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A Captain in the Making: New Pitt DL Isaiah ‘Ghost’ Neal Plans to Make a Difference



Pat Narduzzi said he’d be shocked if Isaiah Neal doesn’t end up as a Pitt captain, at least by his senior season. Yeah. Yeah, I see now why he said that.

Neal — Pitt’s newest defensive lineman, a 6-foot-3, 270-pound inside-outside threat out of St. Frances Academy in Baltimore, Maryland — has it. He’s a four-star recruit, which he doesn’t care about in the slightest, but it’s the intangibles that stand out when looking at Neal as a person. As a defensive lineman.

As he spoke to the media for nearly 20 minutes Wednesday at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, for the first time, it felt like he was a seasoned vet. Are we sure this kid is fresh out of high school, missing the second half of his senior year for this?

Isaiah ‘Ghost’ Neal is here to stay, and if anything, he’s here to stay for a long time.

He sees the older, veteran guys ahead of him, a handful of sixth-year seniors, and where some would see it as a problem, Neal looks at it as an opportunity. He’s already looking forward to watching their every move, soaking up every ounce of knowledge.

After just six weeks in the system, Neal can see how Pitt’s culture is conducive for churning out stud defensive linemen on a yearly basis, and while it’s easy — and you have to — credit defensive line coach Charlie Partridge, it’s a testament to the people.

“So, like today, we had individual drills,” Neal said Wednesday. “If I’m messing up, they’re not guys — which I was a little nervous about coming in. I didn’t know how the culture would be in that sense. But they’re not guys that’re going to just let me mess up and keep going because it don’t got nothing to do with them. They will stop and sit there and tell me, walk me through it.”

It takes a significant adjustment to make the jump to the college level, and even if some aspects may be easier, it’s still a brand-new journey. It helps to have Partridge and a room full of experienced veterans to learn from every step of the way.

But at the same time, Neal also recognizes as the youngest guy in the defensive line, he has some catching up to do. It may be hard to pull himself out of bed at five in the morning, but he does it nonetheless. He recognizes his playing time is largely dependent on himself — how hard he works, how quickly he’s able to learn the playbook and hone his techniques to what Partridge looks for.

“I mean, not to say I don’t want to play as soon as I could, because of course, but I don’t mind being patient,” Neal said. “Being patient, I feel like, is a skill. I mean, if I’m able to be patient and soak up as much knowledge as I can until it’s my time, by the time it’s my time, I should be ready to go. I should have all that pinned and ready to go because I sat there and, and instead of being like, ‘They’re not playing me, they don’t like me,’ it’s more like, ‘Alright, let me see what they’re doing good with what coach P’s telling them.'” 

Patience is a virtue. And while Neal is ready to wait for his chance to make an impact on the field, he’s not waiting when it comes to sculpting his body. “Y’all see how Aaron Donald looks, right?” Neal said. “That’s how I want to look.” It’s the first time in his life that he’s actually able to commit all-out to changing his body, and he’s taking advantage.

Neal was actually able to meet Donald during his official visit over the summer, and while that was a life-long goal in itself, it was the relationships he formed with a couple of more recent All-American interior linemen from Pitt that led to his commitment.

Jaylen Twyman’s younger brother Santana Williams — a 6-foot-1, 290-pound defensive lineman in the class of 2024, who holds an offer from Pitt — is one of Neal’s best friends. So, of course, as Neal was considering Pitt last summer, he picked Twyman’s brain, asking about the school, the scheme, the do’s and don’t’s for Partridge. It was important research, but the visit itself was obviously even more important.

“I mean, if he would’ve told me anything that’s disturbing, I wouldn’t be here,” Neal said. “So, he had definitely high praise. You know, I also like coming on my official visit, Calijah was like the person around here that was watching me throughout the weekend. So, I was able to pick his brain as well as he was currently here when I was asking the questions and stuff.”

Kancey was Pitt’s first unanimous All-American since Donald himself in 2013, winning ACC Defensive Player of the Year as an interior lineman, and he’s projected as a potential first round selection in the 2023 NFL Draft this April. As a fellow “undersized” defensive lineman, Neal built a bond with Kancey. Kancey was why Neal felt comfortable committing to Pitt in June.

“He was a big part of me making the decision to commit on my official visit,” Neal said. “I wasn’t planning to do that, but when I came, him being as open to a newcomer and not only him, but like the teams around him. When we were going out or even just being in here throughout the day, just seeing how they interact with each other. Everybody is well-knit, so there was no Hollywood aspect of him, you know? He is about to go to the draft next year. He didn’t give me none of that. He gave me Calijah Kancey, he gave me who he was. He’s a good guy.”

