Oates sets the tone for Trojans

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, August 14, 2002

Special. That one word is the best way to describe Troy State University defensive back Neal Oates, Jr. of Florala.

Special because like his father, Neal Oates, he has an outgoing, friendly attitude. Special because he is a part of the Trojans jump to Division 1A football. Special because while he is listed as a defensive back in the 2002 TSU media guide he is a starter on special teams.

Although special is the best word to describe Oates it is not adequate.

A 15-minute telephone interview and memories of his days playing on the Florala Wildcats' football and basketball teams reveals Oates character. He is a young man who excelled in high school athletics rushing for 2,260 yards and 36 touchdowns during the 1999 season earning him

recognition as a finalist for the Alabama Mr. Football honor.

Oates completed his high school career with more than 4,600 yards rushing, 56 touchdowns and ranks in the top 10 in the state for rushing yards. He also played defense for the Wildcats and his speed and quickness caught the eye of college football recruiters. He chose Troy State and is entering his third season as a member of the Trojans.

His statistics at TSU do not rival his high school numbers, but his attitude remains that of a team player eager to do whatever he can to contribute.

Oates' contributions come on special teams. While many equate serving on the kickoff coverage unit as being a member of the "suicide squad" Oates sees his role differently.

Oates describes his job on special teams as "fun" and he is not the only one.

"Being on kickoff coverage is the most fun," Oates said. "We have fun out there on the field. We get out there and dance and carry on.

"It's a family within a family," he added.

Flying down the field, busting through would be blockers and making a hard hit on the ball carrier is more than just fun for Oates. It is also an opportunity to contribute. Who can blame him if he and his mates enjoy it, especially when they go up against some of the best college football players in the nation when they faced Nebraska, the eventual national champion Miami Hurricanes and Mississippi State during the 2001 season.

While Oates and the members of the kickoff coverage team might dance a little to get the crowd going, the key to being on the special unit is all business.

"We set the tone a lot of times," Oates said. "Coach Blakeney looks for us to set the tone. So, that's something we take pride in."

Oates and the Trojans also take pride in being members of the Trojans and do not like it when they are taken lightly.

Sure, they have a tough schedule with games against Nebraska, Mississippi State and Arkansas but after last season they are more experienced and prepared for each Saturday test.

"It's a tough schedule, but we have experience," Oates said. "Our defense is strong and our offense is more comfortable.

"We're not settling for anything this year," he added. "We have the highest hopes for us and that's the way it should be. Coach told us that with great challenges come great opportunities."

Those challenges will be even more difficult this season because the Trojans will no longer face opponents with little knowledge about what they do on offense and defense. The Trojans' opponents now have a scouting report to help them prepare.

"Last year, a lot of people overlooked us," Oates said. "This year we are not going to catch anybody by surprise.

"Everybody will be out for us this year because they don't want to be the next Mississippi State," Oates continued. "They don't want to be made an example of."

Last season, teams might have overlooked the Trojans. The players at big-time college programs probably did not lose any sleep the week before their game against Troy State.

This season, Oates said every team will be more prepared and work hard leading up to kickoff. The Trojans will work hard too. However, when Oates and his teammates go to sleep at night they will have dreams to serve as reminders about what is possible.

"That's the kind of stuff you dream about," Oates said when asked about last season's games against Nebraska, eventual national champion Miami and the victory over Mississippi State. "That's the type of stuff you tell your kids about. That's stuff you don't forget."

Oates and the Trojans have fond memories, but they are not living in the past as they continue to prepare for the 2002 season.

"I'm out here with the big boys and I've got to step it up," is how Oates said he feels when he runs out on the field before a game against the Nebraskas and Mississippi States.

Oates recognizes the challenges he and the Trojans will face this season, but he is not intimidated and he should not be because he is a special player.

A player who will set the tone for the 2002 season come the opening kickoff against Nebraska on Saturday, Aug. 31.