John Neal, who has accumulated 33 years of experience tutoring defensive secondaries in the Pac-10/12, SEC, Conference USA and WAC, is now beginning his 13th season at Oregon.
The personable Mountain View, Calif., native has fostered an aggressive mentality amongst his players at every level he has coached that is conducive to his defenders focusing on the football as much as opponents’ receivers. The result has been the building of secondaries that have been among the nation’s leaders in interceptions while producing numerous NFL draft picks, including seven over the past seven seasons. One of those picks - Jairus Byrd - led the NFL with nine interceptions as a rookie with the Buffalo Bills in 2009.
Neal was rewarded with the additional responsibilities of the defense’s passing game coordinator following last season.
That penchant for concentrating on the football reached a pinnacle in 2012, with the Ducks completing the year leading the country in interceptions with a school-record 26 picks. In addition, cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu led the Pac-12 (7th nationally) that season in passes defensed (1.54 avg.).
Ekpre-Olomu completed his career a year ago as a three-time first-team Pac-12 all-conference honoree while both Erick Dargan and Troy Hill earned second-team all-league accolades.
In 2013, three of Oregon’s top five tacklers resided in the secondary, with Ekpre-Olomu looming second on the team in take downs (84). Junior cornerback Terrance Mitchell tied for fifth in the Pac-12 in interceptions (5) and ranked seventh in the league in passes defended (12) for a unit which ranked seventh in the country in pass efficiency defense.
Last year, two of the Ducks’ top three tacklers were defensive backs, led by safety Erick Dargan’s team-leading 95 stops.
During Oregon’s BCS National Championship Game run in 2010, the Ducks ranked sixth in the country with 21 interceptions as secondary mates John Boyett (5) and Cliff Harris (6) combined for 11. Harris led the Pac-10 in picks and also paced the country in passes defended (23) while earning second-team All-America honors at cornerback. UO’s other corner, Talmadge Jackson III, was named first-team all-conference.
It was Neal’s expertise that assisted the conversion of Eddie Pleasant from outside linebacker to a first-team all-conference choice at rover in 2011, as well as aided the progression of Boyett, who led the Ducks in tackles twice within his first three years.
Neal’s 2010 charges also played a large role in Oregon ranking seventh nationally in pass efficiency defense (104.00), 12th in scoring defense (18.69) and 20th in opponent 3rd down conversions (35.07%).
The Ducks led the Pac-12 in pass efficiency defense in 2012 and ‘13.
What made 2009 remarkable in Eugene was the fact Neal had to develop a secondary without two of its top three expectant stalwarts at cornerback with the season-ending injuries to Walter Thurmond III and Willie Glasper in the first half of the season. Yet Jackson tied for fourth in the Pac-10 in interceptions (4) and sixth in passes defended (0.83 avg.).
Neal has been instrumental in teaching the art of the takeaways and has the numbers to prove it. Oregon’s defense has finished among the top three in the conference in interceptions six of the past 10 years while ranking third or better in the league in pass efficiency defense nine times during that same span.
The Ducks’ 20 interceptions in 2007 were the second-most among Pac-10 schools and tied for 10th in the nation, while Byrd tied for ninth (0.54 avg.) among individuals. Neal’s defensive backs were a large factor in UO’s top Pac-10 ranking in turnover margin (0.69 avg., 18th nationally), after a second-to-last finish in that statistic in 2006.
Oregon finished second in the country with 23 interceptions in 2005, marking the program’s most thefts in 37 years, as well as the Pac-10 Conference’s runner-up in pass efficiency defense (26th nationally). Neal played a major role in the Ducks leading the league in total defense for the first time since 1958 as well as pass defense for the second straight year in 2006.
He has been credited with much of the development of his players as well, with at least 11members of the secondary earning all-conference honors in the past 10 seasons. Byrd and Patrick Chung were both named first-team Pac-10 all-conference choices in 2008 – the first time in 14 years the Ducks have been accorded more than one first-team league honoree in the secondary in the same season. Chung attracted All-America attention in each of his final two seasons, as did Ekpre-Olomu each of his last three seasons.
Prior to arriving at Oregon during the spring of 2003, the 58-year-old Neal spent eight seasons coaching the defensive backs at Alabama-Birmingham. He served as defensive coordinator his last two seasons at UAB, where the Blazers ranked fifth in the country in total defense in 2001 (265.9 avg.).
Helping UAB upgrade from the NCAA Division I-AA level to full I-A status in Conference USA, Neal assisted in building the Blazers’ program in many ways aside from his work on the field. He volunteered to be the team’s recruiting coordinator, a position he held for six years. He also assumed duties with UAB’s special teams, instructing punters, the punt return team and kick return team at some point during his eight-year tenure.
Before moving to UAB in 1995, Neal served as secondary coach at Mississippi from 1992-94. His 1993 squad led the nation in total defense (234.5 avg.) and ranked third against the pass while allowing the fewest touchdown passes in the country (5). The Rebels finished sixth nationally in pass defense while leading the SEC in 1994.
Neal sandwiched a pair of stints as defensive coordinator at Pacific (1990-91) and East Tennessee State (1986) around a three-year tenure as defensive backs coach at Oregon State (1987-89). The Beavers ranked second in the Pac-10 in pass defense in 1987 (183.3 avg.).
The 1980 Brigham Young graduate earned all-WAC honors at defensive back as a senior in 1979. He transferred to BYU after playing two seasons at Foothill Junior College (Los Altos Hills, Calif.).
He broke into the coaching profession as a graduate assistant at his alma mater in the spring of 1980 before moving to New Mexico to coach the Lobos’ junior varsity team that fall. Neal was elevated to full-time assistant coach at New Mexico in 1981, where he coached linebackers and defensive backs through the 1985 campaign.