The stories of the D-Boyz: How John Neal's secondary set the stage for everything to come
As Oregon continues to stockpile talent, we take a look back at the best backend ever assembled in Eugene — without the transfer portal.
John Neal got an early start on his spring cleaning this year.
Trapped within the confines of his Eugene home during a mid-January ice storm, the former Oregon defensive backs coach rifled through boxes accrued over his many years spent in the collegiate coaching world.
Even after his 14-year stint with the Ducks ended in 2016, Neal kept the house he lived in, eventually returning there with his wife after a detour at UAB and brief return to the Oregon program as an analyst during the early Mario Cristobal days.
Neal’s old office? Well, that lives on, naturally, through those boxes. Totems of his time in the role — now “forever” ago — strewn about, serving as mementos of an aging, yet indelible, phase of a career well-spent.
The retiree dug up plaques and other trophies honoring his best players’ best seasons, and pictures adorned with autographs from those star pupils. He stumbled across Pac-12 Championship and BCS National Championship memorabilia; dug up a framed photo with a long crack through it, depicting him and his 2006 defensive backs room.
Then Neal picked up his phone and started dialing.
He phoned former safeties Marvin Johnson and Ryan DePalo and the multi-time Super Bowl-winning Patrick Chung.
He called Matt Harper, another safety, who transferred into Oregon in 2006 from San Francisco City College, and later devised the ‘D-Boyz’ nickname by which the Ducks’ 2007 and 2008 secondaries are often referred.
He exchanged messages with former NFL all-pro defensive back Jairus Byrd about golfing together in the near future, and would have reached out to fellow NFL standouts TJ Ward and Walter Thurmond had he not lost their numbers over the years.
“There's a lot of great stories with those guys, man,” said Neal, recounting the Ducks’ defensive backs rooms between 2006 and 2009, likely his most talented group ever assembled. “Those were some great football players, all of them. And the main thing about all those guys is that they weren’t just great football players, they were really smart and unbelievable leaders, all of them. How do you get lucky to get all of that within one group?”
“Man, I had it made.”
There’s no shortage of pro players on Neal’s recruiting resumé. Still, it’s easy to see why those specific groups ignite such fond memories. The 2007 unit alone contained six future NFL defensive backs, to say nothing of Harper, who is now on his way to his second Super Bowl as the San Francisco 49ers special teams coordinator.
Five other Super Bowl appearances and a collective 33 seasons lie between Ward, Chung, Byrd and Thurmond — those secondary’s most recognizable members.
Ask those former stars and they’ll certify: A handful of others had the talent to chase pro careers, the room’s sheer depth — and archaic NCAA transfer rules of the times — preventing the spotlight from ever reaching them.
It’s what renders groups like the ‘D-Boyz’ more a relic of college football’s past, than a blueprint for its future, as the 2024 Ducks load up the backend with blue-chip transfers and elite high school prospects.
Even so, the DNA of the ‘D-Boyz’ lives on in Eugene.
They brought a verve to the defensive backfield, helping spur a cultural turnaround that was later encapsulated through the oft-publicized “Win the Day” mantra, and can still be identified in the program.
“To this day,” said Ward, “I believe that's why Oregon is on the trajectory that it is, because of the things (that group did). We didn’t have the team success you see now, but we were staples in creating what you see now.”
In his coaching days, Neal carried a certain honesty. He told it how it was. Brutal, at times, but never so unbecoming that his players lost faith in his commitment to their success.
When he arrived at Oregon in 2002, Neal, by his own admission, told his defensive backs that every single one of his former UAB players were better than them. Not one of them could have started there.
He once welcomed former NFL defensive back Keith Lewis, an all-conference honoree in 2003, into his office, telling him, “You're not as good as you think you are. You're not, but you can be a great football player. But you’ve got to do these things.”
Lewis was stunned, only later informing Neal that it was exactly what he’d needed to hear. He was among those who Neal reached out to last month, after finding Lewis’ all-Pac-10 plaque.
Just as it pushed Lewis to realize his potential, Neal’s honesty fostered accountability throughout the secondary. Thurmond recalls the first such showing coming during a positional meeting in early 2006, his freshman season.
Neal addressed the team: “I pretty much handpicked a lot of you guys that are in this room. There's some accountability, because if you guys don't pan out, I'm going to get fired. I'm gonna have to move my family from here.”