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How two small-school prospects hope to make big-time contributions in Buffalo

Posted May 15, 2018

Senior Bowl participants, Bills draft picks and FCS All-Americans. Those are just a few of the things Taron Johnson and Siran Neal already have in common. Together they're out to prove they can be contributors for Buffalo.

During rookie minicamp, cornerback Taron Johnson and safety Siran Neal lined up in the secondary on the same side of the field. Prior to the snap Neal was relaying the call to Johnson. It’s part of the new and different communication the two rookies now have as teammates.

But there might not be two players on Buffalo’s roster with more in common as they begin their professional careers.

Both were lightly recruited out of high school. Both had to earn their accolades and their exposure at the FCS level in college football. And both were highly decorated by the time their college careers were over after being among the best at a level of college football that’s often underestimated.

Johnson and Neal both had to toil at the Football Championship Subdivision level in college. Johnson at Weber State, the only college offer he received, and Neal at Jacksonville State.

Recruited to Weber State as a receiver, Johnson asked his head coach if he could switch to cornerback, as he saw a better future for himself at the position. Come his senior season, Johnson set the school record for pass breakups reaching 42 in his college career and was named Big Sky Conference Defensive Player of the Year.

Neal was a Swiss army knife for Jacksonville State playing linebacker, safety and cornerback in his time with the Gamecocks and earned All-Ohio Valley Conference honors his final two seasons despite playing two different positions.

Both Johnson and Neal received FCS All-American honors at the close of the 2017 season. Johnson was an AP First-Team FCS All-American and Neal received the same honor from the American Football Coaches Association.

The two were part of just a handful of FCS players invited to participate in the Senior Bowl in Mobile. They were on opposite teams, but did catch up with one another during the week.

“I looked him up on the Senior Bowl website because I saw we both were from FCS schools,” Neal told Buffalobills.com. “So both coming from that level piqued my interest. We talked a little bit at the Senior Bowl and then we both got drafted by the same team so it was great.”

Johnson and Neal came off the board in back-to-back picks by the Bills on day three of the draft. After Buffalo picked Neal he texted Johnson.

“He told me, ‘Let’s ball!’ We kind of get overlooked a bit just because of the competition we played against,” said Johnson. “So the Senior Bowl was a great opportunity for us to show what we can really do.”

The two defensive backs are now trying to make their mark with the Bills, but there’s a kinship between the two rookies thanks to their FCS route to the NFL.

“There is some of that. We are trying to put on for the FCS,” Neal said. “The bigger focus for us right now though is to get everything down and understand the level of play and how fast the games go here with Buffalo.”

“Most definitely. I am just getting to know him and I can tell he’s a great guy,” said Johnson. “So it’s good to be working with someone like that because we have the same goal in mind.”

Johnson and Neal are also roommates with the Bills, so there will be plenty of time away from the field to study the defensive playbook as a tandem.

“We’re probably going to be studying the book all through rookie minicamp and when OTAs come around we’ll be together getting ready for those practices every day,” Johnson said. “So we’re just excited about the whole thing.”

“The next step is picking up the defensive scheme really fast,” said Neal. “The game is going fast. The coaches are moving through material fast and the ball is coming out faster. So, we just want to get adjusted to the speed of the game.”

Both understand they’re facing uphill battles to land a starting job, but that wouldn’t be all that different from the path they took to get to the NFL in the first place.

“When somebody says something about FCS I say, ‘Look where I’m at now,’” said Neal. “We’re all at the same level now so it doesn’t matter at all.”