FRISCO, Texas – New Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn has wanted to coach Keanu Neal for a long time -- long before the Atlanta Falcons drafted Neal with the 17th overall pick in 2016 when Quinn was their head coach.
"He recruited me out of high school right before he went to the league," Neal said. "He was with Florida (as defensive coordinator) and then he recruited me. Once I got to Florida, he ended up going to the NFL, but I've known him since 2012 basically."
Neal became a Pro Bowl safety in Quinn's system with the Falcons. The Cowboys hired Quinn in January. They signed Neal to a one-year, $5 million deal in March.
That's not a coincidence.
Quinn believes Neal will bring "speed and physicality" to a Cowboys defense looking to improve on a down season in which they allowed the most points and the second-most rushing yards in franchise history. The club also signed another former Falcon, safety Damontae Kazee, to help the transition to Quinn's scheme.
"They can give help on the communication that much quicker to make sure, 'Hey, this is what Q is saying here,'" Quinn said. "So, having that ability to kind of pass the message down the line, that's a big piece of it. But the reason they're here is their football ability, adding to our team and what they can bring. Both guys have had real experience as ballhawks."
No question Neal has a comfort level playing for Quinn, but he's also learning on the job this offseason.
A strong safety for five seasons in Atlanta, Neal is starting off at linebacker, where he says he's focusing on the WILL (weak side) and dime positions.
Neal said he has played "forms of" linebacker in the past as a box safety. As a linebacker, he'll play closer to the line of scrimmage more often. And he plans to play about five pounds heavier than his listed 217 weight last year.
"Honestly, I'm learning just like the other guys," he said. "It's a new position for me. So like the other guys, they're learning and I'm right with them."
Neal obviously has the versatility to play safety if needed. In his second year in the league, he made the Pro Bowl with a career-high 112 tackles and five forced fumbles. An ACL tear in 2018 and a torn Achilles' tendon in 2019 limited him to just four games in those two seasons.
He returned healthy last year and played in 15 games for the Falcons, recording 97 tackles, two pass breakups, a sack and an interception.
In Dallas, he'll be ready to play either position.
"I don't categorize myself," he said. "I feel like I can play safety, linebacker -- wherever they put me I going to go out there and play at my best.
"Growing up I played linebacker in middle school and high school, then we changed the defense and I switched to safety. So I went to college as a safety. But in my heart, I've been a linebacker for a while. As time went on I moved to safety. I still have an understanding of what everything entails with playing linebacker."