As a freshman receiver at South Carolina, the first summer is a high-grade crash course in the rigors of a college offense. Gamecocks wideout D.J. Neal can attest to this.
It involves drinking in everything, learning the wide-ranging elements of a no-huddle offense. Everything is somewhat conceptual, and a player is mostly working with other young players, figuring it all out while adapting to college life.
“It was pretty complicated,” Neal said. “But when the season started, I was on the field, just repping it over and over again and it just kind of stuck.”
When it sticks, an athlete can take a step forward. That’s what Neal has done, emerging from a crowded group of freshmen receivers into a rotation role. He was almost gleeful talking about getting 30-plus snaps against Georgia, and receivers coach Steve Spurrier Jr. confirmed Wednesday the other first-year scholarship receivers are on track to redshirt.
Physically, the 6-foot-3, 193-pound, former four-star receiver always felt comfortable on the field. But he said his learning curve in some ways felt like high school.
“As far as being comfortable on the field, running my routes,” Neal said. “The only thing that I’ve not struggled with but put my mind to is the sideline, audibles, and that’s just about down.”
With Deebo Samuel out with a hamstring injury, Neal is likely to start Saturday against UCF, Steve Spurrier announced Thursday night on his call-in show.
Spurrier Jr. said Neal’s ability to make an impact simply is about getting his confidence up and letting him go. Each day, the coaches see him raise his comfort level in a college offense
“A lot more comfortable than he was a few months ago,” Spurrier Jr. said of Neal. “Hopefully he’ll be a lot more comfortable in a few months than he is right now. But he’s got some talent. He’s a talented young man and he’ll get better every day.
“Every opportunity he gets on the field, he becomes a better player, and he’s got a good personality and attitude for the game.”
Neal hopes he’s actually got the attitude for two games.
In high school in Stone Mountain, Ga., he was a star outfielder and still harbors dreams of finding some kind of spot with the Gamecocks baseball team. He was drafted by the Atlanta Braves in the 32nd round after his senior year.
He has access to the USC baseball facilities and just aims to make sure he doesn’t slack off in that area.
“I’ve been working on the side whenever I don’t have time for football, which is really never,” Neal said. “But whenever I can work in the cage, I’ll just go take some cuts.”
Baseball season is still a long time off, and Neal is more focused on helping the Gamecocks turn around a 1-2 start. He said he’s happy fellow freshman Lorenzo Nunez ascended to the starting quarterback position, especially because they worked together well during the summer.
For now, he’s trying to build off last week when he played around half the snaps and pulled in his first career catch. It was a wobbling ball from Perry Orth that Neal caught between a linebacker and safety (before taking a hard hit) for 15 yards. Even that milestone, in the same way he took his college learning curve, was taken with the right dose of perspective.
“It was amazing,” Neal said. “Especially vs. Georgia, a big SEC school. But I’ve got to say, I held it down a little bit, make sure I got happy, but didn’t get too happy so I drop the next pass.”