LINCOLN, Neb. — Tre Neal started all 13 games at safety for unbeaten Central Florida last year, was the team's fourth-leading tackler and made the interception that clinched the Knights' double-overtime victory in the American Athletic Conference championship game.
When UCF's new coaching staff relegated him to the second team in spring practice, it was just the nudge Neal needed to look for a place where he could make the most of his final college season.
Neal landed at Nebraska as a graduate transfer, and he feels right at home.
He's joined coach Scott Frost and the rest of the UCF staff that migrated from Orlando. Neal gets to play in a 3-4 defense he knows well, and he's been given an opportunity to earn a starting job. He also can begin preparing for a post-football career as a dentist.
"I have to set myself up for the next 40 years," he said.
From a football standpoint, he appears well set for the next four months.
The secondary was the Cornhuskers' primary area of concern coming out of the spring and that unit has made the biggest improvement since Neal and other newcomers arrived.
Neal said he wasn't afraid to let returning players know he's out to win a job.
"It's one of those things where I introduce myself and tell them straight up I'm here to work, I'm here to play, I'm here to make you better, I'm here to make myself better," Neal said. "Don't be mad because someone comes. You should embrace that challenge. They brought me in here to play. I want them to understand that first and foremost, so we can get that out of the way. If they're out there balling and doing better than me, then they deserve to play."
Neal has had a strong preseason camp and has provided leadership in the defensive backs' room and on the field.
"He's a quarterback on defense," DBs coach Travis Fisher said. "That's what he was at UCF. We asked him to go out and get the defense lined up and make all the checks. He did it and did it with confidence. He's been doing that since he's been back with us."
The Huskers' defense ranked among the worst in the nation during a 4-8 season. Neal said he foresees improvement based on the raw talent he's seen.
"As far as the culture, you can tell they've come a long way," he said. "I've heard things, that it was a bad team last year. These guys are really good guys. I don't know what was going on last year. You have to play for your brothers. We're starting to learn it. Sometimes we might take a play off. You can take a play off for you, but you're hurting your teammate next to you. Once we start understanding that philosophy, that's when you develop better bonds."
Neal said Nebraska is as much a fit for him academically as athletically. The school has the pre-medicine graduate program he was seeking.
Growing up in Atlanta, Neal said, his parents preached the importance of getting good grades. He said he wasn't allowed to play in little league games if his schoolwork wasn't up to snuff or if he misbehaved in class.
"Even if I got in trouble at school for laughing, they wouldn't let me play on the weekend," he said. "Little kids, all they want to do is play ball. When they would take me out, they didn't have to discipline me. Just taking that away from me, that was enough for me to focus on school and to not joke about it."
Neal does joke, however, about being a football player and future dentist.
"I'll be able to knock people's teeth out," he said, "and then tell them to come on by the office."