Quayshaun Nealy got a very nice birthday present for his 21st birthday Sunday afternoon.
He got an opportunity to put on shoulder pads for the first time in practice in 2012 and fly around the field.
About the only thing that Nealy might have wished for to make the day perfect — other than to deliver some birthday whacks — was for Julian Burnett to be playing next to him.
Like the rest of Georgia Tech’s 2012 football team, Nealy will miss Burnett, the 5-10, 220-pound bullet train who worked his way up the depth chart then, once in the lineup, blasted through opposing offensive lines and knocked bigger backs and receivers silly. A severe neck injury suffered in the Sun Bowl against Utah ended Burnett’s playing career.
Nealy, who stands 6-1, 223, towered over Burnett but admitted he looked up to him.
“He brought so much passion to the game and so much energy,” said the middle linebacker, who was fifth on the team with 52 tackles (24 solo), had 3.0 tackles for loss, three pass break-ups, a fumble recovery, and a pair of intereptions, one of which he took the distance. “It was really just a thrill to be out there with him. I’m out there on the field with him, seeing the same thing. Him hitting big linemen and knocking them over, at his size. Julian’s 215, 220 and that joker is just bringing that power. It was really a fun thing to see.
“I learned to be relentless no matter your size,” he added. “You can always be a beast on the field. He’s a great guy. I wish he was still playing with us.”
The nature of the game requires teams to move on, and Nealy has, but he keeps the memories of Burnett fresh in his memory.
“We always joked on the field but it was about business when it came down to it,” said Nealy, who played in all 13 games in 2011, almost always next to Burnett, starting seven times. “If I missed a tackle or I did something, he would always get on me but he would have my back. So I miss that a lot about him.”
This year, Nealy will likely line up next to good friend and former roommate Jeremiah Attaochu. He is looking forward to that and the challenge of living up to the standard Burnett set.
“I focused my spring on getting physical between the blocks, getting a whole lot more physical,” said the Lakeland, Fla., native, who is one of the team’s top performers in the weight room where he squats 565, benches 390, and cleans 350. “I met with Coach Groh and we set goals as far as me being physical, we set goals about developing better pass-rush skills and I feel like I did a great job.”
He had plenty to build on following his redshirt freshman season, which concluded with a memorable performance in the Sun Bowl, where he recorded five tackles, and made a spectacular 74-yard interception return for a touchdown. He has not forgotten the play, where took in a poorly thrown screen pass that Utah QB Jon Hays gift-wrapped for him, then took off down the sideline and into the end zone untouched.
Nealy won’t ever forget the play nor will he let anyone else, as the YouTube clip is posted on his Facebook page.
“I look at it every now and again but people remind me,” he said. “My teammates tell me, ‘Boy, I’ve never seen you move that fast before.’”
Nealy would like to show off more of his speed and power and provide more bang for the buck once he gets to the ball. He expects the entire linebacking corps to join him in being more aggressive and taking advantage of its speed, athleticism and versatility.
This group also may be closer as a unit.
“We’re all real close,” said Nealy, who fondly recalled his first two years living on campus with Attaochu, fellow linebacker Brandon Watts and cornerback Louis Young. “This summer, we got closer. We went on outings together, we went bowling, stuff like that to build our bond so out there on the field we’ll be more comfortable with each other.”
The entire team expects to be real comfortable by the time it heads to Blacksburg, Va. for the season opener against Virginia Tech. It’s less than 30 days away and is something they’re working toward every day.
“Some of the goals were basically for us to get better as a whole, come together, build camaraderie, for all the body-weight guys to lose body weight, body fat, and just get prepared for VT,” he said. “Every time we broke it down, it was always 9/3. We’re thinking about farther down the road.”