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Neal bolsters Oregon's defensive backs

8/2/2012

When Oregon defensive backs coach John Neal arrived in Eugene in the spring of 2003 he was not very well known among college football fans.

He had spent the previous eight years as defensive backs coach at University of Alabama-Birmingham. In his final two years at UAB he served a dual role while also assuming the defensive coordinator position, helping guide the Blazers to the No. 5 defense nationally in 2001.

His coaching skills were always respected among those in the profession but with a great run of success at Oregon, he can be placed among the best assistant coaches in the country.

He helped turn the Ducks pass defense around in a hurry once he arrived. In 2002, the Ducks ranked No. 102 in the country in pass efficiency defense. Neal arrived the next season and Oregon improved to No. 46 in 2003 and No. 57 in 2004.

His ability to relate to players has led to an increase in the talent level at defensive back in Eugene.

In 2010, Neal was a major factor in Michigan native and U.S. Army All-American Dior Mathis' decision to head west. Oregon beat out Tennessee, Michigan, Miami (Fla.) and many others for Mathis.

Similar to the offensive line, the Ducks have enjoyed a higher level of recruiting at defensive back, but the true testament to Neal's coaching ability is the way he has developed overlooked high school recruits.

Jairus Byrd, Patrick Chung, T.J. Ward and Walter Thurmond III were all two-star prospects who developed their games under Neal's watch. Thurmond was a fourth-round pick in the NFL Draft while the other three were all second-round choices and now NFL starters.

With Ward missing half of 2009 with an injury and Thurmond out for the year after the Cal game in September, Neal moved freshman John Boyett into the starting lineup, along with little-known Javes Lewis.

Neal's knowledge of his roster and his players' strengths ensured the Oregon defense wouldn't drop off despite losing two of their stars.

Since then, Ducks fans have seen Talmadge Jackson, Eddie Pleasant and Cliff Harris blossom into All-Pac-10/12 players after slow starts to their careers.

Neal is now working with a core group that includes Terrance Mitchell, Troy Hill and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. All of them made starts as freshman due to their quick learning ability under Neal.

With the 2012 crop of recruits Neal was able to help Oregon sign, his standing as a coach should only increase once they get to know his style of coaching.

The Ducks signed a wide range of athletes that should only strengthen his arsenal in the Ducks backfield going forward. Rangy safety prospects Reggie Daniels and Oshay Dunmore will bolster the back end after John Boyett moves on to the NFL.

As long as Neal is coaching the defensive backs it might not matter who the Ducks sign because he has the proven ability to transform a defense and dramatically increase the performance of his players, no matter what they are rated as a recruit.