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Harris: Unheralded Florida player becomes folk hero |

Harris: Unheralded Florida player becomes folk hero

Florida's Michael McNeely runs for a touchdown past Georgia safety Quincy Mauger (20) during the first half Saturday, Nov. 1, 2014, in Jacksonville, Fla.

Mike McNeely could have attended Harvard or Dartmouth. A Clearwater, Fla., native, he wanted to play football for the home-state Gators.

After three years as a walk-on, McNeely, a senior, was awarded an athletic scholarship in August from coach Will Muschamp, a former walk-on at Georgia. A recipient of Florida’s 2013 President’s Academic Award as a top student-athlete, McNeely, a backup receiver, is a special teams regular who will attend Florida’s medical school in August.

McNeely probably would have gone through his entire Florida football career unnoticed before scoring his first college touchdown on a 21-yard run following a fake field goal in Florida’s 38-20 upset victory over Georgia.

McNeely, who replaced the regular holder, took the snap and raced to the end zone untouched to tie the score, 7-7.

The Gators built on the momentum created by McNeely’s surprise touchdown, led 14-7 at halftime, and never looked back. It was the first time in four games that Muschamp defeated his alma mater as Florida’s coach — thanks, in part, to a former walk-on.

A day later, McNeely was bagging groceries and working the register in his regular job at a Gainesville supermarket that pays him close to $10 an hour. He took photos and signed autographs for adoring fans.

“For the rest of my life, I’ll be able to tell that story,” McNeely said.

Mariota makes statement

Oregon coach Mark Helfrich can’t say enough good things about his starting quarterback, Marcus Mariota.

Not only is Mariota a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate, he leads the nation in passing efficiency and points per game and ranks second in passing touchdowns. At 8-1, Oregon is the Pac-12 team best positioned to qualify for the playoffs.

Helfrich can’t get over the fact that Mariota, who would have been the first quarterback selected, bypassed the NFL Draft to return for his junior season.

“A lot of guys talk a good game. Everything that guy does is gospel,” Helfrich said. “Marcus’ contributions and dynamic nature, and the way he plays, kind of speaks for itself. The behind-the-scenes thing would be deciding to come back and his leadership. … I think it speaks to the type of guy he is, and certainly hopefully to the type of program that we have.”

Kansas State emerges as contender

Kansas State visits TCU on Saturday in its first matchup between Top 10 teams since the 2013 Fiesta Bowl against Oregon, and its first Top 10 matchup against a Big 12 opponent since facing Oklahoma in 2011. The Wildcats also have road games against West Virginia and Baylor.

“Yes, this is a difficult stretch,” said Kansas State coach Bill Snyder, a man of few words.

Kansas State’s only loss was against Auburn (20-14) in September. The Wildcats won at Oklahoma (31-30) last month, emboldening Snyder to believe that winning on the road against quality opponents is essential to maintain any realistic playoff hopes.

Trailing 7-0 against Oklahoma State following an eight-play, 84-yard scoring drive with 11:48 remaining in the first quarter, Kansas State responded with 45 unanswered points in a 48-14 victory.

The key play was Morgan Burns’ 86-yard kickoff return 12 seconds after Oklahoma State took the lead.

“Sometimes when that happens, guys stand around looking at each other: ‘What’s going on?’” Snyder said. “We didn’t have time to do that — (Morgan) put it in the end zone.

“I think it had a major impact on our players’ mindset at that early stage of the game.”

John Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at [email protected].

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