When Tulane wide receivers coach Jeff Conway reflects about former receiver Darnell Mooney, the play that stands out the most is the one he should have missed.
Like many schools, Tulane has a rule that if a player is tired they can tap their helmet and their backup will give them a breather and sub in until the player is ready to come back.
During an American Athletic Conference road game against SMU in 2017, Mooney — a sophomore at the time — asked for a breather just two minutes into the first drive.
“Darnell did this one time, and I could tell he was excited because it was the sixth play of the game that he tapped,” Conway said. “Well, we just put a personnel grouping in where we had no backups, so when he tapped his head, I waved him off and said, ‘You’re staying.’”
52 yards later Mooney scored.
Mooney lined up on the numbers to quarterback Jonathan Banks’ right, ran a simple slant route and maneuvered through the middle of the field to give Tulane its first points of the game.
“That play was pretty instrumental for us,” Conway said. “It made the highlight reel that’s for sure.”
For Mooney — who grew up in Gadsden, Ala. — family has always been an important aspect of his life.
That’s why whenever he got an opportunity to spend time outside the football field with Conway and his family to eat a nice home-cooked meal, he never passed it up.
“We often had players over, but he [Mooney] would always stay the longest because I really think he valued home life,” Conway said. “Everybody loved to see him come over because he truly enjoyed it. He would dress up. He would always look sharp when he came over.”
Mooney didn’t wear a suit and tie, but he did flash his “true New Orleans colors with lots of yellow and pastels.”
And over the years, Mooney and Conway found that balance for their coach-and-player relationship, which made it easy for them to talk openly to one another.
During a standard exit interview, Mooney went to talk to Conway and told his position coach that it’s okay to push him and to demand more from him.
“I said, ‘Alright Darnell, I appreciate the insight and I appreciate that you would like me to push you harder,’’’ said Conway. “You don’t normally get those kinds of answers in those types of interviews, but for him to ask to be coached even harder was pretty unique.”
When Mooney first got to Tulane, he didn’t just lace up his cleats and start running routes whenever practice started. Before he ran a specific route, he would ask Conway a series of questions as to how it should be run.
That is when Conway knew that football wasn’t just a game to him but instead it was his craft.
“A lot of times when you tell people just starting out in football you got a 12-yard curl route, that’s it,” Conway said. “With Darnell or people who treat it as a craft, it’s not just that. It’s, are you going to stem in? Stem out? Are you going to vertical push? … All these things were questions Darnell was concerned about right from the get-go.”
Mooney was also heavily devoted to watching film. On top of the 20 hours the coaches are allowed to have with their players during the course of the week, which involved watching film and the on-field practices, Mooney would come in on his own and study film, putting in anywhere from 7 to 10 additional hours.
Just as Mooney constantly asked questions on the practice field it was the same during the team’s film sessions. Mooney’s knowledge of the X’s and O’s played dividends during games when Conway would ask Mooney what he was seeing from the defense, and Conway knew he could trust him.
Mooney’s consistent attention to detail, dedication to the game on and off the field and his unwillingness to never miss a practice made him a captain for the 2019 season. He wasn’t the prototypical vocal leader, but when he did speak, his teammates listened.
“He was a great leader by example,” Conway said. “When he would say something to the team, it was always well received because they knew he could back it up.”
The first thing people notice about Mooney is his speed. At the NFL Scouting Combine, Mooney ran a 4.38 40-yard dash, tied for third among wide receivers.
But there is plenty more to Mooney’s game that people are overlooking.
He didn’t catch 151 passes for 2,529 yards and 19 touchdowns in four seasons at Tulane with just elite speed alone. It took knowing how to decelerate and then use that speed in quick spurts to maximize Mooney’s potential.
“It’s not just a game where you run fast for 40 yards,” Conway said. “It’s a game where start and stop, go vertical and go back down the stem. I think he [Mooney] can do all of those things really, really well.”
Mooney’s versatility is also one of his greatest strengths. During his time at Tulane, the 5-foot-10, 176-pound receiver was asked to start to the field as the outside receiver, the next year he played as the outside boundary receiver and one year the coaches asked him to play inside and outside.
“I think what they’re getting [the Bears] is a complete mixed bag of talent level where he is not just a boundary receiver,” Conway said. “He is going to be able to play any of the positions, and I think he is going to be able to do it at a high level.”
Conway’s connection with the Chicago Bears started when he grew up watching Gale Sayers with his dad when Sayers was at the University of Kansas.
Then as Conway got into coaching, he had the opportunity of coaching Hall of Famer Brian Urlacher while he was at New Mexico.
And when Conway saw that Bears general manager Ryan Pace moved up to select Mooney in the fifth round, his affection for the organization only continued.
“There has always been a certain connection with Chicago,” Conway said. “So, I was very excited that Darnell was going to get the opportunity to be in the NFL and go to a franchise like Chicago.”
Conway has no doubt in his mind that Mooney will be successful in the NFL, and he mentioned that every year there is a player that exceeds expectations.
“I really believe Darnell is one of those kids …” Conway said. “Let’s face it, everybody loves a champion, but people really love a humble champion, and I think he will fit that mold.”