Tom Keegan and I collaborated on a list of 25 potential difference-makers for the Kansas football team in 2017 and will release one each weekday leading up to the Sept. 2 season-opener vs. SEMO, at Memorial Stadium. We will list them in reverse order of how indispensable/potentially impactful they are for KU's hopes of having a more competitive season.
When coordinator Clint Bowen evaluates individual defensive players during and after Kansas football practices he likes to break it down by a player’s field presence and understanding.
Bowen says there are three phases for a college football defender:
No. 1: Know your assignment for each called formation.
No. 2: Get enough reps to make proper reads and reactions.
No. 3: All of it is second nature, enabling you to dissect an offensive call before the ball is in the quarterback’s hands.
A former KU receiver, nickelback Derrick Neal has progressed to the point where the secondary finally feels like home when he steps on the field
“Last year I couldn’t really tell what the offense was trying to do to the defense or do to me, from where I’m standing at, what position I’m at,” Neal, a senior from Dallas admitted. “But now I feel like I can read the offense: ‘They’re gonna do this play. He’s gonna run this. He’s gonna crack block.’”
As the senior continues his preseason camp battle for starting nickel duties with sophomore Kyle Mayberry, Neal said he and KU’s safeties, such as Mike Lee, Bryce Torneden and Tyrone Miller Jr., regularly call out pre-snap reads for the defense — a responsibility the nickels and safeties share.
“If you know what you’re doing,” Neal said, “you speak up and let your teammates know what’s this and what’s that.”
It’s quite a different feel for Neal, a 5-foot-11, 180-pound defensive back, from 2016, his first full season at the position. Playing as a backup in 11 games, Neal totaled 15 tackles and broke up two passes.
He’s expecting much more out of himself this coming fall, because his knowledge is finally catching up with the rest of his body when he is out in space defending receivers. Neal says his biggest strengths are his speed and feet, and it’s starting to show.
“I can cover anybody on the field,” Neal said.
Miller said earlier this summer during an interview on KLWN Neal’s quickness makes him an asset for KU’s secondary.
“He’s just got cat instincts. You see a receiver break left or break right, he’s on it, exactly like that,” Miller said, adding Neal rarely got beat on one-on-ones or deep, because he possesses the speed to make an interception or knock a pass away, even on the rare occasions he’s trailing a receiver.
Neal always had the athleticism to make an impact in the secondary, but now, as a senior, everything is coming together.
“I feel like this definitely is going to be my year,” Neal said of his personal expectations. “This is my money season. I definitely gotta eat. I’m willing to do what I’ve gotta do to be successful on the field.”