The drive started with 8:43 left in the second half. The Sooners had possession of the ball, but they nursed a 3-0 lead against a stingy Texas Christian defense.
The Horned Frog secondary had managed to stick to the Sooner wide outs while the TCU defensive line was able to penetrate and collapse the pocket. TCU coach Gary Patterson’s defense was as fundamentally sound and well-coached as any defense Oklahoma had faced all season.
SCOOPHD: DURRON NEAL STEPPING UP JUST BEFORE OU-TX
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video by Eddie Radosevich
Junior quarterback Blake Bell took the first snap of the drive from the OU 16-yard line, and systematically began to move the Sooners down the field. Then OU seemed to stall.
On third down with five yards to go, Bell completed a pass to sophomore wide receiver Durron Neal. But the pass was three yards short of the first down marker, and Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops had a decision to make.
Perhaps he saw a weakness in that last play he thought he could exploit in the TCU defense. Or maybe he saw the kind of confidence and strength in his players during that drive that he hadn’t seen until that point.
Stoops decided to go for it, and when he did Neal was one of the wide receivers lining up for the snap.
Neal started playing football at age 11. But he didn’t want to.
He was a baseball player. Still, his stepfather, Keith Little, insisted that he play football.
Being the son he is, Neal agreed to try. And he did, but only for a year.
Baseball season came around again, so Neal decided to quit playing football. He wouldn’t have picked up the game again if Little didn’t come to him again imploring him to play football.
“I knew my family wasn’t fortunate enough to pay for college,” Neal said. “(Little) said ‘This could be your ticket out.’”
Throughout middle school, Neal learned the intricacies and subtleties of the game. He learned to run routes, block and make other boys miss.
He also learned how much better he was than most of the other boys on the field and would simply go through the motions because he was faster and more athletic than the others.
It wasn’t until Neal’s freshman year of high school at De Smet Jesuit (St. Louis, Mo.) High School that he began to actually enjoy playing football.
“Then when sophomore year came around I really took it seriously, and from then on I started getting recruited after my sophomore year,” Neal said. “I had like six Division I offers, and it just exploded from there.”
As a prep senior, he was listed as one of the 10 best wide receivers in the country for the 2012 class after catching 35 passes for 825 yards receiving and rushing for 716 yards on just 78 carries.
He played at Oklahoma as a freshman, recording five catches for 75 yards in 10 games, but seemed to be just the fifth-best wide out on the depth chart to start the 2013 season.
Neal knew he hadn’t performed as well as he could have during Oklahoma’s fall camp, but he wouldn’t stop working.
He stayed late after practice to workout, to prepare for each week’s opponent. He knew his coaches would look to him one day, and when they did he needed to be ready and willing.
“I’m a hard worker, and just coming into college that’s always been my mindset is just to come in and work hard,” Neal said. “When my opportunity comes to me, I’ve got to make the best of it.”
Bell took the snap from center, searching the moving parts of the OU offense and TCU defense. He saw Neal come free on a slant route and hit Neal for a six-yard gain.
“The fourth down play was huge,” Norvell said.
Neal caught a third straight pass for 18 yards to propel OU to the TCU 8-yard line.
On the next play, fullback Trey Millard scored the touchdown that put OU up by two scores in what would be the closest game the Sooners played all season.
“I always envision myself making big plays,” he said. “That’s the first step into making big plays is when they come, you’ve got to envision them first.”
Neal ended the game with four catches for 42 yards in the Sooners’ 20-17 win against TCU. He also ended the game with the hard-won respect of his teammates and coaches.
Now Neal has become one of Oklahoma’s most trusted wide receivers and a man Norvell doesn’t have a problem giving more opportunities to in the future.
He’s seen the way Neal works. He’s seen Neal be the last man off the field.
He hasn’t seen Neal quit.
“You have rough stretches where you don’t play as well or bad things happen to you,” Norvell said. “How you respond is the most important thing, and he’s really responded the right way.”