Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
CHICAGO -- Mike Neal's first step toward becoming a leader for Purdue took place at Notre Dame Stadium in the wake of a disheartening loss last September.
That's when Neal delivered one of the more pointed statements of the season, one that revealed a lot about a 4-8 Boilermakers football team.
"When you come out flat and you're not ready to play a football game and you look bored at halftime, what do you expect?" Neal told reporters. "Then you have a lot of guys after you go through a first series like that, and they run the ball down your throat and you get to the sideline and look into everybody's faces, and they don't look interested in playing a football game."
Neal isn't afraid to speak his mind, and more importantly, he gets it done on the field.
The senior defensive tackle is one of the more underrated defenders in the conference. He recorded 5.5 sacks and 10 tackles for loss last year, numbers that ranked among the league leaders for defensive tackles.
"He's got a good motor and he's usually in a bad mood, and that's usually a good sign," new Purdue head coach Danny Hope said. "He was dominant in the spring, and he has a chance to be dominant in 2009."
Neal has no regrets about what he said in South Bend, and he'll demand better results from his Purdue teammates this fall as one of the Boilermakers' leaders.
"Sometimes, our team, we want to put the blame on the coaches," Neal said Tuesday. "Regardless of what the call is, the coaches don't have on shoulder pads. You're not going to call the perfect play every time. It's like playing chess. You can only guess what the next team is going to do.
"Last year, on some of those games, we needed to get away from blaming the coaches on the calls that they made and step up as a defense and play football. I said what I said. I meant what I said, too."
Purdue's coaching staff will be in the spotlight this fall as the Hope era begins. Hope has brought in new coordinators Gary Nord (offense) and Donn Landholm (defense), and if things go south in West Lafayette, most will point to the transition on the sideline.
But Neal doesn't buy into easy excuses and said Landholm's defense isn't a dramatic departure from what Purdue ran under Brock Spack. With a veteran secondary, some experience at linebacker and two standout linemen in Neal and end Ryan Kerrigan, the Boilers' defense has the ingredients to adjust well.
"We need to be more accountable for what we do," Neal said. "It's not about the coaching change. It's what we do out there. We'll be better this year."