Neal strives for further improvement after returning to KU

Kansas running back Devin Neal (4) looks back as he runs in a touchdown during the first quarter on Saturday Nov. 18, 2023 at Memorial Stadium. Photo by Nick Krug

Just before Kansas took the field to battle Kansas State last November, running backs coach Jonathan Wallace asked Devin Neal — who had a pending decision to make about going to the NFL or staying for another year — whether it was going to be his last game in David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium.

“He said, ‘We’ll find out,'” Wallace recalled on Thursday. “And I asked him that because I wanted to take in the moment with him. And sure enough, the young man had a heck of a night.”

Neal had one of his best games of the year, with 18 carries for 138 yards and three touchdowns, even as KU was unable to defeat its rival.

When the game was over, as he recalled Saturday, he genuinely thought it could be his last home game in a KU jersey.

“Kind of after the game, it really was,” Neal said. “I won’t lie to you guys, I was like, ‘I’m probably going after that game.'”

But he took time to reflect and consider with family, decided to come back, announced as much in January and is now trying to work on anything else he can to bolster his skill set ahead of a climactic senior season.

“The intent is the same as it was when he showed up, which has been awesome,” Wallace said. “He is still trying to find little tidbits of what he can do to get better, and that’s one thing that you just love about the kid, is he wants to grow in every aspect of his game.”

Neal highlighted pass protection and understanding of defensive structures as particular areas in which he wants to continue to improve. Even with Neal’s desire for constant growth, Wallace said he’s advanced enough in his development at this point to basically lead the running-back meetings.

“I’m still there to guide and teach,” Wallace said, “but also, I want the young men to understand that this is the level of competence you need to get to by this part of your career.”

Neal said he and his fellow veteran running backs understand they have a responsibility to bring along players like freshmen early enrollees Red Martel and Harry Stewart III, “to kind of lead them (along) the way, and show them what to do and how to take care of their body, how to take care of film, and how to just prepare each and every day and have the right mindset for this game.”

Martel and Stewart certainly won’t have to do what Neal did as a freshman, which was play extensively immediately — the local product started eight games in 2021 and ran for 707 yards and eight touchdowns straight out of Lawrence High. He remembered that adjusting to the college level of play, “You get out here and everything just starts feeling like a blur. Your mind’s racing, you’re trying to get adjusted to the playbook.”

“The quickest way to kind of let that go is to lean on the people around you,” he added.

Neal has plenty remaining to accomplish as a senior, beyond raising a new group of underclassmen. He also has the opportunity to reach personal milestones and school records — he has a great chance of becoming KU’s all-time leader in rushing and rushing touchdowns — while leading the Jayhawks to new heights with an experienced offensive group.

“I wasn’t necessarily comfortable enough with saying I was ready to go,” he said.

One thing he will not be able to do, as it turns out, is play in Lawrence again. The irony of his conversation with Wallace is that notwithstanding his decision, Neal actually has played his last game in the Booth, because KU will host its home games at Children’s Mercy Park and Arrowhead Stadium this fall while its home field is under construction.

“I would love to play in the Booth one more season, but football’s football and wherever we play at, we’re going to lace them up and play the same way,” he said.


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