Cooper Kupp's NFL success and the college coach who can finally enjoy retirement
John Neal's secondary was the backbone of Oregon's opportunistic defenses. He's also now just one of many coaches who had no idea how to stop the NFL's best receiver.
The golf game is coming along well for John Neal.
It’s the biggest perk of retirement, the longtime Oregon defensive backs coach said, and he’s reaching that stage where the hours of repetition at Shadow Hills in Junction City are leading to results.
“A couple of pros shot 63s last week to start a tournament down at Torrey Pines,” Neal said, “and the next day they shot 73. That’s a 10-shot difference, meanwhile us amateurs get upset when we don’t shoot lower scores each time. It’s once you get over that and start focusing on your next shot, it’s amazing what can happen.”
Neal has certainly earned the rounds after a 30-plus-year career in college football, 14 of which were spent with the Oregon Ducks. His secondaries included some all-time program greats — Patrick Chung, Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and Jairus Byrd, to name a few — who served as the backbone of the opportunistic Oregon defenses of the late 2000s and early 2010s. He coached in two national championship games and any given Super Bowl from the last 30 years has likely included someone he either coached or coached against.
And while it’s been nearly seven years since he faced Cooper Kupp, well, that’s one that certainly still sticks in the brain of a football coach trying to enjoy his time away from the game.
“I coached against Troy Aikman, Peyton Manning and these superstar quarterbacks — Aaron Rodgers — but we could still beat those guys,” Neal said, “but Dez Bryant, Rob Gronkowski and Cooper Kupp, those were guys where you’re going into a game going, ‘We can’t stop these guys.’ I mean, what were we going to do? The first time he catches the ball he goes 73 yards on a little short tunnel screen.
“But we knew it was coming. It wasn’t like we didn’t know how good he was.”
It makes sense in retrospect. The Los Angeles Rams wide receiver is one of the most dominant players in the NFL, a small-school success story who just became the first player in NFL history to surpass 2,000 receiving yards (including playoffs) in a season. His 20 catches for 325 yards and three touchdowns in two playoff games is — no exaggeration — the reason why the Rams will face Cincinnati in next week’s Super bowl.
Of course someone like him would set a few freakish college records along the way.
But in 2015, Kupp was enough of an unknown that the broadcast team during No. 7 Oregon’s season-opener against Eastern Washington didn’t get the receiver’s name right until he was already 117 yards into his 15-catch, 246-yard night1 — both Autzen Stadium records.
To be fair to Kevin Calabro and the Pac-12 Network team, Eastern was far from a blue blood, and the only player from the Eagles’ roster who might’ve had any name recognition was starting at quarterback for the Ducks. Remember: This was supposed to be Vernon Adams Jr.’s2 show. The magician quarterback, who led the Eagles to an upset win over Oregon State in 2013 and passed for 475 yards and seven touchdowns against Washington in 2014, was finally on a roster worthy of his talent. Oregon had just been to the national championship game and needed a replacement for Marcus Mariota. The Ducks found a perfect match in Adams, who needed a platform to carry his career to the professional level.
The problem was, Neal came into the opener that year with an experience issue on his hands. He was usually pretty good at balancing out his classes, but the previous year he lost three senior starters, forcing him to begrudgingly rely heavily on freshmen. The Ducks were so thin that Ty Griffin, once a quarterback, started taking practice reps in the defensive backfield.
It was a perfect storm for Kupp, a 6-foot-2 Yakima (Wash.) native who had connected with Adams for 104 catches the season before. At Autzen, Kupp had nine receptions of 10 or more yards and 149 yards after the catch, leaving linebackers and defensive backs in heaps on the turf. The Ducks hung on for a 61-42 win.
“Didn’t stop him,” Neal said. “Just stole their quarterback and outscored them.” 3
Neal had seen that type of domination before. He was defensive coordinator at Pacific in 1991 when Marshall Faulk rushed for 386 yards in his first career start for San Diego State.
“I spent about eight or nine years of John Neal in oblivion trying to hide from that one,” Neal said. “The thing about Marshall Faulk and Dez Bryant and Cooper Kupp, they’re all the same guy in terms of you just can’t stop them. They have a dimension where you have to do something completely different to stop them.”
It’s just that now everyone else sees that with Kupp, too.
“It did make me feel better when Cooper set all those records in the NFL this year,” he said.
— Tyson Alger
Connor Kupp just doesn’t have the same ring to it.
Neal on Adams: “Vernon’s special. He’s one of the greatest players I’ve ever seen at quarterback. He really was that good.”
Neal texted this part, then included a screenshot of the box score.