Dejonte O’Neal has enjoyed listening, learning and performing well ever since he put on a football uniform in his youth.
It’s been more of the same for the former Bullard High star at Fresno State, where after spending his first year as a little-used reserve he has been making a strong impression on coaches this spring. It helps that his varied skill set and openings on the Fresno State roster challenged the staff to figure out how best to utilize O’Neal.
Soon after hiring offensive coordinator Eric Kiesau, coach Tim DeRuyter asked him to take a look at five minutes of high school film of the now-sophomore, who stands 5-foot-7 and weighs 166 pounds.
I had no idea who he was. He was making guys miss in open space. Tough guy. I stood up and said, ‘Coach, we need this guy at slot (receiver).’ Then our running backs have been hurt (this spring), and we gave him a shot at running back, and he’s a little jitterbug who has a big heart.
Fresno State offensive coordinator Eric Kiesau
“I was like, ‘Sure,’ ” Kiesau said. “I had no idea who he was. He was making guys miss in open space. Tough guy. I stood up and said, ‘Coach, we need this guy at slot (receiver).’ Then our running backs have been hurt (this spring), and we gave him a shot at running back, and he’s a little jitterbug who has a big heart.”
That big heart has led to renewed enthusiasm for the walk-on, who has rushed for three touchdowns during the Bulldogs’ spring scrimmages, filling in at running back after Bryson Oglesby’s early spring injury cut into an already depth-challenged position group.
“I’ll do anything for this team,” said O’Neal, who was limited to 56 yards on 16 carries last season, with nine of those runs coming in fourth-quarter mop-up duty during a late-season blowout of Hawaii. “It’s not about me; it’s about everybody, and I’m a part of something bigger than me right now. It’s a blessing to be on the field, and they want me to do anything, and I appreciate that … giving me the opportunity to play more positions.”
When DeRuyter looks at O’Neal, one thing comes to mind: “playmaker.”
He’s a guy constantly that has a smile on his face. He just wants to get touches and make plays. He’s a great teammate, and guys love having him around, and I’m happy he’s here, and we’ll find ways to get him the ball.
Fresno State head coach Tim DeRuyter
“We’ve known that,” said DeRuyter, who expects O’Neal to slide back to the slot, or “H” position, in the fall. “He’s a guy that can play slot. He can makes guys miss, and he’s a guy constantly that has a smile on his face. He just wants to get touches and make plays. He’s a great teammate, and guys love having him around, and I’m happy he’s here, and we’ll find ways to get him the ball.”
O’Neal’s determination can be traced to his father, Larry Wynne, who fell ill in 2013 after being diagnosed with kidney failure and later, the family said, developed an infection on his spine related to the dialysis. He checked himself out of the hospital against doctor’s orders, determined to see his son play a big high school game but wound up with paralysis and back in the hospital for emergency surgery.
With his dad in the hospital, O’Neal had one of his biggest nights, rushing for 147 yards and three touchdowns in Bullard’s 56-30 victory over Paso Robles.
Wynne and O’Neal’s mother, Kenisha O’Neal, have been at their son’s games ever since his youth football days. Even this spring, after the first scrimmage, O’Neal could be seen jogging over to hug his parents after an interview.
O’Neal said he wants to make Dad proud. He’s also winning over teammates on and off the field.
“He always has great energy in the locker room and is a good guy you want to be around,” defensive end Nathan Madsen said. “Some guys get used to their position and don’t have much energy. Being around that guy … he’s excited to play. Put him anywhere, and he’ll have more energy than most people on the team. That energy spreads, and that’s what we really need.”