I tend to like nick-nacks. Don't get me wrong, I don't spend a dollar on 'em, but I love perusing a good antique shop or flea market and and looking at all the random stuff. Old coke bottles. Weird clocks. Lots of bird stuff. People who love nick-nacks sure do love birds. This was mocked hilariously on Portlandia.
Maybe that's why I'm so intrigued with Lewis Neal. Let's be honest, LSU doesn't recruit many 6-1, 238 pound defensive ends. In fact, we've made a living off recruiting and putting bigger DL into the NFL. Guys like Marcus Spears, Tyson Jackson, Lavar Edwards, Sam Montgomery, and even Barkevious Mingo, though lighter, all check in at 6-3-plus, most of them more than 250 pounds. They fit the prototypes. Long and athletic.
So when LSU goes out of it's way (Wilson, North Carolina to be exact) to recruit an undersized defensive end prospect, it piques my interest.
Lewis Neal committed without much fanfare. It was hardly the teeth-gnashing, "WHY ARE WE RECRUITING THIS GUY WHEN THERE ARE MORE 5 STARZZZZZ!!!!" reaction, more lost curiosity. But he quickly became a recruitnik favorite, largely due to his absolutely outstanding tape. He pledged in July, and never really looked back.
He never really climbed the recruiting rankings. He maintained a 3-star ranking on Rivals, 247 and Scout from wire to wire. He wasn't considered a top 100 player; he wasn't even considered top 250. For all intents and purposes, on paper, Lewis Neal to LSU didn't make a ton of sense. He's not a guy you would think ranked among the elite type of recruits LSU generally pursues. He's not big enough. He's not fast enough. He's not "known" enough. Yet, they took him early-ish and there was never a question if he would find himself in this class. The Chief clearly liked him. In fact, he recruited him directly.
He got elected to play in the Shrine Bowl of the Carolinas and the Offense-Defense Bowl, so it's not as if he was a completely unknown quantity. At least someone recognized his talents outside of our own coaching staff. So Neal shows up at the Shrine Bowl and walks away with the "Toughest to Block" award. Rivals summarized him as a "beast." He goes to the Offense-Defense bowl and is declared the 4th best player in attendance (Rashard Robinson was no. 2, for what that's worth). They again raved about his quickness and the inability of the offensive line to block him. Yet, the recruiting services see no need to boost his ranking. Not that it matters, but there's a little bit of that "fool me once... fool me twice..." here, no?
So let's get to the tape, because the paper doesn't do Neal any justice at all.
When you are short and light, you have to be resourceful. Look at a guy like Elvis Dumervil, all 5-11 and 260 pounds of him. He's got sensational speed, but the real reason he's had such great success is that he's found ways to use his size to his advantage. He plays the leverage game. In no way do I think Lewis Neal is near the caliber athlete of Elvis Dumervil, but I liken him to Dumervil because he similarly uses his lack of size as a strength, not a weakness.
The first clip at :11 is a brilliant example of that. Neal gets off the ball fairly well, but he beats the blocker without a single pass rushing move. How? He slides right under him. In this case, being 6'1" (which is probably generous) is a help, not a harm.
Now jump to :29. Here we see his outstanding quickness. Neal explodes off the ball and just as the OT is getting into his pass blocking set, Neal is swimming to the inside pass rush lane. Not only do we see how quick he is, he shows great pass rushing instincts. There are guys that just know how to rush the passer. It's more than technique, it's pure instinct. Tyrann Mathieu was an insane blitzer, and not because he was the biggest or baddest, not even because he was fast. He had a great anticipation and feel for it. What we also see is that he's got tremendous pursuit skills.
Now, one common issue that plagues guys that can really rush the passer is that they tend to be otherwise indifferent to the run game. They want the glory stats. The sacks and forced fumbles. They want to hit the QB. So when it comes to being a disciplined run defender, they'll take a few snaps off to recharge for the next pass rush. But with Lewis Neal there is no lack of effort. :38 he reads the play, maintains lane responsibility, and gets a tackle for loss. :42 he strings out the toss play, pursues down the line and makes the tackle. 1:07 again reads the play well, maintains his gap responsibilities and gets the stop behind the line. 1:12 he even shows he may have some deceptive power to hold up on running plays, by standing up the off. tackle. You see it time and time again.
I want to use one more video here.
Another exciting aspect to Neal's game is that he really uses his hands well. This is absolutely imperative to good d-line play, particularly when you are at a size/bulk disadvantage as Neal likely will be throughout his career. There are back-to-back cilps at the :33 mark where he uses his hands to keep from getting blocked up and then blows by the tackle for a pair of sacks.
What I Like: Quickness and pursuit. He plays with leverage.
What I Dislike: I'm not prejudiced, but his lack of size may limit him. He's not an upper-tier athlete, either.
What I Don't Know: What the lack of size will mean for his career.
Despite the rave reviews Tashawn Bower earned all summer and the recruiting hype of Frank Herron, guess who saw the field first? That short, light 3-star from North Carolina. There's something to be said about a guy who just keep impressing everywhere he shows up. He's already seeing snaps late in games. Considering the LSU pass rush isn't exactly setting the world on fire, it's not out of the question Neal could be a guy the Chief starts to wrinkle in during SEC play. It would surprise me, but we all know Chavis isn't afraid of using whatever weapons at his disposal.
Guess what, he's played against UAB and Kent State, already racked up 7 tackles, including half a sack.
First of all, I think Neal will grow to be a fan favorite. He plays with a relentless effort and being undersized is always a good way to earn that "scrappy" moniker. Fans identify with players that aren't 6-5 freakazoids, I think mostly because they can say (however foolishly), "That could be me!"
But I don't mean that to discredit Neal's tremendous abilities. He's got a knack for rushing the passer. He shows really good instincts in that regard. He's not afraid to stick his nose in the run game either. The guy just flat out produces. And I like guys that produce. So I'm bullish on what Lewis Neal can become.
Now, what of his size? Assuming he doesn't hit a late growth spurt and sticks around that 6-1 height, he'll need to continue to add some bulk, regardless. At 6-1, 238 he's really just not a playable every down type of guy. I do wonder if any thought was given to playing him at LB. He's got the interior quickness, but I think his lack of speed may limit him there. If the Chief were to transition to more of a 3-4 look, he could be a prime candidate for a 3-4 OLB (think Pittsburgh Steelers, here).
In fact, and I hate playing the comparison game, but if there is a player he may most remind me of, it may be James Harrison, who is similarly built, similarly tenacious and similarly not an elite athlete. All Harrsion did was parlay that into a 11-year (and counting), 5-Pro Bowl, 64-sack career with at least one NFL Defensive Player of the Year award. Fittingly, Neal wears the same number 92.
So what can Lewis Neal become? Well, it's going to depend partially on how he's used. I'm less bullish on his potential to be an every down 4-3 DE. I don't think that would maximize his abilities. But if he's used as a heat-seeking pass rush missile on 3rd downs, and a guy that we creatively move around different formations (thus far Kendell Beckwith is getting these looks), then he could turn into a superstar playmaker. I don't say that lightly, because I think very few players are true playmakers. Tyrann Mathieu was a playmaker. Patrick Peterson was a playmaker. Lewis Neal could be a playmaker.
Lewis Neal may be a knickknack and more of and odd or end, but don't sleep on his value.
High End: I'll be conservative and say a productive starter as a Senior.
Low End: Rotational pass rusher.
Realistic: My hope is that he becomes a versatile weapon that we do not try to fit into a box. He can be a lot more than that, but if they try to make him fit the system, rather than using him according to his talents, he may never become much.