Rookie Neal Muscling Into Key Role On D-Line

Powerful second-round pick Mike Neal has been impressive on the field as well as in the locker room. "Very strong guy, good player," first-round pick Bryan Bulaga said. "You don't want to get off-guard with a bull rush on him or you'll be on your back."

As advertised, Mike Neal is strong.

It's just a snapshot in time but it illustrates the power the second-round pick has shown every day at training camp. At Tuesday night's practice, Neal on consecutive snaps during one-on-one pass-rushing drills bull rushed Breno Giacomini and T.J. Lang straight back to the quarterback.

"He's a strong guy," first-round pick Bryan Bulaga said. "Very strong guy, good player. You don't want to get off-guard with a bull rush on him or you'll be on your back."

On Tuesday, the powerhouse Neal was the first name mentioned by defensive coordinator Dom Capers when asked which young players had stood out during the first 10 days of camp.

"When he gets his hands on them, you can tell," Capers said after the morning practice. "He had a couple plays, the short-yardage play the other night in the scrimmage where, short yardage and goal line, you're trying to knock them back, and so he created a new line of scrimmage for us. Those are the kind of guys you need in those situations, where now the linebackers have got good angles to work off of. Like any rookie, he's learning, but I think he's got the potential because of the strength and he can move fairly well for a guy his size."

Neal's strong play — pun only semi-not intended — is just what the Packers badly need. Johnny Jolly, who has been suspended for at least this season, played about 75 percent of the defensive snaps last season. Even with the insertion of last year's first-round pick, B.J. Raji, into the starting lineup, there still are a lot of snaps that need to be taken. As it stands, Neal has played better than Justin Harrell, Jarius Wynn and fellow rookie C.J. Wilson in the battle to be the first defensive lineman off the bench.

"That's not necessarily true, either, but potentially," Neal said, obviously trying not to put the cart before the horse. "They never made it feel like I have to do absolutely anything. I know they put me out there and my coach is definitely riding me because he wants me to come in and give that immediate impact — which I feel like I can do. But I don't feel any pressure."


Mike Neal
Bill Huber/Packer Report
While he hasn't been pressured by Mike McCarthy, Capers or position coach Mike Trgovac, the players in the locker room know that a lot rests on Neal's broad shoulders. Not only is Jolly gone, but the starting ends have a injury history: Ryan Pickett missed three games last season and two in 2007 and Cullen Jenkins missed most of 2008. Jenkins needs an occasional respite because he's so highly valued in passing situations.

"Aaron Rodgers came up to me," Neal said, "I was here all summer and he was one of the first people back and he said, ‘Let's go, let's get ready, you know you're going to have to play a lot of snaps this year. Get right. This is your time to get right during camp.' My teammates make me feel the same way, especially within the defensive line. We all push each other, because we all know it's definitely going to be a heavy rotation going on this year to keep fresh bodies to be able to go out and play, but there's no pressure. It's, ‘You're a rookie, but you need to learn fast.' It's like coach (Trgo) says, ‘You don't get a redshirt season this year. You can't just sit back and say I can just learn. You have to learn on the fly and be ready to produce.'"

It helps that Neal has the highly respected Trgovac as his position coach. The hard-driving, technique-focused coach loves Neal's strength, footwork and work ethic.

"I think he has a bright future in this defense," Raji said. "The way it's designed, he's able to use his quickness. The guy has tremendous power and strength. Like most young guys, they don't know how to use it quite (right) at this level, so Coach Trgo is doing a great job teaching him how to use his hands and his strength to the best of his ability."

If anyone is equipped mentally to handle the play-right-away challenge and the early success, it's the levelheaded Neal.

"I've always lived my life under one rule, and that's to never be satisfied," Neal said. "Anybody who knows me, I'm never satisfied. When I feel like I did a good job or somebody congratulates me, I accept it, but I'm probably my biggest critic and I'm never satisfied with anything I do. I could be a 12-time Pro Bowler, but that's still not going ot be satisfying to me. It's all little things that I want to focus on. I've been doing good, but there's a much, much bigger curve of improvement that I can see going on with me."

Neal started 23 games over his final two seasons at Purdue, recording 5.5 sacks in both years. He was never more than an honorable mention on the all-Big Ten team. He flew under Mel Kiper's radar — meaning a lot of intense questioning from the fans.

None of that changes the expectations from the Packers. Nor does it change Neal's lofty expectations of himself.

"My goals might seem unrealistic to a lot of people, which is why I don't talk about my personal goals," he said. "They're between me and God. It's something that I do because I know faith without works is dead, which is something that's said in the Bible. You ask and you receive. I just believe that if you ask God for something and you wholeheartedly ask Him, He gives you the desires of your heart. And people may look at me and say, that's an unrealistic goal, but with God, nothing is impossible."


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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.


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