For Darrian McNeal, Football is More Than a Game, and Taggart Is More Than a Coach
Relationships with coaches and teammates is something that transcends all sports. The bond between player and coach can have a lasting impact on both parties. Even though Willie Taggart hasn’t even officially coached him yet, 3-star wide receiver Darrian McNeal has faith in his bond with Taggart.
A Man Amongst Men
It all began when McNeal, who played at Armwood High School, was offered a scholarship to the University of Southern Florida, when Taggart was the head coach, back in December of 2015. His hometown of Seffner, Florida is a suburb of Tampa Bay, and he knew of Taggart by his reputation at USF.
It was there, during an unofficial visit in March of 2016, that he and his mother, Deonzia Woullard, became close with Taggart and learned about his philosophy. In an interview with Duck Territory, Woullard stated her belief that Taggart was a strong and important influence for young men on and off the football field. When asked why his players seem to be drawn to Taggart, McNeal responded, “Because he is a man amongst men. When he talks, people listen.” That sounds like the kind of coach we as Oregon fans want leading our football team.
What impressed Woullard during that visit was the noticeable lack of football talk and stats. Taggart explained to the players and their parents how important it was to be of ”high character and avoiding the distractions that he’d seen bring down so many promising athletes in the surrounding area.”
Despite the speech, McNeal didn’t commit to USF and Woullard didn’t want her son to play there; it was too close to the problems she wanted him to avoid. ”I want him to be prosperous. I don’t want him to become a statistic,” said Woullard. “I want him to be able to enjoy life, not just caught up in the street life.”
However, Woullard did tell Taggart that “if he would pick himself and his staff up and move halfway across the country, I would push Darrian to commit to him.” This is essentially what happened. Taggart and his family have moved across the country, somewhere Woullard feels is a good place for Darrian.
McNeal told The Oregonian that ”Coach Tag was the factor. My mom told him at (South Florida), ‘If you was at a different school, you could have my son.’ USF was too close (to where) we’re at.”
— “DM” (@DarrianMcNeal1) December 12, 2016
McNeal had already given a verbal commitment to the University of Arizona back in July of 2016. But when Taggart leapt for the top coaching job in Eugene on December 8th, McNeal received an offer he couldn’t refuse. Just three days after Taggart took the job, he had his first Oregon commit in McNeal. “It was a tough decision,” McNeal said to Scout.com. “Arizona has always been 100 percent with me, but it just felt like something I had to do.”
As a player, McNeal embodies the new energy Taggart wants to bring back to Oregon football. Even though McNeal loves the Oregon gear, he doesn’t want to play with anyone who coming purely for the brand. He has repeatedly made statements regarding player mentality such as “If you’re coming to wear a clean uniform, don’t.”
McNeal, continuing his adopted spokesman role, said via Twitter:
I now see why coaches don’t want they kids to come out here. ‘Other programs.’ I’ve been to a lot of schools. The big 3 in Fla. can’t touch this.”
At 5’10” and 175 lbs with pads on, it’s no secret McNeal is on the smaller side of the receiving core. But that doesn’t deter him at all. If anything, he likes being the small guy on the field. “I’ve always loved Oregon,” he said in an interview with The Oregonian. “Since I was a kid, watching De’Anthony Thomas run up and down the field. It was hard knowing that Oregon wouldn’t hit me back. Knowing that they liked smaller guys like myself.”
Since his days at Armwood, he has drawn comparisons to Thomas. For McNeal, Thomas is living proof that players his size can have a big impact in high school and in the NCAA. Armwood offensive coordinator Evan Davis says of McNeal, “He’s the best player I’ve ever coached. I think in this day and age this stuff is overlooked. People are like ‘this kid is 6-foot-5’. But can the kid play football or not?” You can check out his highlights here.
Judging from his highlight reel alone, McNeal can certainly play. There’s something about McNeal’s elusiveness and in-game awareness that separates him from all the other players Davis has seen in his seven years of coaching at Armwood. The key, according to McNeal, is his work ethic, and his heart.
In an online interview with BigCountyPreps, McNeal stated that in the weight room he has benched 275 lbs, and squatted 500 lbs. In his three years on the varsity team, McNeal accumulated 3,898 total yards and 30 touchdowns according to MaxPreps.com. During his junior season, he started at quarterback, and led his team to the 6A State Championship game.
At the collegiate level, McNeal told Scout.com that he is comfortable playing “slot, kick returner and punt returner, maybe a little defensive back and running back.” However, his size might be an issue at some positions, and he “would like to weigh no more than 190 lbs.”
He is doing his best to recruit other players and teammates to come to Oregon. 4-star wide receiver Warren Thompson headlines that group of players. McNeal is thrilled that fellow recruit freshman quarterback Braxton Burmeister also flipped from Arizona to Oregon. “Braxton, that’s my boy, ” McNeal said to Scout.com. “He was going to be my roommate at Arizona. We walk often.”
McNeal finally fulfilled his lifelong dream when he put on the Oregon uniform for the 2017 Spring Game on April 29th. It’s been quite the journey so far for a man who hadn’t even seen the campus before he committed.
Eugene, Ore. (From Half Moon Bay, Calif.)
Top Photo by John Sperry
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