Devin Neal leads KU’s running back contingent

Devin Neal is regarded as one of the top running backs in college football this season, evidenced by his being named to the Doak Walker Award watch list.

Devin Neal is regarded as one of the top running backs in college football this season, evidenced by his being named to the Doak Walker Award watch list.

Homegrown running back Devin Neal enters his sophomore season at the University of Kansas as potentially one of the top ballcarriers in college football.

Neal, a 5-foot-11, 217-pound all-state selection out of Lawrence High School, takes the field for year two after rushing for 707 yards on 158 carries and scoring eight touchdowns in his freshman campaign. The 2021 honorable mention All-Big 12 selection recently became the first KU player named to the Doak Walker Award watch list since James Sims in 2013. The Walker Award goes to the country’s top running back.

“It was a blessing last year, (but) I’m not too focused on dwelling in the past,” Neal said Sunday during a media availability held after the Jayhawks’ first practice of the second week of preseason camp. KU’s season opener is against Tennessee Tech on Sept. 2 at Memorial Stadium.

“I keep on focusing on getting better each and every day,” Neal said. “That’s my goal overall, just to be the best person I can be, the best teammate and leader I can be day in and out because we want to achieve big things this year.

Neal revealed to the media on Sunday that he has progressed physically and mentally since this time last year. He finished last season weighing about 200 pounds, which is much lighter than he wanted to be.

“Today I weighed in at 217. I want to be around 215,” Neal said. “Toward the end of the season, I hit 200.

“What we did, I talked to coach ‘Sleeve’ (strength coach Matt Gildersleeve) at the beginning of the summer. He asked me what I wanted to be. You told him. We went right to work right then and there, focused on hydrating properly, taking care of my body. I got here with hard work. I’m going to keep doing it in fall camp because it can slip as quickly as I gained it. I’ve got to keep on maintaining.”

As far as the mental aspect of the game, Neal said: “I’m understanding the offense better, understanding how concepts and schemes work, as well.”

The Jayhawks went 2-10 in his first season, but a year ago Neal had a pair of huge games on the biggest stage. He was co-Big 12 newcomer of the week after rushing for 100 yards on 23 carries with two touchdowns in a 35-23 loss to Oklahoma on Oct. 23 at Memorial Stadium. That’s the game in which KU led 10-0 at halftime and 17-7 with 1:30 left in the third quarter before losing to the No. 3-ranked Sooners.

Then, Neal gained 143 yards on 24 carries and scored three touchdowns in a 57-56 overtime victory over Texas on Nov. 13 in Austin. That performance earned him Big 12 offensive player of the week honors.

“You saw what ‘Dev’ did last year. He had a great year, a great freshman year,” said former Topeka High running back Ky Thomas, a former Little League football teammate of Neal’s who transferred to KU from Minnesota at the conclusion of last season.

“Him getting another year of experience, getting bigger, faster stronger … he’s only going to get better as his career goes on,” Thomas added.

Noted running back coach Jonathan Wallace: “Devin is a bruiser, but he still has the ability to change direction in tight spaces.”

Wallace added that as leader of the running back group, Neal, “does a good job when we are in walk-throughs or we’re in meetings — as a leader pushing those guys and sharing more information with them.”

Five running backs are vying for what could be significant playing time this season at KU:

  • Neal
  • Thomas (redshirt sophomore, 824 yards, 166 carries, 6 TDs last season at Minnesota)
  • Daniel Hishaw (redshirt sophomore, 229 yards, 52 carries, 2 TDs in 2020, but injured last season)
  • Torry Locklin (redshirt junior, 141 all-purpose yards, three TDs in 2021)
  • and transfer Sevion Morrison, aa former Nebraska Cornhusker (redshirt sophomore, 116 yards, 30 carries, one TD in 2021).

“We are really dynamic,” Neal said of the group. “We can throw a lot of teams off guard with how fresh we can be, the different looks we can give — three running backs, two running back sets. The dynamics of our room are just phenomenal. It’s going to be really exciting to watch.”

He went on to offer some specifics about KU’s stable of backs.

“Ky is a smooth runner. When you see him, he looks like he plays really loose,” Neal said. “He makes effortless cuts, his body moving in different directions. He’s a really good player.

“Daniel is kind of that power guy, a freak athlete. He can do it all on the field. Torry is a taller back. He started out as a receiver. His routes are different from ours because he’s used to running a certain way. Sevion is an explosive quick-twitch type guy who can really turn on a different gear.”

Neal, by the way, provided a bit of breaking news Sunday.

He’s definitely decided to continue playing two sports at KU. He played sparingly for the Jayhawks baseball team last season while suiting up for all but two games under former coach Ritch Price. Neal has had communication with KU’s new baseball coach, Dan Fitzgerald, and said he’ll be playing again in the spring.

In preparation for that, Neal played in the outfield for 10 games this summer with the Topeka Travelers baseball team.

“It was definitely a challenge just because of how hard and intense our workouts are with coach Sleeve,” Neal said of summer workouts with the football team. “It was important I stay on the diamond, keeping those reps.”

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Gary Bedore covers all aspects of Kansas basketball for The Star — the current team as well as former players and coaches and recruiting. He attended KU and was born and raised in Chicago, as well as Lisle, Ill.


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