Devin Neal scored his first college touchdown last week, but he says that wasn’t his favorite moment from Kansas’ game Friday against Coastal Carolina.
Instead, that happened when Neal was on special teams and served on the kickoff coverage unit. KU had just pulled to within six at 28-22 in the third quarter when kicker Tabor Allen launched a touchback into the end zone.
When Neal ran back to the sidelines, he could feel the passion around him. Teammates were jumping and screaming after the Jayhawks had gained momentum. KU fans that had made it to Conway, South Carolina also were hyped just behind the team’s bench.
“Just seeing that energy against that type of team, that’s when it appeared to me. I’m like, ‘We’re gonna elevate this program. We’re gonna flip this thing around,’” Neal said. “Because we can compete with anybody if we just keep trimming down on the errors — the mental errors and other aspects of the game. We’re gonna have a chance.”
There would be no upset this time, as Coastal Carolina followed with three unanswered touchdowns to secure a 49-22 victory.
If KU is to complete a quick program turn-around, though, it’s likely that the true freshman Neal will be one of the key building blocks.
And Friday just showed some of his potential. A four-star prospect from Lawrence, Neal received additional running back snaps while finishing with 11 carries for 40 yards.
“For his first extensive playing time,” KU coach Lance Leipold said, “I thought he did well.”
KU especially leaned on Neal late in the first quarter. The Jayhawks gave him five consecutive carries inside the 10-yard line, with Neal finally completing the drive with a two-yard touchdown run.
“Each and every time I got the ball, I just thought to myself, ‘I’ve got to be more physical on this run. I’ve got to be more physical than I was the last run,’” Neal said. “And that’s really my thought process on it. Any way I could get it in the end zone.”
Leipold said game flow played a role in Neal’s limited rushing attempts (one carry for one yard) in the opener against South Dakota; an early string of short drives resulted in KU’s coaches leaving starter Velton Gardner in so he could try to get some rhythm.
Whether Neal’s offensive usage increases from here remains to be seen. Gardner has averaged 1.9 yards per carry but had a better performance against Coastal Carolina, which included an 18-yard run. Torry Locklin — a former quarterback — has gotten eight carries while also providing some crucial pass-blocking out of the backfield. Meanwhile, Amauri Pesek-Hickson has just one rush while battling an early-season injury.
Neal says it’s easy to tell the difference between what he sees now compared to at Lawrence High. Defenders are faster and stronger, and he also complimented Coastal Carolina’s linebackers for remaining true to their gap assignments Friday.
For his part, Neal said he definitely has areas he needs to improve.
“It’s increasing my physicality on my runs, on my pass blocking, on my run blocking. Anything I need to do,” Neal said. “And then just increasing my intake on knowledge outside of the game. So just picking up on more film work, or just picking up with the O-line to figure out more what I need to do.”
Neal also noted that physicality had been an emphasis for the running backs this week. Assistant coach Jonathan Wallace put his guys through extra repetitions with “blaster” drills, where the backs had to emphasize running through contact while pushing through 20 plastic arms as part of a football gauntlet machine.
A frequent contributor on special teams, Neal’s development could play a significant role when it comes to KU potentially landing top local talent in the future. Neal, at 5 foot 11 and 200 pounds, committed to KU football last year as the consensus No. 1 player in the state of Kansas. He’s also signed on to play for KU’s baseball team in the spring.
KU Athletics chronicled this week just how far he’s progressed. The athletic department’s Twitter account shared a photo of Neal when he was posing in front of a Jayhawk statue at the Kansas Union when he was around 8 years old, then put that next to a picture of him scoring his touchdown against Coastal Carolina.
The caption: “How it started. How it’s going.”
How it started: How it’s going: pic.twitter.com/f2PKJqf65B
— Kansas Football (@KU_Football) September 14, 2021
“Just seeing where I’ve come, from being such a little kid, having no idea where I’d be at now ... it was just a cool moment to see that post,” Neal said, “and kind of took me back a little bit.”
What’s ahead remains promising for Neal too, especially after showing coaches flashes of his ability against Coastal Carolina.
“For me to be able to have their trust just means a lot to me,” Neal said. “And I’m just gonna keep building off that game. And us as a running back group, we’re just going to keep getting better.”