DENTON — On Aug. 3, the second day of North Texas’ fall practice, Javier Neal made a play that couldn’t have been a more perfect metaphor for his first year-plus with the Mean Green.
Defending on a deep fade route, the Whitehouse product dislodged the ball at the last second from the receiver, a nice moment for the redshirt freshman defensive back.
“It’s just all about being patient,” Neal said after a recent practice. “I saw him go up and I saw his hands go up. Just play the elbows and play the hands, I just ripped it out. Just never give up on a play no matter what. Just never give up.”
After a stellar career at Whitehouse, he redshirted last fall as a true freshman and the young defensive back who was 148 pounds when he reported to the Mean Green and now tips the scales at 170, admits redshirting not only helped him put on weight, but also get him highly familiar with the scheme employed by UNT defensive coordinator Troy Reffett.
“I just have to work. Work in the weight room, eat right, gain weight the right way,” Neal said. “It’s just all about work. If you’ve got the discipline to do the work, then you’re going to succeed. I’ve gained a lot of weight since I’ve been here. I’ve learned how to play faster, be smart on the field. Coach Reffett’s a good defensive coordinator, so he’s going to teach me everything he knows. I’ve grown and feel like I can help out this team this year.”
Fourth-year UNT head coach Seth Littrell agrees redshirting is often the best course of action for players like Neal, sometimes the best way to maximize their development.
“Anytime you can get a redshirt opportunity — getting bigger, stronger, faster, developing; it’s going to make you a better player,” Littrell said. “Obviously, being able to go out there, competing every day and getting that live action is going to help, but it’s all our guys. It’s every freshman, every newcomer that we have, just getting comfortable with our schemes in all three phases. It’s only going to help. We’re excited about continuing to develop those guys and getting them ready to play.”
At Whitehouse, Neal did a bit of everything, including playing on every special team.
With the Mean Green, he’s not currently receiving any special teams reps, but hopes that will soon change.
“I’m going to make sure that I try to get some reps in. I’m going to talk to (special teams) Coach (Marty) Biagi and see if he gives me an opportunity,” Neal said. “If he gives me an opportunity, I’m going to take every advantage of it.”
Redshirting as a true freshman can be a jarring experience for some players, transitioning from being a star player in high school, likely even their team’s best player, to now someone who is still practicing with his new team as a true freshman but knows he won’t play at all that season.
However, Neal decided to have faith in the process in 2018, knowing his redshirt year is something that will eventually deliver huge dividends.
“Yes, it was pretty tough because I wasn’t used to riding the sideline,” he said. “It was a good lesson for me though — just wait on my opportunity. I trust everything in God. He’s going to give me my moment and then when my moment comes, I just take advantage of it.”
For now, he’s content to bide his time, continue learning and await his opportunity to shine.
But even in practice, he still gets to represent East Texas in a positive way, something he doesn’t take lightly. “I’m proud of where I come from,” Neal said. “East Texas, we’ve got some ballers out there. Me and Makyle (Sanders of Tyler), we’re going to make sure we represent East Texas the right way.”
Stephen Hunt is a freelance writer based in Frisco.