Reggie McNeal's first reaction to being traded by the Toronto Argonauts last month was pure excitement: "All right, I'm headed to the Calgary Stampeders. New team, fresh start."
His second reaction wasn't quite so enthusiastic: "I'm headed to a team that already has Nik Lewis, Ken-Yon Rambo, Romby Bryant and a fleet of other receivers? This is a good thing?"
It very well could be.
Little more than a week into training camp, McNeal is doing all he can to be noticed by the Calgary coaching staff so that when the regular-season roster is chosen his name will be on the list. And by doing anything, we mean everything, including paying attention to what the quarterbacks are doing, their reads and play calling.
It's a way for McNeal to make himself versatile and valuable, and it comes naturally to the 27-year-old Texan. From high school to university, to the National Football League and the Canadian Football League, McNeal has been a man for two positions; the quarterback who became a receiver who still works on his quarterbacking skills, just in case.
Here's how it happened: after four years at Texas A&M, where he was a starter and a stand-out quarterback, McNeal was drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals in 2006 as a receiver, a position he played only once before in his freshman year of high school. In the NFL preseason, he caught three passes and scored a touchdown and earned a spot on the Bengals' practice roster. He was eventually put on the active roster and made a play in a Monday Night Football encounter with the Indianapolis Colts. But no, he didn't catch a pass. He lined up at quarterback and scampered eight yards for a first down.
The Argonauts signed McNeal in 2008 soon after he was released in Cincinnati. He played quarterback in the preseason but, when a teammate was lost to injury, McNeal was asked to step in at receiver. In his CFL debut, he took on the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and caught six passes for 101 yards.
"That was that," McNeal said with a shrug of his shoulders. "I've stuck there ever since."
Over three CFL seasons, McNeal has caught 80 passes for 1,090 yards and five touchdowns. When the Stampeders traded for him, giving up import receiver P.K. Sam in a package deal, they, too, told McNeal his quarterbacking talents could come in handy.
"The first thing you see is he's a veteran and he's got a feel for our game," said Calgary receiver coach Pete Costanza. "He's got the size to play slotback and the speed to play outside. And he's been paying attention to [offensive coordinator]Dave Dickenson about the quarterbacks' reads [on opposing defences.]/p>
"You never know if there's an emergency."
McNeal admitted that even when he lines up at receiver he still thinks like a quarterback. He analyzes defensive coverages, reacts to defenders and does what he can to help out his passer. "The only difference," he said, "is I'm reading defences from behind [as a receiver] I'm used to seeing them from [the quarterback]position."
Still, even with his throwing skills, McNeal knows cracking the Calgary lineup wouldn't be easy. The Stampeders have several other imports in camp looking to stick, as well as a handful of Canadian receivers - Jabari Arthur, Johnny Forzani, Arjei Franklin and first-round draft pick Anthony Parker from the University of Calgary.
"We'll probably keep three Canadians and six, maybe seven imports," Costanza said. "We'll see how it plays out. That's what the preseason games are for."
For McNeal, that means using his leadership and size [6 foot 2, 200 pounds]to their full extent. So far, he's found the switch to Calgary from Toronto to his liking, mostly because of the guys he's now competing with for a starting job.
"I knew they were deep at receiver but, being here, I've found this to be a hard-working group that likes to have fun, too. I feel it's a good fit."