Siran Neal has a simple explanation for why he was willing to play three different positions in college.
“If you learn every position, you never have to get off the field,” said Neal, the Buffalo Bills’ fifth-round draft pick out of Jacksonville State.
Any casual Bills fan knows by now how much coach Sean McDermott values versatility in his defenders, and perhaps no other player in the 2018 draft has more than Neal, who lined up at safety, linebacker and cornerback with the Gamecocks, who play in the Ohio Valley Conference of the Football Championship Subdivision.
“He’s just such an explosive athlete that it gives him the ability to play just about any position on the field,” Jacksonville State coach John Grass said. “His explosiveness allows him to play one-on-one coverage, but then when you look at him, he looks like a linebacker. He's built. He's muscled up, so it gives him the physicality to tackle, and he doesn’t mind tackling. As a young player, he was almost too aggressive, because you've got to be a little bit more patient in the secondary, but he really likes to hit you. I think all of those things combined allowed us to play him in a lot of different positions.”
Neal played safety, linebacker and cornerback in college, but his versatility goes beyond that.
“He was a really, really good receiver in high school and played limited defense,” Grass said. “A lot of people don't even know that. So he can play receiver. He's got great ball skills. I think that's helped him playing secondary. A lot of DBs don't have that ability, and he does.”
It wasn’t until Neal arrived at Jacksonville State that he made the switch to defense.
“Nobody projected him as a defensive player, that’s why he didn’t end up at a Power 5 school,” Grass said. “We do that a lot of times, where we'll sign a kid who has never played the position we're signing him for. You're just looking for athleticism, and that's what he had. He fit our program, and he's excelled at everything.”
Neal was a two-star recruit by scout.com coming out of Eufaula High School in Eufaula, Ala., in 2012 – a reminder that college recruiting, like the NFL Draft, can be an inexact science. Neal was a first-team all-state selection as a senior, when he made 22 catches for 377 yards and eight touchdowns. Before transferring to Eufaula, Neal was an all-state receiver for Abbeville High School in Alabama, making 54 catches and scoring 13 touchdowns in 2011.
“When he first got here, even as a young guy, a redshirt freshman, you saw it. 'Wow, if he gets everything together, he can play at the next level,' ” Grass said. “There was a learning curve there from not playing a lot of defense in high school, but he had no problem catching on and just got better and better as time went on.”
Neal redshirted in 2013 before making his college debut in 2014 during the season opener at Michigan State. He finished the year with 32 tackles, including a season-high 10 in the Gamecocks’ playoff game against Sam Houston State. The following season, Neal made 40 tackles in 15 games as the Gamecocks advanced to the FCS national championship game.
His first position switch came in 2016, when he moved to linebacker. He started all 12 games and finished with 80 tackles, 11.5 of which went for losses, in earning first-team All-Ohio Valley Conference honors.
“I take on coaching pretty good,” Neal said.” If somebody needs me to do something, just walk me through the steps. From there, I can do it. They put their trust in me that I can pick up one position, learn it, and then go on to the next position.”
A 6-foot, 206-pounder, Neal made the unheard of switch from linebacker to cornerback for 2017. He finished with 11 passes defensed, 33 tackles and one interception despite teams rarely throwing to his side of the field. He was named a first-team All-American by the American Football Coaches Association, and was a repeat All-OVC first-team selection.
“Academically, he's a very, very smart guy,” Grass said. “I know when scouts would come by and do one-on-one meetings and film work before the draft, they'd always mention to me, 'coach, he's got some savvy.’ I mean, he knows what he's talking about. He can pick it up quick enough and then know the whole playbook to where you can put him wherever you need him.
“He knows where the backers fit, he knows where the safety fits. He knows what everybody's role is. He's got a whole-picture mentality when it comes to defense. His football IQ is really, really high and I think that's going to help him in the NFL.”
Neal became just the fourth Jacksonville State player to participate in the Senior Bowl. He was the 10th player in program history to be drafted, and at 154th overall, was the highest since Eric Davis was selected by San Francisco in the second round of the 1990 draft.
Neal first met with the Bills at the Senior Bowl, then had another meeting with the team at the NFL Scouting Combine where he showed off his athleticism by running a 4.56-second 40-yard dash, a crazy vertical leap of 40 ½ inches and a 10-foot, 2-inch broad jump. After that, he went through a private workout at Jacksonville State with Bills safeties coach Bobby Babich.
“I had a pretty good feeling they liked me from there,” he said.
The Bills are listing Neal as a safety, which he says is ideal. He has the athleticism to match up with tight ends in coverage, and the physicality to play run support. He figures to back up starters Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer as a rookie, while also contributing on special teams.
“I’m in the right spot,” he said. “It’s definitely different, though. That’s something coach McDermott did tell us in the team meeting, and it’s something I have to pick up as an individual. I have to look in the playbook more, get everything down, because when the ball is out, it’s out. The snap is faster. You’ve got to relate calls more often, talk to the linebackers and talk to the corners.”
Neal, 23, is the father of twin girls, Londyn and Lauryn Neal. He comes from a big family, with six brothers and one sister.
“Just real humble, I think, is a good word to describe him,” Grass said. He's a chill guy. He's not a lot of talk. He's about work. He's very serious about what he handles, anything he sets out to do. He's a good dad. He's got two beautiful twins, so his character is very, very high. He does things the right way for the right reasons, so you just love to see that.”