WEST LONG BRANCH — When Neal Sterling made the transition from Manasquan High School to Monmouth University in 2010, his goals were fairly modest.

“I didn’t get much interest coming out of high school. I had a couple of looks and Monmouth was my only scholarship offer,” Sterling said during an interview session at the Hawks’ football media day on Tuesday.

“I knew a lot of Shore (Conference) kids that were here and felt I could help build the program. I thought I was going to come here and maybe play a couple of years and get a degree.”

Five years later, Sterling’s profile is significantly higher than he ever imagined it could be. The fifth-year senior wide receiver will begin his fourth year as a starter when Monmouth kicks off its 2014 season on August 30. After redshirting as a freshman, Sterling combined for 90 catches, 1,063 yards and 10 touchdowns over the next two seasons, which included being named the Northeast Conference Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2011. After a junior year in which he caught 57 passes for 647 yards and 6 touchdowns, the prospect of playing in the NFL has become legitimate. With another big year in 2014 — Monmouth’s first in the Big South Conference — Sterling could find himself battling for a spot on an NFL roster this time next year.

Monmouth University senior wide receiver Neal Sterling is a potential NFL prospect if he can turn in another big season in 2014. (Photo by Bob Badders).

“After playing my (redshirt) freshman year I found out I was pretty good,” Sterling said. “That motivated me to work that much harder and build goals for myself, and that helped me with my playing ability. Coming into my senior year I’m ready to go. The NFL has been a pretty big goal of mine since my junior year.”

With its first year in the Big South right around the corner, 2014 is a crucial season for both the Hawks and Sterling. The higher-profile conference features Coastal Carolina, the No. 7 team in the FCS preseason poll, along with powerful Liberty. Sterling needs to have his most productive season in order for Monmouth to succeed with its most difficult schedule to date, and to also keep his NFL dream alive. The challenge has been to limit the distractions and not let the prospects of a professional football career get in the way of what he has to accomplish in the present.

“It’s always in the back of my head, obviously, but I don’t really think about it too much,” Sterling said. “I just know I have to give my best effort and make plays. What I try to do is let it motivate me. I do every rep, every lift and every workout as hard as I can because there’s always someone watching me.”

The inevitable comparisons to Miles Austin are there, and will only become more prevalent as Sterling continues to put up numbers. Austin, who played at Garfield High School, starred at Monmouth before being signed by the Dallas Cowboys as an undrafted free agent in 2006. He played eight seasons in Dallas and made the Pro Bowl in 2009 and 2010. He signed with the Cleveland Browns prior to this season.

“I get that comparison a lot, but I just try to let people know I’m not Miles,” Sterling said. “He was a great player here but I don’t try to play up to him. I’m really appreciative because he opened up eyes to this program, but I try to stay away from that comparison.”

Austin and Sterling have met before, however, when Austin has returned to West Long Branch to work out with the team.

“He’s given me tips on my game and route running, but we never talked about the NFL,” Sterling said.

Austin put Monmouth University on the map when it comes to NFL prospects. Since Austin, safety Jose Gumbs, who played for the Redskins in 2013 but is currently a free agent, tight end John Nalbone, who has played for six NFL teams and is currently a free agent, and receiver Chris Hogan (Buffalo Bills) have reached the NFL. There are also currently 10 former Shore Conference players participating in NFL training camps. Sterling would be the first local player from Monmouth University to reach the NFL, but looking around him he knows it's not impossible.

“I think I’ve played with three people who are in the NFL - Jose Gumbs, Miles Austin and I played AAU basketball with Bennett Jackson - so seeing them get there opens my eyes and makes it a reachable goal for me.”

A better relationship with quarterback Brandon Hill also has Sterling excited for the upcoming season. Hill transferred from UMass before last season and he and Sterling didn’t have much time to work together before the start of the season.

“Coming in last year we basically had zero chemistry and we had to build it on the fly,” Sterling said.

With a full year under their belts as well as the offseason and spring ball, Hill and Sterling are on the same page, and that should translate into more production.

“We’ve definitely built a better relationship and we know each other’s strong points,” Sterling said.

Sterling began his career at Monmouth with humble expectations and will start his final season with basic goals, as well. This time, however, the end result could eclipse his wildest dreams.

“I basically want to just have my best season and leave this school with my best numbers and best season, team-wise and personally,” Sterling said. “I just want to live up to my potential.”