The throw was high, but Durron Neal went up in between two Texas Tech defenders to try for a big first-down catch. He came down with it, grasping the ball with two hands and holding off the Red Raiders.
Coming across the middle with another pair of Red Raiders in between him and the goal line, Neal snagged a bullet pass from Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield. Taking a hit from both, Neal spun off the would-be tacklers, held on the to the ball and walked into the end zone.
Down the sideline, Oklahoma’s senior receiver hauled in a pass with a Texas Tech defender’s hand in his chest.
Last year, Neal doesn’t make those plays. He’s a different player now. He’s confident in himself.
“It does feel different,” Neal said of his final season. “I’m just playing with a lot more confidence. I’m having a lot more fun out there.”
Neal is catching the ball with two hands this season and just seems surer that he’ll come down with it. His routes are crisp, knowing that he’s run each play and seen each defense hundreds of times.
He is on pace to set or match a new career-high in receptions, yards and touchdowns. Neal is averaging 15.4 yards per catch – a career-high.
“I always hold myself to a high standard,” Neal said. “When I don’t meet them, I kind of get down on myself. It’s just me being patient and capitalizing on every chance that I get. I’m just out there playing free. This offense makes me comfortable. I ‘m just out there having fun.”
Through his first three years, Neal wasn’t meeting his high standards. He was falling short. Neal used to say routinely that a Division-I receiver should be able to beat a cornerback one-on-one.
He wasn’t doing that.
Bottled up by the pressure of older players telling him to be perfect and not make a mistake, Neal struggled despite coming to Oklahoma as a four-star All-American out of St. Louis. Playing with a new confidence and in a new offense that is taking the pressure off of him, Neal is a different receiver than he was before.
“Coach Riley has come in and just told us that everything doesn’t have to be perfect,” Neal said. “You’re going to make mistakes. It’s how you make your mistakes. Are you going to go at 100 or are you going to go at 50? . . . Just having that mindset of going out there and not worrying about making a mistake and not worrying if I mess up and just going 100 miles per hour has just helped my game and improved me even more.”
Neal actually gave up football after his first practice as a child. He came back, unleashing some of his anger as a defensive end. He wound up playing seven different positions, including quarterback, before finally becoming a full-time receiver as a senior in high school.
Oklahoma receivers coach Dennis Simmons didn’t know much of any of the receivers before he came over this past offseason from Washington State. He had no preconceptions of anyone
Neal had his chance at a new football life, and Simmons has never known an unconfident Neal.
“He’s been the rock of our room,” Simmons said. “A lot of times when kids are going in to their last year, it brings about the best of their performance and their productivity. It really had nothing to do with me. That’s a lot of him.”
Before this season started, Neal knew he had a clean slate and a chance for a great season. He’s making the most of it now.
He spent time working in the offseason with Sterling Shepard, going over the little things each of them wanted to improve. He tries to match Shepard’s intensity. When Shepard makes a big play, Neal wants to do the same.
Neal spent the whole summer throwing with Mayfield, working in one-on-one situations. He made the effort to get better, and he finally sees it paying off.
“It’s one of those deals where you know all the work that you put in,” Neal said. “. . . You’re telling yourself you’ve seen this play. You’ve seen this defense. You’ve seen this throughout the whole week. So just go make the play.”