There was much debate about who was the top wide receiver for Oklahoma in the Class of 2012. Some thought it was the local kid, Sterling Shepard, while others said Durron Neal was going to end up being the star.
Neal, who had an absolutely gaudy highlight reel at St. Louis DeSmet Jesuit, was definitely poised for big things no matter.
Fast forward to August 2014 and things haven’t exactly panned out for Neal, now entering his junior season as a Sooner.
“It has been frustrating,” Neal said. “But you know Coach Jay Norvell and my parents are always telling me to humble myself. I know God has a plan for everyone and everybody’s path is different. My stepdad always told me to celebrate the slow start because it’s going to be worth it in the end.”
It might start becoming worth it right about now. OU coach Bob Stoops didn’t have a lot of time to address the receiver situation at media day, but he didn’t hesitate to point out how well Neal was doing in the first week of practice.
This has to be the year for Neal, and it can’t just be lip service from Stoops. OU’s experience at wide receiver is little-to-none after Shepard.
While Shepard has racked in catches, yards and touchdowns and memorable moments, Neal’s stat line looks a little bare. Eighteen catches for 251 yards and zero touchdowns in two seasons with the Sooners.
But his attitude has been different. His tone has been different. In the way he talks to the way he interacts on social media, Neal is different.
“He’s hungry, and we’re all behind him,” redshirt freshman Jordan Smallwood said. “Hopefully he’s going to make some big plays.”
In order to make those big plays on the field, Neal has had to overcome some adversity off the field. It hasn’t been easy, but he said it has made him a stronger person.
Neal was once one of the most vocal in the social media realm. Posting on Twitter seemingly every hour with something new, usually something funny. But he said he has lost a lot of people in the last two years, some cousins and an uncle, and the focus has changed.
“I’ve grown up a little bit more and focusing on real life,” Neal said. “Focusing in on becoming a better player. Over the course of the last two years, I’ve lost a lot of close people in my life. It has humbled me and made me realize life is short. I have to make the best of everything.”
Part of that is being a mentor and leader to the younger guys. Not just the younger guys, though, as OU has welcomed a familiar name into the fold with the arrival of Dorial Green-Beckham.
Like Neal, Green-Beckham is a product of Missouri. He played his high school ball at Springfield Hillcrest, about four hours away from Neal in St. Louis. The two never developed a buddy-buddy relationship, but there was no doubt they were the best receivers in the state and among the best in the nation for the 2012 class.
Neal tried to sway Green-Beckham OU and DGB did the same with Neal when it was clear Missouri was going to be his choice. With both in the crimson and cream, Neal was quick to say Green-Beckham has finally made the right choice.
“When I found out he was coming here I called him up and we just talked about excited we are to be playing on the same team again,” Neal said. “Right now we’re just trying to make him feel at home, and we love him like a brother. This whole process has been long, but he comes in ready to work, asks questions and goes out and makes plays on the practice fields.”
The same types of plays Neal wants to make on Saturdays this fall. No more missed opportunities. No more could’ves or should’ves. His time is now, and the rest of team is letting him know that.
“It feels good,” Neal said. “It lets me know my teammates trust me. My quarterback trusts me, and I relish that trust. I want to be that guy they look at to make those big plays in big games.”