After Oregon’s 31-24 loss to Arizona earlier this year, Oregon defensive backs coach John Neal leaned back comfortably in a chair on the third floor of the Hatfield-Dowlin Complex and calmly answered questions.
His collared shirt was popped, his hair was slicked back and his raspy, to-the-point voice answered, in detail, every question sent his way.
His honest and upfront demeanor is why his secondary unit, a group commonly referred to as the “D-Boyz,” hold Neal in such high regard. In some ways, Neal personifies the look and attitude of a college football “Godfather.”
“Coach Neal is the Godfather of the D-Boyz,” Oregon defensive back Troy Hill said. “He does a good job of coaching us and trying to keep us together.”
In 2006, former Oregon defensive back Matthew Harper coined the name D-Boyz for the defensive backs group and it has stuck ever since. Through generations, the D-Boyz mentality has been passed down. It has allowed for uninterrupted continuity between the constant shuffling of a collegiate secondary.
“We’ve been able to keep that and it’s been a nice bit of momentum,” Neal said. “As a program you try and hold standards and then you do it as a group and you hope your group unit can be the best they can be and you hope every coach in each unit is getting that out of their guys. That’s how you make the big picture work. There are a lot of people working in the little pictures to be something special. I hope that we can maintain that. I worry about losing momentum all the time because you can’t get it back. Sometimes when you can’t get it back you hire someone else to see if they can.”
Hill, one of three seniors starting in the Ducks defensive backfield this year, has seen what it means to be a D-Boy unfold and develop over his five years at Oregon.
“Honestly, it’s great to be a D-Boy,” Hill said. “I feel like we all got our own little personalities and it kinda helps us mesh a lot better. We kind of have our own little swag. Being a DB you kind of have to have that. I feel like it’s good and all the past D-Boyz like Cliff (Harris) and all them and kind of showed the way you know, I feel like we have a great chemistry: Past and present.”
The one commonality over the eight-year span of the D-Boyz has been Neal. He’s in his 12th year coaching at Oregon. Players have said that being a D-Boy offers a family type atmosphere for a player. That’s the way Neal says he directs his recruiting.
“We recruit to that and hope we can find guys that fit our systems,” Neal said. “I hope that I recruit guys that want to be a a part of this, will understand it and want to be a a part of it and excel in it”
Hill was sitting at the lunch tables at St. Bonaventure High School in Ventura, California when he saw coach Neal and current offensive coordinator Scott Frost walk in the building. He walked the two Oregon coaches to his high school coach’s office. Hill talked with Neal the entire walk and immediately something stuck out about the Oregon secondary coach more so than any other recruiter.
“It just feels like he’s going to keep it real with you,” Hill said. “He’s not trying to lie to you. See recruiters with me, I always felt like they were trying to be my friend. I don’t need a friend, I need somebody that’s going to help me get where I need to be. I just felt like coach Neal presented that.”
With Neal, the players find it impossible not to listen to what he says and how he coaches. He helped develop guys like Jairus Byrd, TJ Ward and Patrick Chung as they’ve all passed through the D-Boyz regime and on to the NFL.
“This dude, the Godfather, coached them,” Hill said. “I just feel like if I listen — and that’s a big process right there, just trying to listen and learn how to trust in what he’s saying — I feel like that’s what really helped me. Obviously they didn’t come in here the player that they left as. Obviously he did something to get them where they are.”
Redshirt freshman defensive back Chris Seisay added, “It just reminds you what coach Neal is teaching, like, it works. You can’t argue with it because anything he says, it works. So you listen to coach Neal, you’ll be successful. You see how far it takes you.”
Listening to Neal isn’t the only way his players learn from him. They gain a lot from watching their coach, too.
“He’s passionate for the game,” redshirt freshman safety Tyree Robinson said. “If coach Neal could suit up and play with us, he would. Even when we’re working out and lifting weights, he’s right there lifting with us. He just shows it. If he can do it, there’s no way you guys shouldn’t be doing it. He gets the best out of all his players. When it’s time to pick you up, he’s going to pick you up and get you going in the right direction.”
As for actually putting on the pads with the D-Boyz, Neal laughed and said he’d probably elect to decline.
“At an old age, I guess that’s a compliment,” Neal said. “They might think I have heart or something.”
Follow Joseph Hoyt on Twitter @JoeJHoyt