Defenses put hard hit after hard hit on Elizabeth City State running back Daronte McNeill, hoping that just one of those hits will force the Vikings to put someone else in the game.
And more than the yards or touchdowns – of which there are plenty – that McNeill puts on opposing teams, the most deflating aspect of his game comes after the whistles: He keeps hopping back to his feet.
Defenders hit him hard. They hit him often. They try his legs and his torso. And each time he jumps up, unfazed and heads back to his huddle, ready to take another carry.
By the end of the game, it’s an exercise to determine who was punishing whom.
“No matter how hard they hit me, I don’t show them,” McNeill said. “I want them going back to the huddle saying, ‘He’s strong.’”
McNeill’s strength and endurance wasn’t in question. Across all four divisions of NCAA football in 2011, only three other players recorded more carries than McNeill’s 354, and one of them had three more games.
The Vikings’ redshirt senior running back was an All-American and the CIAA Offensive Player of the Year a season ago, and the Vikings’ coaching staff makes little effort to disguise their intentions on offense.
“We want about 60 percent of the offense to go to Daronte,” Tenth-year Elizabeth City State coach Waverly Tillar said. “(Defenses) know they have to get ready for him, and they’ve got to stop him. If they don’t, they know they won’t be successful.”
McNeill needs only 42 yards Saturday against St. Augustine’s to reach 4,000 rushing yards in his career.
He has been the focal point of the Vikings’ offense since he arrived, and his overwhelming workload shows it. McNeill has 17 or more carries in 26 of his past 28 games, and once had fewer only because he needed 11 carries to gain 290 yards.
He had 36 or more carries five times in 2011.
In a triple overtime victory against Virginia Union, the Vikings ran 68 plays. McNeill touched the ball on 44 of them.
“Basically, I don’t count the reps, I just try to make the reps count,” McNeill said. “I’ll keep taking it as many times as they want to give me the ball.”
As Elizabeth City State (2-2) aims to reach the playoffs for the second season in a row, McNeill will lead the charge.
Though the road wasn’t conventional, it would be a fitting ending for McNeill, an Elizabeth City native.
Several Football Bowl Subdivision schools were after McNeill in high school. He settled on East Carolina.
Tillar knew he wouldn’t secure McNeill’s commitment out of high school, but he always left the door open.
“I told his coach that if things don’t work out, he always has a home here,” Tillar said. “I wish he would have come straight to me, but sometimes you have to wait on your blessings.”
McNeill transferred after his first year at ECU, and eventually ended up back home.
Playing at Elizabeth City State, McNeill’s whole family, including his children, can come watch all of his games.
McNeill’s is a sports management major, and he plans to use his degree to become a football coach. Being a leader won’t be new.
“Being here gives me a chance to show a lot of leadership to my classmates who want to be a leader in the future,” McNeill said. “I’m showing my team that they can be leaders.”
McNeill has his sights set on the NFL after this season is completed. He has the size (6-foot-2, 215 pounds) and the drive, but he has proven no matter the route, he can make a success story.
“Being here has been a win-win,” Tillar said. “His relatives and friends get to see him play, and it’s been good for him. It’s been good for our whole community, really.”