Randy Raper opened the Hunt High School weight room each summer day at 9 a.m.
He parked his truck, unlocked the exterior door of the building and then saw a familiar sight: Seated on the floor, his back against the weight room door, was defensive end Lewis Neal.
His face was drenched in sweat, and Raper warned Neal again that he was doing too much.
“He’d say, ‘I know, Coach. I just wanted to get my running in,’ ” Raper said.
Those 7 a.m. runs were followed by hours of weight training. This was every day.
Neal’s life as a high schooler revolved around training for the many sports that he played: basketball, football, track. He had a sport for each season. He had a workout each day. It got to the point that even classmates poked fun at him, Raper said. He became obsessed — and he’s still that way at LSU.
“He won’t let anyone outwork him,” center Ethan Pocic said.
What’s it all for? This.
Neal, the Tigers’ starting defensive end, is tied for the team lead with three sacks, has rolled up a host of quarterback pressures and has the lead in defensive line coach Ed Orgeron’s points system.
Points are accumulated via explosive plays. The bigger the play — a sack is four points, while a tackle is two, for instance — means more points.
“He’s doing a lot of great things for us,” defensive tackle Christian LaCouture said.
If Orgeron’s points are any indication, Neal is the leader of a defensive line that has been whipped into shape during Orgeron’s nine months in Baton Rouge. They’re stunting, blitzing, pass-rushing linemen who have 9.5 of the team’s 11 sacks through four games.
Neal — overshadowed during the offseason — is creating just as much chaos as highly touted four-star signee Arden Key and preseason third-team All-SEC pick Davon Godchaux, Neal’s friend and teammate but points nemesis.
“He didn’t tell you that I won the points in the spring,” a smiling Godchaux said. “Didn’t tell you that. I led the points in fall coming into the season.”
Godchaux is close on Neal’s tail, but he has the lead for now.
“Every time LSU is on, I watch,” said Raper, still a coach in Neal’s hometown of Wilson, North Carolina. “My first initial thing was, ‘Wow, how big he’s gotten.’ He looks great.”
He’s a chiseled, 6-foot-2, 265-pound rock. Raper uses words like “workaholic,” “gym rat” and “goal-driven” to describe his former star player. It’s the latter term that kept him out of trouble.
Wilson is a town of about 50,000 nestled between Greenville and Raleigh, the state’s second-largest city. Recently, Wilson has been known for its growing crime rate. The city is full of what Raper calls “dream stealers.”
What are dream stealers?
“Those kids that can’t stand some people being successful,” Raper said. “It’s like being in a barrel of monkeys. Everybody is grabbing you and pulling you down.”
Raper said he never had a doubt about Neal’s future, never had any fear that he would be one yanked down into the barrel or pushed “into the cracks,” he said. He was too goal-focused, too busy training, too busy running track, shooting 3-pointers or getting sacks.
He took flak for it.
“He got ridiculed a little bit,” Raper said.
Neal got so good in football that teams began to run offensive plays to the opposite of his side. Raper would move Neal around, but it never really worked.
“They would just check out of plays,” the coach said.
Neal’s stats weren’t great because of it, and his recruiting rankings weren’t the best. He was a three-star prospect, the No. 17 player in the state. But his potential drew eyeballs. Raper thought he would sign with N.C. State, the first school to begin recruiting him as a freshman. Then Neal committed to Ohio State, decommitted and signed with LSU.
He had schools like OSU, Tennessee and others recruiting in — of all places — North Carolina.
After all, this was basketball country, and Neal admits to being a basketball boy growing up.
Wilson sits about 50 minutes from N.C. State, 70 minutes from Duke and 80 minutes from North Carolina — the universities that make up a triangle-shaped region known as Tobacco Road.
“I wanted to play basketball for Carolina,” Neal said. “I was really good. I started on varsity my freshman year in high school. I had some looks at small schools. Nothing huge because of height.”
Wilson is just a three-hour drive from Columbia, South Carolina, where Neal and the No. 7 Tigers (4-0) were scheduled to play the Gamecocks (2-3) on Saturday. Because of that state’s massive flooding, the game was relocated to Baton Rouge.
Wilson wasn’t affected much by the flooding, Neal said. The western part of the state and South Carolina were hit hardest.
Neal will have to push that aside Saturday. He’s attempting to get some redemption from his home state’s rival.
The best high school players in North Carolina and South Carolina meet each year in the Shrine Bowl of the Carolinas. South Carolina has won three straight, including a 28-23 victory in Neal’s senior season of 2013.
“It was because of a turnover,” Neal said, still sounding a bit miffed. “It’s going to be bragging rights when I go home.”
Neal was in the 2013 North Carolina class with several current Gamecocks, including the team’s leading receiver and preseason All-SEC player Pharoh Cooper. LSU reserve defensive tackle Greg Gilmore, a Hope Mills, North Carolina, native, was the No. 1 player from the state in that 2013 class.
Neal has more than that motivation to draw on. The guy basically missed an entire season of football last year because of a position move that he admitted he did not like: Coaches moved Neal to tackle.
He started no games and rarely saw the field, stuck as a reserve.
“You know I want to play end, but I had to do what I had to do for the team,” he said recently. “I’m not going to cry.”
He made the switch back during spring practice and quickly took hold of a starting job. He spent the offseason doing more than his typical tireless workouts. He watched tons of film, he said — pass-rushing tape of some of the greats.
He reviewed film of former Philadelphia Eagles and current Indianapolis Colts end Trent Cole and ex-Carolina Panther Julius Peppers (a Wilson native). He studied tape of the pressure-crazed Seattle Seahawks, too.
What’s it all for? This, of course.
Sometimes, when watching LSU play, those memories of Neal sitting against the weight room door come flooding back to his high school coach.
Said Raper: “Sometimes I’d say, ‘Lewis, you’ve got to rest a little bit. You’ll wear yourself out,’ ” Raper said.
Lewis’ response: “Nah, Coach.”
Follow Ross Dellenger on Twitter: @DellengerAdv.