For the most part, Kansas running backs coach Jonathan Wallace likes to let his veterans lead and prefers to give them room to connect with the younger players on the roster.
In the case of freshman running back Johnny Thompson Jr., though, Wallace sought out KU starter Devin Neal and asked him to step in.
It was easy for Neal to do so. The preseason all-Big 12 pick and Lawrence native had hosted Thompson on his official visit a while back. And Neal said Friday that Thompson brought a familiar vibe to campus with him.
“I think we clicked a lot just because I saw myself in him,” Neal told R1S1 Sports on Day 9 of KU’s preseason camp. “I think we have very similar personalities and he reminds me of myself when I was a freshman. I’ve been trying to help him find his own way, and whatever guidance he needs, I’m there for him.”
Neal and the Jayhawks have a name for that process.
“We call it planting seeds,” he said. “And seeing that tree sprout one day whenever Johnny does really get going — seeing him blossom — that’s what I’m looking for.”
Neal’s desire to be that type of leader dates back to his early days at Lawrence High. Even though the 1,000-yard rusher came into the LHS program with a bright future and boatload of talent, Neal said the veterans on that team were never shy about reminding him where he stood in the pecking order.
Even so, he made an immediate impact at LHS and went on to have one of the best careers at the tradition-rich high school before signing with the Jayhawks.
“I’ve always had kind of a drive to help younger guys, and never be that bully-type, seniority-type guy,” Neal said on Friday. “I started experiencing that my freshman year in high school. And when I was experiencing that, I was like, ‘I’m never gonna be like those guys.’ I kind of experienced that my freshman year here, too.”
Wallace noted that Neal, during his freshman season, did not necessarily have an established upperclassman or group of running backs to look up to the way Thompson does with Neal, Daniel Hishaw, Sevion Morrison and Dylan McDuffie.
“For Johnny to have something like that, to be able to have some guys look up to and learn from, that's gonna be super-positive for our program,” Wallace said.
He asked Neal to take the lead there because of the fast connection the two displayed early on.
“That relationship has been there for a long time, and it’s paying off for him,” Wallace said.
"I’m hoping I’m more of a big brother type rather than an older teammate." — KU running back Devin Neal
As for what the bond actually looks like, Neal said it has centered on lots and lots of extra film sessions. He called the 5-foot-11, 186-pound freshman from Canoga Park, California, “a perfectionist,” and said it’s clear that Thompson wants to learn as much as he can about the game and how to approach it at the college level.
So, the two have spent plenty of one-on-one time inside the facility with Neal showing and breaking down defensive fronts and explaining ways to attack the different look.
“It’s more like quizzing him,” Neal said. “What do you see here? And if it’s quote-unquote the wrong answer then I try to give my input and just help him out with that.”
Neal said Thompson, along with fellow-freshman running backs Carson Morgan and Jack Schneider have made a ton of progress in that area throughout the offseason.
“They’re way far ahead in knowing defensive structure than I was my freshman year,” Neal said. “Now they just have to put the pieces together.”
Wallace, for one, knows that Thompson will take advantage of Neal’s extra effort and leadership because he has tapped into similar knowledge from his coach.
Just the other day, in the later hours of the evening, Thompson sent Wallace a text message asking him a specific question about the next day’s installation.
Wallace calls him “super-coachable” and has seen firsthand how much the game means to Thompson and he believes that Thompson’s passion for the sport is on par with anyone on the roster.
“The kid loves ball,” he said. “He’s super-, super-talented. He’s got good contact balance. He runs hard. But there’s still moments where he looks like a freshman, like he just showed up. But that’s part of the process. That confidence is building daily.”
And Wallace said Neal deserves as much credit for that as anybody not named Thompson.
For Neal, it’s not about credit, though. He appreciates being surrounded by players who want to work hard and have the same goals as he does — to make Kansas football as good as it can be.
If that means giving a little more of himself to the program so those seeds that are planted can grow strong and healthy, he’s as happy doing that as he is scoring touchdowns.
“I’ve always wanted to be the guy who makes it a little bit easier for him,” Neal said. “He has to go through his own path, his own struggles, just like everyone does. I know he’s going through a lot. I went through that myself. But he’s definitely figuring out, just like all freshman do, they realize really quickly that it’s not as easy as they thought it was. I’m hoping I’m more of a big brother type rather than an older teammate. I know how hard this game is mentally.”
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