After only a handful of preseason practices, freshman defensive ends Arden Key and Isaiah Washington were anointed superstars, destined to compete for playing time and maybe even unseat veterans for starting jobs.
That didn’t bother Lewis Neal one bit.
“I already knew what they were capable of and I was already helping them before they came,” said Neal, who is listed as a starter at defensive end. “At the end of the day, they’ve still got to help us. They’ve still got to play and be ready to be on the field.”
Though the freshmen have been hot on his heels, Neal — known as “Lou” among his teammates — is expected to make his first collegiate start Saturday against McNeese State. But after playing in a new position in 2014, the junior is just happy to be at home again.
Neal played defensive end throughout high school and his freshman year at LSU but switched to defensive tackle last season at the behest of his coaches. Weighing only 255 pounds, Neal was undersized for the position and recorded only three tackles as a backup in all 13 games.
He moved back to defensive end, his preferred position, in the offseason to replace NFL-bound ends Danielle Hunter and Jermauria Rasco. An ankle injury, however, kept him sidelined for the spring game. Despite limited success at tackle, the junior said playing there allowed him to become more versatile and absorb the defensive scheme — attributes he expects will help him at defensive end.
“Everything happens faster there, and you learn the concepts of the entire defensive line,” Neal said. “You get more aggressive down at defensive tackle. So when you go back to end, it’s easy because you’ve played at tackle where all this other stuff is happening.”
He still channels that aggressiveness.
“I’m strong. If you ask anybody on the defensive line, they’ll tell you I’m the strongest,” Neal said. “You’ve got to be able to hold on the point of attack to be able to get off the blocks. You’ve got to be aggressive to stop the run.”
Junior tight end DeSean Smith, who frequently lines up across from Neal during practice, said the defensive end’s strength makes him difficult to block. The 6-foot-2, 264-pound junior sports long arms on his stocky frame, an odd body type that can give offensive linemen fits.
Just ask junior left tackle Jerald Hawkins.
“When he gets under you, it’s a done deal,” Hawkins said.
Neal is akin in stature to longtime Philadelphia Eagles defensive end and Pro Bowler Trent Cole, a player he often studies and watches on film. Cole also spent a year playing defensive tackle at Cincinnati.
He strives to emulate another NFL superstar, one with whom he shares his hometown of Wilson, North Carolina — eight-time Pro Bowler Julius Peppers.
While at James B. Hunt High School, Neal squared off against Southern Nash, where Peppers went to high school. He said he met Peppers in person several times and was naturally inclined to follow his career.
Neal models his game after Peppers because of more than just affinity for a hometown hero.
“If you watch all the great defensive ends, they have a high motor. They never stop running,” he said. “It doesn’t matter about their moves, their height or their weight; it’s all about their motor. You can be the biggest, strongest dude in the world, but if you don’t have that relentless effort, you’ll be stopped.”
With unwavering effort as the focal point of his game, Neal is confident he can be an every-down player effective at both stopping the run and pressuring passers. His teammates are, too.
“He’s got more will in him. It’s upgraded,” Hawkins said. “The whole summer he worked with me on his get-off, his first step. It shows.”