BATON ROUGE, La. -- Ed Orgeron said on the day he was hired that he planned to show his new LSU defensive linemen film of NFL players such as J.J. Watt because “I’m going to show them how to get better.”
Both players are a bit undersized for defensive end (LSU lists Neal at 6-foot-1 and 255 pounds, while Cole measured at 6-2 and 236 pounds at his 2005 pro day). Both players were severely undersized to play as interior linemen, which Cole did early in his college career at Cincinnati and which Neal did at points last season. And both rely heavily on relentless motors in order to compete against larger players.
“Coach O always says I could be the next Trent Cole, so I always watch his stuff and study everything because football’s not just physical. It’s mental too, so I’ve got to have the mental game on point,” Neal said. “Because you can have all the physical tools. But in the NFL some players come in there -- or some players come in here -- and they have all the physical tools, but you don’t have the mental part. You’ve got to have them both.”
This fall will provide Neal with an opportunity to validate the Cole comparison with actual on-field production. Cole is a two-time Pro Bowler and one of the leading sack artists in Philadelphia Eagles history. Neal finished last season with just three tackles, but his playing time seems likely to increase now that starters Danielle Hunter and Jermauria Rasco are chasing pro football futures, leaving behind a group of inexperienced potential successors.
Neal got off to a great start this spring, although an ankle sprain prevented him from playing in last Saturday’s spring game. Even so, he won three team awards at the end of spring practice (outstanding performance in the offseason program, newcomer award and coaches award) and Tigers coach Les Miles said after the game that he considers Neal a starter.
During spring practice, Neal usually lined up on the left side of the line over the offense’s right tackle -- same for Maquedius Bain and Deondre Clark -- while Tashawn Bower and Sione Teuhema typically were on the right side.
That meant lots of practice reps for Neal against the Tigers’ most experienced offensive lineman, right tackle Vadal Alexander.
“They’re all three different types of guys,” Alexander said when asked to evaluate the players he typically faces in practice. “Lewis is effort to the extreme. He’s very strong and he has the leverage because he’s so short. He has the leverage to get under you. Bain is more of a bigger guy, a D-tackle kind of hybrid. He’s got a lot more power, but he’s very strong, very good with his hands. And Deondre’s kind of a prototypical end that’s really athletic and can get up the field fast and come with a power rush. They’re three different guys.”
But enthusiasm is definitely Neal’s trademark. It bubbles out of him as he discusses how he can’t wait to get out of a walking boot and go back to work with his teammates.
“This summer, they aren’t going to be able to keep me off the field. That’s where I’m going to be,” Neal said. “It’s like a vacation, football. I just can’t wait to work hard this summer with a lot of the players. And some of the future players, they’re going to be training with me too.”
One of those players will be signee Arden Key, who will arrive at LSU in June. LSU’s coaches hope Key -- whom ESPN rated as the nation’s No. 24 overall prospect and No. 6 defensive end -- can become an instant-impact performer.
“I’m going to put him under my wings this summer,” Neal said. “He’s going to need it.”
That he will. Key possesses the talent and build to develop into a prototypical defensive end. But he likely needs to add size to his wiry frame in order to win head-to-head matchups against SEC offensive tackles.
That’s where Neal can help. He plans to push Key just as the LSU veterans did with him as a freshman -- and if Neal’s work ethic rubs off on the newcomer, that can only be a good thing for LSU’s 2015 defensive line.
“I’m going to get him right,” Neal said. “Rasco and Danielle, really, they did that for me. So I’m going to do that for him because we’ve got to keep the tradition going. That’s how you’ve got to go.”