Jerel McNeal was born on June 1, 1987 in Chicago, Illinois to parents Edward and Meryln McNeal. He attended Hillcrest High School, where he was a teammate of current Marquette junior Maurice Acker. He played for the Marquette Golden Eagles and was a prominent part of Marquette's successful 2008 campaign, which ended with a buzzer-beating loss against the Stanford Cardinal, where he missed the game-winning shot with six seconds left in regulation.
On February 10, 2009, in Marquette's 102-84 loss at Villanova, McNeal became the all-time leading scorer in Marquette history, surpassing the 41 year old record previously held by former Marquette star George Thompson of 1,773 points.
He won the Big East's Defensive Player of the Year Award as a sophomore in the 2006-07 season.