LSU's relentless Lewis Neal emerging as one of SEC's top pass rushers

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Lewis Neal refuses to mince words while discussing his breakout season at LSU.

The junior defensive end is pleased that he has emerged as one of the SEC’s leading sack artists in his first season as a starter, but Neal believes he could have been doing this all along.

“All I’ve got to do is get the chance,” Neal said. “The more reps, the better it will get.”

Entering the season, Neal had all of 10 career tackles and half a sack after serving as a backup behind Jermauria Rasco and Danielle Hunter for two seasons. However, Neal seized a starting job during spring practice, and he has shown in the last three games why new defensive line coach Ed Orgeron is so high on his potential.

Neal has recorded at least one sack in each of those games, capped by the best game of his career last Saturday against Florida when he notched three sacks, 3.5 tackles for loss and 10 total tackles. It was the first time an LSU player had posted three sacks in a game since Gabe Northern did it against North Texas in 1995 and it fell just one short of Chuck Wiley’s school record, set against South Carolina in the same year.

“I actually told a couple guys on the team, ‘Man, he’s got like 10, 20 sacks tonight.’ He’s been balling, man,” safety Jamal Adams said after the Florida game.

Maybe that’s a mild exaggeration, but Neal is legitimately positioning himself to have one of the best seasons by a pass rusher in LSU history. With seven sacks in six games (which ranks second in the SEC), Neal is just one away from cracking the school’s single-season top 10. And it’s well within reach to join the three players in school history who have notched double-digit sacks in one season: Rydell Malancon (10 in 1981), Northern (11 in 1994) and Oliver Lawrence (12 in 1989).

The key to Neal’s success, according to Tigers coach Les Miles, is pure want-to. At 6-foot-2 and 264 pounds, Neal might not fit the prototype for his position, but his work ethic is second to none.

“[Neal] always gives us great effort -- a guy that you want to model yourself on as a team, you use Lewis Neal,” Miles said.

Linebacker Kendell Beckwith agreed with his coach’s assessment of Neal’s relentless motor.

“That’s a true statement,” Beckwith said. “He don’t stop. He really don’t stop, and that’s going back to summer workouts, spring, fall camp. He’s got a motor and he’s just got a work ethic that’s out of this world.”

Neal says there is more to it than that, however.

“You’ve got to realize you’ve got to have a motor, but you’ve got to have the technique,” he said. “You can’t run out there and just run. You’ve got to know where you’re going.”

At this point, Neal’s motor is his trademark -- just as it is for similar-sized players whom he emulates in the NFL. Names like Trent Cole, Melvin Ingram, Courtney Upshaw and Charles Johnson, all of whom are listed at 6-2 or 6-3.

“If you really think about it, the best pass rushers have a high motor,” Neal said. “We watch their film all the time. Their feet never stop.”

If his consistent presence in Florida’s backfield last weekend wasn’t enough evidence of the energy level present in Neal’s game, consider this: it was the second game this season where Neal played every single defensive snap. He was on the field for all 63 plays against the Gators, just as he was for all 70 in a September victory at Syracuse.

That means a lot of running and chasing, particularly against a mobile quarterback like Florida’s Treon Harris. By now it should be apparent, though, that Neal isn’t the kind of guy who typically asks out of a game to catch a breather on the sideline.

“I never get tired,” Neal said. “It’s a mental thing. Your mind’s just trying to play tricks on you, but your body can still go. Until you fall out, pass out, that’s when you’re tired.”