Once an Indian, always an Indian.
Jackson senior defensive lineman Tyler McNeely, one of the SEMO Conference's top defensive players, will sign with Division I Arkansas State on Wednesday as the national signing period for football and three other collegiate sports kicks off.
McNeely said he looks forward to being an Indian next year and playing against top teams such as Oklahoma and at Missouri -- Arkansas State's opening opponent.
"Whenever you talk about an Oklahoma, just being out there is something," McNeely said. "But having the chance to play them has kind of been a goal and a dream for me ever since I was young."
The 6-foot-3, 230-pound lineman recorded 62 tackles, 21 for loss, and 11 sacks during his senior season. McNeely, a three-year starter, also had more than 20 catches at tight end and blocked two field goals.
Jackson football coach Carl Gross said McNeely's work ethic helped him become such an impact player.
"We've been fortunate that we've had a lot like him, those who are determined and want to work hard," Gross said.
McNeely will join a team that went 5-7 overall and 3-4 in the Sun Belt Conference this past season. Among Arkansas State's victories was a 21-3 home triumph over Southeast Missouri State University.
"More than anything I just like the coaches and the facilities," McNeely said of his future school. "Down there the coaches remind me of our coaches here."
McNeely also received interest from Kansas, Southeast, Central Missouri State and Iowa State.
"They really like the package they get in Tyler," Gross said of Arkansas State. "Not only is he an outstanding athlete, but he's a good student, a great leader and just an outstanding young man."
Before McNeely can start thinking about lining up across from collegiate linemen, he'll first try to help Jackson's basketball team capture its first district title since 1998.
Jackson coach Mike Kiehne said while he knows football helped get McNeely a scholarship, he's glad the senior chose to stick with basketball.
"There was a time where he wasn't sure what he was going to do about basketball," Kiehne said. "He definitely makes us a lot better."
McNeely, Jackson's starting center, has helped the Indians build a 17-3 record while leading the team in scoring. McNeely has only been held below 10 points in four games this season.
"That's the thing with Tyler, you know what you're going to get night in and night out," Kiehne said.
For a player who's size and strength have helped him excel on the football field, on the basketball court McNeely is typically considered undersized. But despite giving up several inches to the likes of area centers such as Ashton Farmer and Scott Chestnutt, McNeely has been able to come out on top more times than not.
"He has good footwork in the post and is strong enough to create space," Kiehne said.
With only two weeks remaining in the regular season, McNeely and the Indians still have plenty of work to do heading into the district tournament. The Indians face Charleston, No. 1 in Class 3, tonight in a rematch of the Christmas tournament semifinals, a game Jackson pulled out by two points. If the Indians can win three of their last five regular season games they will have their first 20-win season since 1998, when they went 21-6.
"Our goal was at the beginning of the year to win 20 games and we have a good chance to do that," McNeely said.
In order for the Indians to win their district they'll likely have to get by Poplar Bluff and its star center Tyler Hansbrough. The Mules routed Jackson at Poplar Bluff earlier this season, a game in which McNeely was limited to a season-low six points.
McNeely, who gives up nearly six inches to Hansbrough, said he likes the challenge of playing against a player with national recognition.
"I've always played better with better competition," he said.
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