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Thursday November 15, 2012 Walk-on receiver McNeely back in mix if Gators need to call his number

Updated: 4:47pm, November 15

Michael McNeely

Photo: Walk-on receiver Michael McNeely made his 2012 debut last week at a good time.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Early in fall camp as the Gators tried to sort out their depth at receiver, one player who caught first-year offensive coordinator Brent Pease’s attention was walk-on Michael McNeely.

McNeely appeared in seven games on special teams a year ago and was a productive pass catcher at Palm Harbor University High near Clearwater, where he set school records for most receptions and receiving yards. McNeely was also a two-time MVP for PHU’s basketball team and a high-performing student.

Before opting to come to UF, McNeely considered Dartmouth, Harvard and William Jewell College.

But before McNeely could develop a role for himself in camp, he suffered a broken foot and missed the Gators’ first nine games.

McNeely made his 2012 season debut against Louisiana on Saturday and was on the field for the game-winning play – Loucheiz Purifoy’s blocked punt and Jelani Jenkins’ 36-yard touchdown return with two seconds left.

“That was the most unbelievable play that I’ve ever been a part of in any sport, at any level,’’ McNeely said. “That was crazy. I was rushing the punt from the outside on the other side. I was right there. I watched him put his hand on it.

“I followed the ball with my eyes to see where it went. When I saw Jelani catch it I started looking around to see who I could block and there was no one there, so I just kind of ran with him toward the end zone.”

At 5-8, 176 pounds, McNeely won’t scare any hard-hitting safeties with his size, but he’s got good speed and soft hands. McNeely’s return adds some depth at receiver at a good time with regulars Solomon Patton (broken arm) and Andre Debose (knee) sidelined.

“He’s willing to do whatever you ask him to do,’’ Pease said. “He’s a hard worker, a great blocker and brings a little attitude when he’s out there. He’s a guy you can trust.”

When McNeely was hurt in fall camp, doctors told him to expect to be sidelined for eight to 10 weeks. That meant he should be able to return to the field before the end of the season, which motivated him even more during his rehab.

Prior to the injury McNeely was excited about the season’s potential considering he saw playing time as a redshirt freshman.

“I think I was doing pretty well. I actually felt pretty strong and quick,’’ he said. “Our strength staff did a tremendous job with us in the offseason. I was feeling good. It was just unfortunate about the injury.”

McNeely played on special teams and lined up at receiver on a few snaps in the win over Louisiana. He knew entering the game that he was probably going to play receiver on at least a couple of offensive packages.

He doesn’t know what to expect moving forward, but his first career catch would be nice.

“Maybe the injuries are part of the reason I was able to get out there so quickly,’’ he said. “I was just happy to get back out there. It’s such a blessing through the long recovery process.

“That would be an amazing feeling [to catch a pass]. That would be tremendous.”

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