Despite Kancey’s status as one of the premier defenders in all of college football, Neal was given a glimpse of who Kancey is as a person. It’s a testament to both Kancey and Partridge — who Kancey has credited in keeping himself grounded.

Partridge is another huge reason why Neal felt comfortable with Pitt in the first place. His resume speaks for itself, and that connection was a determining factor when looking at his other pursuers — which included schools like N.C. State, Louisville, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Ole Miss, Virginia Tech and West Virginia.

“We all know coach (Pat) Narduzzi loves some defense,” Neal said. “So, I came to a team where not only is defense emphasized, but in the defensive line room, we have a lot of flexibility because of the trust coach Narduzzi has in coach Partridge. So, I feel like him being who he is was a big reason for me coming here. Without coach Partridge, man, it’s a different story maybe.”

And fortunately for Pitt, it is highly likely that Partridge and Neal will be around for the long haul. And fortunately for Pitt, once again, Neal has experience in quickly adapting to a new location. He left Gonzaga High in Washington D.C. for St. Frances Academy in Baltimore, Maryland to play his senior year of high school. He was even a mid-year guy at St. Frances, arriving in January.

He quickly became a leader on one of the best high school football teams in the United States, frequently standing before his teammates and delivering a quick speech to get his teammates fired up.

“You don’t get fired up and really lock into a speech like that to a guy that you don’t trust, that’s going to do the things he’s saying in that speech,” Neal said. “So, everything I said is stuff that I truly believe and I want to go execute. So, that to me is huge because I feel like if the guy next to me, the guy behind me can’t trust me, I’m a liability now. So, I feel like maybe I don’t have to as soon as I get here, right now, be a captain, I  mean, that’s not probable. Just to have that trust. I think it’s more so trust than it is the title of being a captain.”

Building those bonds, being a leader even without the title, is very important to Neal. It comes naturally. “I feel like football has built that into me, like throughout my whole life,” Neal said. “I’ve been like a captain since like nine. I was nine years old being a leader of little boys. Now I want to become a leader of men.” Great leaders, regardless of whether that’s in life or in spots, have the people skills to bring people together, to trust them.

Neal was raised by his mother Tina, a single mother herself who never let him forget the meaning of perseverance and overcoming, and he credits her for being the man — and the leader — he is today.

“I didn’t have an older brother or older sister just to look up to as my leader,” Neal said. “So, a lot of times when I’m going into stuff, I’m thinking I have to be the leader or nobody else will. That’s kind of the mindset I have. And it is a big credit to my mom. She raised me to be pretty well-spoken, trustworthy and a hard worker. So, I feel like all that is a credit to my mom.”

Neal recognizes that he’s new to the program, just an early enrollee freshman, so he doesn’t want to overstep. But at the same time, he’s not going to be someone who just watches either — it’s not in his nature. “I’m just, piece by piece, trying to get to the point where the people around me, my teammates, can trust me so that I can really be that leader,” Neal said. “Right now, I’m still trying to get the little stuff together first, so that I can really be a trustworthy guy in that position.” If he can help out during a drill, point out what needs to be done and hold his teammates accountable, he’s making progress. 

At the end of the day, Neal just wants to be able to make an impact — on and off the field — at his new home. And he’s doing everything in his power to be a difference-maker in both regards.

Oh, and how did Neal get the nickname ‘Ghost’? Well, it’s a pretty funny story.

“It’s actually a pretty funny story,” Neal said. “So, in sixth grade, I changed to a new little league team, and I was the only light-skinned kid on a team full of kids that were darker. So, it just looked like I had a white sheet over me, like a ghost.”

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
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1 year ago

I really feel great about the Pitt program when I read these articles. Pat Narduzzi has character traits that represents us from the Pittsburgh area. I use the word moxie. Moxie is defined as “energy, pep, confidence and determination.” I also think of the people from the region as humble, hard working and stand their ground and push for what they want but never expect a hand out. When you hear speak and watch their actions the former Pitt players in the NFL they make the program proud. The same for the current players. This is Pat Narduzzi’s DNA and… Read more »

1 year ago
Reply to  Maz1960

Gotta give some love to Charlie Partridge too for securing what might be the next great d-lineman for Pitt…”Without Coach Partridge, man, it might be a different story maybe.” Partridge is sooo valuable to the program, hope he never leaves.

1 year ago
Reply to  Dixon

Agree completely. I think the same could be said for much of the Pitt staff. Add Borberly to this conversation. Many of Narduzzi’s coaches are a bit older and are not as concerned with resume building but with program building and player development. This is why you see these three star athletes come in and have great success.

On a side note I am impressed with the work Michael Stacchiotti and his strength and conditioning team is doing with the team.

Pitt has a great support system.

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