowa farmland starting to wither in chilled air late on the afternoon of Oct. 13, Tre Neal shifted nervously in his window seat, eyes focused on a comeback playing out similarly -- albeit in much more pleasing style for him -- to the game in which he'd just participated.

It was UCF on the screen. Live TV on a charter flight rates as a nice perk, but Neal's Nebraska teammates were hardly in the mood to enjoy a moment en route home to Lincoln from playing Northwestern in Evanston, Illinois, where they'd blown a 10-point lead with 2½ minutes to go in regulation and lost in overtime to fall to 0-6.

As the Knights stormed back from 16 down in the rain and on the road against Memphis to win their 19th straight game, the senior safety turned to freshman cornerback Cam Taylor and told him that team on the TV could be Nebraska.

Soon, Neal said. Like next season. Neal would know. He started every game at UCF in 2017 -- two years after finishing 0-12.

On Saturday at Memorial Stadium, Neal will play his final home game with no regrets in a career defined by dramatic peaks and valleys.

He contributed 55 tackles on UCF's winless team as a redshirt freshman in 2015. Neal persevered and aided the Knights' remarkable turnaround last season. His interception against Memphis secured victory for UCF in the American Athletic Conference title game and pushed the Knights toward a 13-0 finish with a Peach Bowl defeat of Auburn.

And then there's this season, a roller-coaster ride unto itself at Nebraska. The Cornhuskers have won three of four games since that flight home from Chicago -- their only loss by five points at Ohio State -- as the closing stretch against Michigan State and Iowa nears.

Neal credits first-year Nebraska coach Scott Frost, who arrived at UCF ahead of the 2016 season, for keeping him on track.

"He brought the love back for football that I thought I lost," Neal said.

Neal has served as a savior of sorts too for the Cornhuskers. As a graduate transfer familiar with Nebraska's defensive schemes under a coaching staff that made the move from Orlando to Lincoln after last season, Neal plays the role of coach on the field.

One week after the gut punch of a loss at Northwestern, Nebraska led Minnesota 28-0 before halftime but found itself up just six points in the third quarter. Instead of trying to install false confidence in teammates, Neal implored them to play again like the game was scoreless.

On the first play of the fourth quarter, Nebraska got a fourth-down stop at its 3-yard line. The Huskers rolled to a 53-28 win.

Smiling with relief after the victory, Neal didn't describe the first win in seven games as a milestone; rather, it signified a small step toward a future championship run under Frost.

"I know we're not going to go 0-12," he said when pressed on the meaning of that win. "That's a great thing."

You might be wondering why Neal left UCF in the first place. The Knights, of course, are 9-0 this year under Frost's replacement, Josh Heupel, are ranked 12th nationally and are positioned for another appearance in a New Year's Six bowl game.

Neal felt a kinship with the former UCF coaches. But more of his decision involved opportunity. Knights sophomore Richie Grant began to emerge at safety last year opposite Kyle Gibson, a returning all-AAC pick. Neal worked with second-team defense, in fact, in Heupel's first spring as the defensive scheme changed slightly.

Additionally, as a pre-med major who initially planned to pursue a career in anesthesiology, Neal had refocused his sights on dentistry. UCF has no dental school, so he looked around and found a program at Nebraska that he thought he would like.

And after tackling a heavy academic load last spring, Neal took four classes in the summer in order to graduate in August. He is enrolled in graduate courses this fall, and he was accepted into the master's program in Lincoln. Dental school remains an option. That is, if he's not playing in the NFL. Or coaching.

"Tre wants to be a coach," Frost said Monday. "I think he's going to be a good one. I love watching him have success. He's been great for our young DBs. He can make all the calls for us. That's a piece we were missing before he got to town."

And with Frost's staff in place at Nebraska, the fit was easy for Neal. The Huskers have struggled defensively in winning three of 10 games. But signs are pointing up. They've forced 11 turnovers in the past three games after opponents committed eight in Nebraska's first seven games.

In Saturday's 54-35 win over Illinois, Neal forced two fumbles and recorded 10 tackles, his best game of the season.

The ball-hawking style is an "art," said Nebraska defensive tackle Mick Stoltenberg. And Neal has helped lead the charge in bringing such a mentality from UCF, which forced 58 turnovers in two seasons under Frost and first-year Nebraska defensive coordinator Erik Chinander.

"I like to call him Coach," Nebraska cornerback Dicaprio Bootle said of Neal. "He knows everything."

Neal arrived with instant credibility, according to Nebraska assistant Sean Beckton, who recruited Neal to UCF in 2014 out of powerhouse Buford High in suburban Atlanta.

"His nature, when you meet him," Beckton said, "you automatically gravitate toward him. He's just very intelligent, fun to be around. He knew his role here would be to come in and help them understand the defensive scheme."

Beckton, a former UCF player who spent 19 years as a coach at the school, said the winless stretch in 2015 has ranked as his most difficult time around the game. George O'Leary resigned as coach eight games into that season.

Frustration spread from the coaches to the players. Neal said he questioned his love of the game.

"Do you want to come out here and do this every day?" Neal said. "Looking back at it, of course I loved the game. But when [Frost] came in, he helped me see that I could move on. I didn't have to look back at it."

Neal said he would always consider himself an alumnus of UCF and Nebraska. The perfect season last year, he said, was "a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, an amazing time."

Neal stays in touch with Grant and Gibson, among other Knights. He watches their games, whenever possible, even if at 35,000 feet.

"I know those guys," Neal said. "I know how they fight. I know their attitude. I know they're not going to quit."

In the same way that Frost rekindled the passion in Neal at UCF, he has seen it start to happen at Nebraska.

Offensively, Nebraska has gained 450 yards or more in seven consecutive games for the first time in school history. And even when the Huskers were mired in a program-record 10-game losing streak that dated to October 2017, Neal said, the group did not splinter.

"That 0-12 year at UCF," he said, "we were an 0-12 team. That was never this team.

"The future's bright here. I think people saw it [against Ohio State]. I compare it to the Lakers. Those guys are talented, but it's going to take some time to put it together. We're starting to figure it now. And that's a big thing."

Neal said he is grateful for all of the experiences in his football career.

"I've been at the top of the world," he said, "but I want to look back and say I built my character as a man right here. There are positives to take away from everything, even when you're flooded with negatives.

"I'm glad I made the decision to come here."

The winning, the losing and so many of the lessons will serve him well as a dentist, Neal said.

Or, if it's the next leap he opts to take, as a coach.