Before the start of the 2013 football season, Peoria Liberty coaches realized they would need to fill some holes on offense and especially in the backfield.
Their dependable and athletic senior linebacker Zach Neill seemed like a good option at running back so they decided to have him split time on both sides of the ball. No one imagined how effective he would be.
Neill carried the ball 155 times for 1,514 yards and 17 touchdowns. He also remained a dangerous force on defense, totaling 142 tackles (more than 10 a game) and causing two fumbles and making three interceptions. In addition, he filled in on special teams and had six kickoff returns for 184 yards and one touchdown.
“He’s one of those kids where you want to have 20 of them on the team,” Liberty head coach Dan Filleman said.
And while what the 6-foot, 190-pound senior did on Friday nights this season was impressive, it’s not all that surprising for those who know him. Neill is exemplary in most of the roles he plays — as an athlete, student, citizen and church member.
“He’s a dream kid,” Filleman said.
And last week, the 17-year-old realized a dream of his own.
Neill announced that he will play at Brown University next year, an Ivy League school with an acceptance rate of less than 10 percent. Brown requires applicants to have at least a 3.85 GPA among other stringent requirements. Neill has a 3.95. He passed on 14 other offers to become a Brown Bear, ultimately committing to Brown because of the exceptional educational benefits, Filleman said.
The coach said his dedication in academics makes Neill a better athlete.
“He’s a driven individual and he’s just as driven in the classroom. That shows in athletics,” he said.
Neill’s efforts helped Liberty to an 8-4 finish in Division II. The team lost in the quarterfinals to eventual champion Tucson Salpointe Catholic.
Filleman said Neill took on a larger role as a leader this year. He isn’t the most vocal on the field, but he motivates others through his strong work ethic, especially in practice.
Neill isn’t all business all the time though, his coach said.
“He’s mature but he also has kid side,” he said. “He’s a jokester and he likes to be a goofball. But, when it comes down to it he can turn that on and off.”