Lukayus McNeil is the natural choice to protect Louisville's playoff hopes

The reason the sleeper label was stuck to Louisville over the summer was apparent the first two weeks of the season. Once a playoff candidate stealthily peering from the periphery, Lamar Jackson has made the Cardinals an early-season darling.

The 19-year-old sophomore quarterback has accounted for 13 touchdowns in just two games and became the second player in FBS history to pass for 400 yards and rush for 150 in Louisville’s Week 2 win over Syracuse.

This week, the 10th-ranked Cardinals welcome No. 2 Florida State. A win will establish Louisville as potentially the conference favorite, but to do it the Cardinals will have to keep Jackson upright. It’s no small task when facing the Seminoles’ DeMarcus Walker, who terrorized Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly in Week 1 with 4.5 sacks.

For that job, Louisville has Lukayus McNeil standing guard, and there’s no Cardinal better suited to protect Jackson and Louisville’s playoff chances than the 6-foot-6, 313-pound tackle.

Before being asked to protect Jackson, the redshirt sophomore offensive tackle has been protecting his younger brother from a desperate reality for years. McNeil shielded now-19-year-old Isriel from a disintegrating family life and the burdens of homelessness.

“I couldn’t even know where to begin because he’s been that role model for me this past, well, lifetime,” Isriel said. “Every time I’m in something, he’s in there with me. It’s having that one person you look up to.”

McNeil lived with three brothers and his mother in some of the most dangerous neighborhoods Indianapolis, but he always kept Isriel the closest. The two were always together.

His oldest brother died in February at age 25 from cirrhosis of the liver while visiting McNeil at Louisville. The second oldest is in prison, communication coming only as often as the judicial system allows.

McNeil’s mother moved away early in his high school career, but McNeil decided to stay in Indianapolis, having found comfort at Decatur Central High School. Isriel stayed, too.

Finding permanent housing was more difficult than anticipated, so for most of high school McNeil and his brother bounced between houses of friends, teachers and coaches. McNeil was sparse with his family’s details, even to those taking them in.

They were homeless.

“I can’t even tell you,” McNeil said when asked how many different homes they have slept at. “We've moved all over the place.”

A constant in pictures of McNeil is a trademark radiant smile, but Isriel sensed constantly bouncing from place to place with him in tow was increasingly onerous.

“It’s given him a few metaphorical gray hairs,” Isriel said. “I saw him growing up struggling, and I can see it in his eyes he doesn’t want to struggle anymore.”

A little stability finally came in the home of Tony and Kelly Tate. Tony was McNeil’s basketball and track and field coach at Decatur Central, where Kelly is a teacher. They housed McNeil and his brother for a school year, and the two visit Louisville for games as often as possible.

Blue-blood programs Oklahoma and USC were interested in McNeil during his recruitment, but Isriel was his priority. Whenever McNeil went on a recruiting visit, Isriel’s welfare took precedence. He asked coaches how they would help him get home if Isriel needed him. Remaining in close proximity to Isriel was ultimately one of the deciding factors in McNeil’s commitment to Louisville

“I wanted to stay close to my little brother and didn’t know if I could move him down right away,” McNeil said. “I wanted to make sure I could see and take care of him, make sure we could both push through this together.”

Louisville’s campus is two hours from Indianapolis, and Isriel now lives with his brother while attending technical school and working a job McNeil set up. He’s the second high school graduate in his family.

“[Isriel] worships Lukayus. That’s his big brother,” Kelly said. “When you’re trying to survive together, the bond between the two is even closer.”

McNeil and his brother were joined 10 months ago by NcNeil’s first son, Lukayus Jr.

Fatherhood is not something McNeil has taken lightly. In Fact, securing his family’s future is his first priority.

“... Now I have a child and it’s all on my head all the time,” he said. “I’m doing this all for myself, my little brother and my son. I don’t have a choice.”

McNeil is open about his desire to forgo his final two years of eligibility for the NFL draft, if he has a strong redshirt sophomore season. He has said he’s looking at this season as the one that puts his goal within reach -- not of the NFL but of the stable family he’s always longed for.

“I have goals in my life. What makes me work so hard is how I grew up,” McNeil said. “I will never quit or give up on anything or stop working.”