MORGANTOWN - Bill Stewart recalled watching a pudgy kid struggle through summer drills a few years ago, thinking the guy had no clue about the differences between football at the major college level and high school.
He could tell the kid had talent, and if anyone would bring it to the surface, Stewart knew it would be the highly vocal defensive line coach Bill Kirelawich.
"I had to develop a different work ethic, something that's still developing," said nose tackle Chris Neild, five years removed from those days and a few pounds lighter. "I got tired of hearing him yell at me. I wasn't trying to be on his bad side."
BIG?ROLE?— The West Virginia defense is one of the best units in the nation because of the play of Chris Neild at nose tackle. The 301-pound senior was named to the All-Big East Conference on Wednesday. The Mountaineers face North Carolina State Dec. 28 in the Champs Sports Bowl in Orlando, Florida. (File Photo/The Inter-Mountain)
As the Bible says, the stone that was rejected became the cornerstone. Only in this case, Neild was deemed not quite ready for prime time and was given a red-shirt for the 2006 season. Now as a fifth-year senior, he has become the chief foundation on which West Virginia University's nationally acclaimed defense is constructed.
Neild, a 301-pound senior from Stroudsburg, Pa., capped off his final season by being named to the All-Big East Conference defense for the second consecutive year. Not bad for a guy who averaged less than three tackles per game.
"He may not be the Big East tackle leader, but you cannot move him out of there," said South Florida coach Skip Holtz. "He is one of the reasons they are where they are from a statistical standpoint."
WVU defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel said there is a pretty good reason why Neild doesn't rack up eye-popping statistics despite having eye-popping talent.
"We've been saying for a year, year and a half just how good he is," Casteel said. "We don't see him in the statistics a lot because he usually has 600 or 700 pounds of double-team wrapped around him for the majority of the game, and yet he still has the ability to make a lot of plays."
Defensive back Robert Sands said having that many blockers pay attention to the Mountaineer in the middle is the sign that teams have the utmost respect for Neild.
"They know he can wreak havoc if it's just one-on-one," Sands said. "When we had him and Reed (Williams) last year, we had Shaq and Kobe. Kobe retired a little early, and we still have Shaq. Chris demands a double-team, some times a triple-team. He's not asked to do that. It's what teams are doing to him."
Fighting off all of that mass does take its toll on Neild, who dons a different persona when it comes game time.
"I'm not going to sugar coat it; I take a beating," he said. "But it goes both ways. You can't be a nice guy and play this position."
Newcomer Bruce Irvin sees both sides of Neild, the havoc-wreaking man mountain who puts fear in the hearts of offensive coordinators who have to plan their attacks around him and the mentor who helped him become the sack leader of the conference.
"Next year's going to be hard without him," Irvin said. "He's like a second or third coach to me. I've been blessed to be able to play with him this season."
Neild takes all those compliments to heart, that he appreciates the nice comments from those he has played with and against. But he is not one to go around singing his own praises, which is why Stewart has called him the unsung hero of the Mountaineers this season.
"Everybody talks about me being some sort of unsung hero, but it comes with the territory," Neild said. "It's the position I play. It's my job to create opportunities for my linebackers to make the play."
Stewart's praises for Neild go a lot further, calling him the epitome of what a Mountaineer student-athlete should be.
"He's the anchor for many issues that come up, and he's a great student and a great leader," Stewart said. "He's been the rock and fencepost of that defense because he brings an element of toughness that solidifies the middle. He's the best interior lineman in the league, and I think this part of the country, maybe even the whole country."
Pro scouts have Neild pegged as one of the top defensive lineman available in the 2011 draft, projecting him to go somewhere in the middle rounds.
"Chris Neild is turning heads all over America," Stewart said. "Just watch what he does when he leaves here."
For now, Neild is preparing for the Champs Sports Bowl, a game in which his team will take on the North Carolina State Wolfpack in Orlando, Fla., on Dec. 28. Realizing the dream of being paid to play at the highest level would mean a lot to the pudgy kid who once drew the ire of coaches in his younger days. But he knows that dream can quickly go up in smoke.
"It can be all over with in just one play," Neild said. "The pros are something I can focus on later. I'm nowhere near that now. It will come in steps. I'm glad I went through all that ( in his freshman year). It's been a long journey, and I've enjoyed every minute of it."