With less than 80 days until UMHB’s fall sports officially get underway, it is now time to begin looking at the incoming recruits from the Class of 2022, and their backgrounds and goals as they join the Cru for the upcoming season. True To The Cru will bring you interviews such as this one regularly throughout the next couple of months, featuring athletes from all 15 varsity sports.
The UMHB defense continues to garner more and more talent with each passing recruiting class and 2022 was no different. With changes in the offensive coaching staff, the recruiting on the defensive side of the ball took center stage in the weeks immediately following UMHB’s Stagg Bowl victory.
Blair Neighbors was one of the high school standouts who was recruited by the Cru, and made Belton his college home, staying true to his Central Texas roots after a stellar three-year career at Thrall High School, just 48 miles from UMHB.
Neighbors led Thrall’s defense in each of the last two seasons, also stepping into a two-way role as a wide receiver during the 2021 campaign, which saw the Tigers post a 6-4 record. The 6’0, 175 lb standout caught 17 passes for 248 yards and three scores in his first high school season at the position. He capped off his time in the prep ranks with an appearance in the widely-renowned Heart of Texas FCA Victory Bowl on June 4, tallying 13 tackles, three tackles for loss and a sack in one of the game’s top defensive performances.
We spoke with Neighbors about all of this and more in this recent edition of “Catching up with the Commits”.
Just last week, you were spectacular in the Victory Bowl. What was that experience like for you, getting to play one last high school game alongside so many other seniors from schools across Central Texas?
BN: “I had a really good time there. I played a great game and had a bunch of tackles, a sack, a tackle for loss, and it was a great last game of high school. I had the chance to play with a bunch of friends, and meet new friends. I also got to meet some people who are committed to other schools in our conference, who I will be playing against at UMHB. There were seven or eight kids who also gave their lives to God. That was incredible.”
How much of a role does that faith play in your life, and also the way you approach your sport?
BN: “I’ve grown up in church my whole life, especially with my dad being a pastor. Faith is a big part of my life. God gave me the abilities to play football, and I try to glorify Him through that. So no matter what I’m doing, I’m honoring Him, and I can do it in football.”
UMHB is obviously a faith-based school with a faith-based football program. Was that a significant factor in your decision to become a Crusader?
BN: “For sure. Not only just in football, but the university as a whole. Being able to grow in my faith and relationship with God and be around people who are like-minded and want to continue growing in their faith as well. That was a big factor in my decision [to come to UMHB]. I had been wanting to come here for multiple years. When I finally got on campus and was able to see it, it just was like, ‘Man I really want to go here.’ Whenever I was offered, it was like, ‘Man, I know I’m coming here now.’”
As you look back on your high school career at Thrall, in what area do you feel like you saw the most improvement?
BN: “Definitely defense. I came into Thrall my sophomore year and ever since I got here, the coaches have been so accepting of me. My former head coach [Rick Porter], who was also our linebackers coach and sadly passed away last year, he helped mentor me a lot and taught me so many things about defense to where I was able to be quarterback of the defense my junior and senior year. Defense has always been my specialty, but this past year, we needed some wide receivers, so I was able to step in and have a good season there as well, even though it was my first season playing wide receiver.”
Playing alongside you at Thrall and also in the Victory Bowl was UMHB running back commit Tyreke Irvin. What was it like having him as a high school teammate and does his coming to UMHB possibly make the transition a little bit easier from high school to college?
BN: “That’s one of my best friends. It’s been a special experience to play with him the last three years, and I hope to get to play with him the next four. He’s going to be my roommate and I’m just so excited to see both of us grow as players and people, in general. It definitely makes the transition [to college] easier.”
You spoke of the key role your coaches at Thrall played in your development on the field. But how influential were they in building your character and those things even away from the field?
BN: “My coaches at Thrall are not just my coaches, but they’re also my friends and mentors and people I look up to in life. They’ve taught me how to be a God-fearing man, a good husband, a good dad, and I hope as I continue to mature at UMHB the coaches [there] will do the same thing, and I think they will just from the little bit that I have seen.”
I would guess then that having a coaching staff like the one you had in high school made finding a college program with a similar group of coaches pretty high on your priority list?
BN: “Having a really good team with great coaching staff makes you want to go play for a team like it. If you’re playing for a national championship every single year, that’s a pretty good incentive to go there. Coach Brace is the one who has really embraced me and I’m excited to get to ampus and develop a better relationship with him and go to work. I’m excited to be a part of UMHB and the culture there, because it’s a great culture.”
As you enter your freshman year, I know you are very driven in the classroom just as you are on the field. What are your thoughts right now on what kind of a degree you are looking to pursue?
BN: “What I am looking at right now is a degree in what is called transformational development. It is a half business degree and half Christian studies. I’m hoping to be able to use both of those things to do whatever God wants me to do. It could be starting a faith-based Christian business or doing mission work somewhere. Wherever God wants me.”
Last one for you, but do you have any goals for yourself as you enter your first year of college football?
BN: “There are around 300 kids that come in [at the beginning of fall camp]. So I think my goal by the end of my freshman year is to make the varsity and be on the travel squad. I think that’s a good goal for me to have.”