- Brandon Chatmon, ESPN Staff Writer
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NORMAN, Okla. -- After a freshman season that did not go as planned, Oklahoma receiver Durron Neal appears poised to make an impact during his second year on campus. With Kenny Stills and Justin Brown moving on to the NFL, Neal is in the middle of a competition to replace the Sooners' starting outside receiver duo.
“I’m very excited,” Neal said. “I’m up to the challenge. It’s one of the reasons I came here. My coaches believe in me, my teammates believe in me and I’m ready to step up and not let them down.”
At one point last summer it appeared the Sooners would lean on Neal to make an immediate impact as a freshman. Then Brown joined the program in August after transferring from Penn State and Jalen Saunders became eligible after four games of the 2012 season following his transfer from Fresno State, allowing Stills to move back outside after spending the first month of the season at slot receiver.
Suddenly OU had two veteran receivers on the outside and Neal was left to watch and learn despite playing himself out of a redshirt season with a strong preseason camp. Neal and the Sooners are hoping his learning experience will pay off during his sophomore season.
“Every day last year I took in all I could,” Neal said. “I came in and was ready to learn. I knew I didn’t know as much as I thought I knew. Coming in, I really used Kenny as a resource because I knew that’s who I’d be backing up.”
Even though he saw limited action, Neal flashed some playmaking ability.
“When Durron was in games he did a great job,” OU coach Bob Stoops said. “He's a big play type guy, and strong.”
All five of Neal's catches went for first downs and his competitive nature was on display when the ball got into his hands. He finished with five receptions for 75 yards with 33 of those yards (44 percent) coming after the catch. For comparison’s sake, 47.3 percent of Saunders’ receiving yards came after the catch to lead the Sooners’ starting receivers in 2012 followed by Sterling Shepard (32.3 percent), Brown (25.2 percent) and Stills (23.7 percent).
Receivers coach Jay Norvell noticed the flashes of Neal’s playmaking ability but said his consistency is what has improved the most since his freshman season.
“[He’s] playing more consistent,” Norvell said. “He’s still trying to finish down the field and become a big play threat, which is the hardest thing for young players to do. With the quarterback competition he’s getting the chance to prove he’s one of those guys who should get his hands on the ball more. That only comes from doing it every day. If he continues to practice the way he has and push himself, he should be that kind of guy for us.”
Undoubtedly, part of that push in practice will come in the form of one of the nation’s elite cornerbacks, All-Big 12 returnee Aaron Colvin, against whom Neal regularly battles in spring practice.
“Going against Aaron, an All-American corner, challenges me every day to get better,” he said. “I know when the season comes it's going to be trouble for other corners because I feel like I go against the best corner in the country every day.”
Even though Neal rarely saw the field as a freshman, he believes escaping a redshirt year could be the key to becoming a core contributor in 2013 as he got a much better feel for what it will take to be a difference maker in the Big 12.
“It knocked the nervousness out, getting that first college game experience out of the way,” Neal said. “Coming into this season, I know the atmosphere, what it’s like, the competition level, the speed of the game. Now I know its going to come easier to me.”