Prolific Porter Ridge quarterback mixes style and substance to win
by Aaron Garcia
By anyone’s standards, McNeill wasn’t having a very good game. He completed 15 passes but managed only 123 yards and two interceptions – one less than he had all of his junior year. But late in the game against Charlotte Providence Day, with his team clinging to a 10-7 lead and in danger of losing just its second game in two seasons, McNeill faced a third-and-long situation.
“We got to that last drive and I thought if we could get a few first downs, it would be over with,” McNeill recalled.
And that’s when it happened. It wasn’t flashy, which is fitting, because in a lot of ways, neither is McNeill.
“The offensive line did great, but all the receivers were covered, so I ended up running it,” McNeill said matter-of-factly.
Gaining the seven or so yards for the first down was a crucial play. Though the Pirates eventually had to punt the possession away, they were able to click off valuable seconds from the game clock, giving the Chargers the ball back with a full field to drive and only seconds remaining. After a few desperation heaves, the Pirates salvaged the win and stayed undefeated.
Simply put, Lee McNeill is one of the most accomplished quarterbacks to ever walk the halls of a Union County high school. Last year as a junior, he led the Pirates to the best season in school history at 14-1, which included a semifinals appearance in the Class 4A state playoffs. He completed 63 percent of his passes for 2,494 yards and 37 touchdowns with only seven interceptions, while leading the Pirates to a 36.3 points-per-game scoring average. This year McNeill has completed 69 percent of his passes and has 1,461 yards with 13 scores and five interceptions, while the Porter Ridge offense has accounted for 43.9 points per game. Most important, the Pirates are speeding toward their second consecutive undefeated regular season, a major accomplishment for any team, much less one that plays within the brutally competitive Southern Carolina 3A/4A conference and has wins against teams such as Kannapolis Brown to its credit.
But the blowout wins the program has grown accustomed to don’t really highlight what has made McNeill such an effective leader for a team that has emerged as one of the best in the state. The accurate, well-timed passes to open receivers stick out to those watching from the stands, but McNeill’s contributions to the Pirates’ success was perhaps best exhibited during the nail-biter against Providence Day.
“During that game, he didn’t get frustrated at all,” running back Najee Davis said. “He wasn’t throwing a fit or anything. He was still calm, keeping us motivated and letting us know we could win the game.”
And that, said Porter Ridge coach Blair Hardin, is what makes McNeill so effective. Regardless of the situation or the opponent, McNeill is cool-blooded and as steady as they come, said Hardin. He’s even drawn comparisons to NFL Hall of Famer Joe Montana from the coach.
“He throws a good ball, he’s smart, level-headed and makes plays,” Hardin said. “He’s extremely poised, which you love to have at the quarterback position.
“Those are elements you have to have in your best player, and especially in the quarterback position. I love those intangibles about him.”
It’s an important attribute, especially for a quarterback at the helm of a program gaining attention with every win and learning to play with the weight of expectations.
“It’s nice to have a constant in the huddle,” said receiver Jordan Oakley, the Pirates’ leading receiver and McNeill’s teammate since they were seventh-graders at Porter Ridge Middle School.
“When everybody’s disappointed or amped up because of a play, he keeps us level-headed and makes sure we make the next play and we keep doing what we’re supposed to be doing,” Oakley said.
McNeill’s subdued personality is partly his nature; he’s simply a low-key personality who seemingly would rather make a statement with his play than his words. But McNeill credits a lesson his father, Tony, taught him while coaching his rec-league basketball team.
“He always told me to take the next play. It doesn’t matter how the last play went – the most important one is the next one,” said McNeill. “I just wait for the next play to make it better – I don’t dwell on the past.”
The concept is simple in theory but harder to practice, especially for a young athlete. But McNeill said the mantra just made sense to him, even as a youngster.
“I just kind of understood it when my dad told me about it,” McNeill said, adding that his father learned the idea from Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski.
Which, said McNeill, was why he was able to calmly collect the game-saving first down against Providence Day.
“I really believe in it – the next play is always the most important,” he said.
But McNeill’s strengths don’t just lie in his mental acuity, which is impressive, as his 4.3 GPA shows.
“He throws a very catchable ball,” said Hardin, who played receiver at The Citadel. “I told him one time, ‘Man, I played receiver and I’d love to play with you,’ because he throws such a great ball.
“He doesn’t have a cannon, but he’s extremely accurate and he has great touch on the ball. Being a receiver, that’s exactly what you look for.”
The Pirates often run a Triple-Option offense, which puts even more emphasis on McNeill’s decision-making, as he has to read a defense and decide where the run play should go while the play is happening. Depending on how the defenders react, one of two running backs might get the ball, if McNeill doesn’t tote it himself. With a 4.55-second time in the 40-yard dash, McNeill has become one of the county’s preeminent dual-threat quarterbacks. He gained 383 yards on 94 rushes last season, and has amassed 280 yards and four scores already this season, including a 145-yard, two-touchdown performance against Brown.
”I know last year in the run game, we played 15 games and he had three missed reads,” said Hardin. “We have him read every play.
“That doesn’t happen,” Hardin said of McNeill’s astronomical accuracy rate. Hardin added that McNeill is equally as spot-on when deciding where to throw the football.
“He makes great reads and tries to get the ball to our guys in space and let them work. He’s a student of the game.”
Hardin first realized McNeill could be an effective quarterback when he was hired as the coach four years ago. Then just a freshman, McNeill would be on the practice field every Sunday throwing passes to receivers on his own time.
“He hasn’t missed one Sunday in four years throwing on his own,” Hardin said.
But his freshman season was curtailed by a broken collarbone suffered on the JV team. He returned his sophomore season and earned the starting job, but had a rocky start with only 918 passing yards, six touchdowns and seven interceptions.
But the team finished the season 7-5, its best record to that point, which was just the spark he needed.
“I watched film with Coach after my sophomore year every Friday during the offseason,” McNeill said. “I really learned the offense; I felt a lot more confident in my reads and getting the ball to the receivers. That really helped me out.
“Last year it really started to click for me,” he continued.
And McNeill’s abilities are starting to click for college recruiters, as well. While he doesn’t currently have any offers, schools such as Appalachian State, Coastal Carolina, Furman, Wofford, Elon, Harvard and Princeton have all expressed interest. McNeill said playing college football has been a dream of his since he started playing the game in third grade, but the avid fisherman has bigger goals to accomplish in his present before he decides his future. Finishing the season undefeated with a state championship certainly seems attainable, especially after last season.
Especially with McNeill at the helm, said Hardin.
“The thing I love about Lee McNeill is he’s a winner,” Hardin said. “He’s going to do whatever it takes to win.”
Flashy or not.