By RICK PETERSON
Kevin Neal Jr. will no doubt have some tough decisions to make over the coming years.
But deciding to return for his sixth and final year in the Washburn University football program wasn't one of them.
"It was a relatively easy decision,'' Neal said during this week's MIAA Media Day at Kansas City, Mo. "I love football so much and not playing the COVID year and then still having that extra year left I really wanted to utilize that last year because I love my teammates so much.''
The fact that the Ichabods are coming off a breakthrough 9-3 campaign that ended with a trip to the NCAA Playoffs also made the decision to come back a no-brainer for the 6-foot-1, 200-pound defensive back, who earned All-MIAA honorable mention last season.
The Ichabods return 73 lettermen, including 19 starters -- nine offense, seven defense, three special teams -- entering the 2022 season.
"I think we can be better,'' said Neal, a Platte City, Mo. native. "Last year definitely set the tone for what we can do and I feel like this offseason we've been training more as being the hunted and not the hunter and I think that's given us an extra edge to try to get us a conference championship.''
Neal is part of a 20-man group of seniors/graduate students that will be counted on to provide leadership for the Ichabods' underclassmen and newcomers.
"We definitely lost a lot of key pieces from last season,'' Neal said. "That senior class was really big, but overall I think our class will be really good at taking the younger guys and brining them up with us and I feel like we've been pretty good leaders for the team. I think we're going to be really good.''
Neal has played in 33 career games with 24 starts, making 148 tackles, including 5.0 tackles for loss.
A year ago Neal recorded 64 tackles with 49 solo stops and a game-saving interception in a win over MIAA champion Northwest Missouri State.
Neal, who compiled 16 tackles, including two tackles for loss, in Washburn's playoff game against Harding, said that the key now is to end his WU career with a bang this fall.
"I feel like I've put a lot of time in for the program and did a lot of good things for the program,'' Neal said. "With this last year I just want to have everything come to fruition. That's the goal, for sure.''
Washburn will open fall camp on Aug. 8 and will open its season at Yager Stadium on Sept. 1 against Lincoln.