The trick to being successful, Charlotte 49ers quarterback Lee McNeill says, is not trying too hard to be successful.
“I’ve learned the importance of not trying to make huge plays,” says McNeill, who started the season No. 3 on the depth chart but will be the starter when the 49ers face Southern Mississippi at noon Saturday at Jerry Richardson Stadium.
“My job is to get the ball to our playmakers, and let them take it from there,” McNeill says. “We have the playmakers on this team.”
McNeill said he has learned to rely more on the 49ers’ receivers and running backs after a rocky start, which included four interceptions in a 17-7 loss Sept. 27 to Florida Atlantic.
His progress was obvious in last week’s 37-34 loss at Old Dominion. McNeill completed 23 of 33 passes for 219 yards in a game the 49ers led until the final minute. He had one interception. Those numbers are reminiscent to late last season, when McNeill replaced injured quarterback Matt Johnson and led the 49ers to several late-season victories.
49ers coach Brad Lambert says McNeill, a redshirt junior from Porter Ridge High in Union County, is a smooth operator.
“He manages a game very well,” Lambert says. “He has a feel for what is needed at any given time.”
McNeill, who has emerged as the starter at quarterback but still shares some playing time with Johnson and Brooks Barden, says he remains a work in progress.
“I haven’t done as well as I wanted,” he says. “I can do better. But I’ve kept working at it, and I think things are getting better.”
McNeill was part of a talented group of athletes that took Porter Ridge, then a relatively new school, to state championship game appearances in 2011 and 2012. Two of his teammates from those teams, kicker Stephen Muscarello and offensive lineman Thomas La Bianca, are on the 49ers’ roster.
McNeill says the Porter Ridge fraternity remains tight. He is still a close friend of high school buddy Matt Wogan, the kicker at Oregon.
“We were always a tight-knit group,” McNeill says. “We hung around together in school, went fishing and hunting together. A lot of the players from those teams come to our games. We were always close.”
While McNeill pushes himself to improve on the field, his classroom performance has been nearly perfect. He has another year of athletic eligibility remaining but is scheduled to graduate next spring with a business management degree. He is carrying a 3.97 grade-point average – only a B+ in an accounting class away from a 4.0.
McNeill has been nominated by the 49ers for the academic All-America team. He says he is hoping for a career with a NASCAR team.
“I really enjoy the competition,” he says. “NASCAR would give me a chance to use my degree and remain in sports. I would love that.”