Former Cal Cornerback Finding Way In NFL

Oct. 9, 2001

AP Sports Writer

DENVER - The cocksure kid from California had lost all confidence.Denver Broncos cornerback Deltha O'Neal felt like he could do nothing rightunder the watchful eye of an unrelenting boss.

Every missed assignment, every poor decision and every rookie pitfallinevitably would be followed by the bellowing voice of defensive coordinatorGreg Robinson: 'Deltha!'

'It was hell. He chewed me out every day,' O'Neal said. 'I think it helpedme out, though. I've got to be able to take criticism and learn to grow offof that and challenge myself. But give me 50 feet so I can breathe.

'When I first stepped in there, I lost all of my confidence. It was alearning process for me, but yeah, I took in the criticism. Yeah, they brokeme down. They broke me down to ground zero. I was hurting.'

O'Neal has done a 180-degree turnaround since those 90-degree days at hisfirst NFL training camp in 2000.

With Robinson now the defensive coordinator for Kansas City, he had anunobstructed view as O'Neal tied an NFL record with four interceptionsSunday against the Chiefs.

It was the kind of game the Broncos have been hoping for since selectingO'Neal with the 15th overall pick of the 2000 draft.

'Even though you're a starter, until you go out there and prove yourselfweek in and week out, you don't have a lot of confidence,' Denver coach MikeShanahan said. 'That's why I think it's important for a guy to have a biggame like he did.'

During his senior year at Cal, O'Neal seemed to have a big game every week.He tied for the NCAA lead with nine interceptions in 1999 and set an NCAArecord by returning four for touchdowns.

Making his defensive achievements even more impressive was the fact heplayed tailback until moving to cornerback midway through his junior year.

'He could have been a wide receiver. I guarantee that,' Shanahan said. 'Hehas unbelievable hands.'

As much as the Broncos love O'Neal's multiple talents, they made him afirst-round pick with the intention of grooming him to shadow receivers, notmimic them.

Not since Tyrone Braxton in 1987 has Denver drafted a cornerback that made alasting impact in a Broncos uniform. O'Neal could finally end the dry spellas he hones his technique and adopts diligent study habits under newdefensive coordinator Ray Rhodes.

'I feel like my old self again,' O'Neal said. 'I feel like I am back incollege, but I have to step it up another level. We have several weeks leftand now we have Seattle, so I have to let this one go by.'

The NFL record book will be there to remind O'Neal of his accomplishment. Hebecame the 18th player with four interceptions in a game and the first sinceArizona's Kwamie Lassiter did it against San Diego on Dec. 27, 1998.

O'Neal would have held the record by himself if he could have come down witha high throw by Trent Green in the end zone.

'That's all I'm hearing,' he said. 'Everybody talks about the five.'

O'Neal flashes a big smile when he thinks about what could have been.Dropping a potential interception is part of the learning curve that beganwhen Robinson and Denver's coaching staff seemingly dogged him from thepractice field to the film room to the cafeteria line.

'I think most rookies' confidence gets shattered a little bit because theydon't understand the speed of the game,' Shanahan said. 'They don'tunderstand the involvement and the difference between college and pro. It'snot a game. It's your job. Every once in a while a guy will come in andprove himself right away, but that's not the norm.'

Now that he has proven capable of making quarterbacks think twice aboutthrowing his way, O'Neal can expect a little slack at practice, right? Notquite.

'They still yell,' he said. 'Don't get me wrong, they still yell. I justfeel comfortable out there. I feel relaxed.'

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