NFL draft 2022: How snake-twirling potential No. 1 pick Evan Neal makes everything look easy

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. -- Even a 6-foot-7, 337-pound solar eclipse of a human being can get lost in the grand constellation of stars that is Nick Saban's Alabama football program.

No matter how dominant, it's near impossible for an offensive lineman to compete with five 2021 first-round NFL draft picks on offense, a Heisman-winning QB (Bryce Young) and one of the most fearsome pass-rushers in recent memory who rivals Young as a potential 2023 No. 1 pick (Will Anderson Jr.).

But now is Evan Neal's time. And that's not surprising to those who've seen the left tackle's linear rise through the two schools considered America's foremost football factories -- IMG Academy and Alabama. While at those stops, he has accumulated the game tape, practice reps against other future pros and a résumé that has emanated an unsurprising air to his status as a consensus top-10 pick.

"The kid is a home run," said Texas offensive coordinator Kyle Flood, who was Neal's position coach for two seasons at Alabama. "He's a no-brainer. If you need an offensive tackle at the top of draft, you'd be crazy not to take him. He's going to start 10-plus years in that league and he's going to be an All-Pro."

Along with leading those schools to a record of 64-5 over the past six seasons, Neal established such a robust reputation -- "safe," "no holes" and "makes it look easy" were the observations from one NFL scout -- that his rise is hallmarked by its predictability.

Neal wears bookish glasses, drove a Dodge Ram around Alabama and was known at IMG to casually twirl snakes. His serious demeanor, everyman mentality and no-maintenance reputation are expected to travel to his NFL destination.

"You're not going to get any drama with him," said Arkansas State coach Butch Jones, a former Alabama staffer. "He's not very emotional. He's very matter of fact. There's not a lot of risk involved with taking him. He was a pro the day he walked into Alabama in terms of his maturity."

That evolution to a sure thing has carried with it an aura of inevitability.

FORMER IMG ACADEMY offensive line coach Derek Shay held a cookout for his position group in 2017, the sort of get-to-know-you gathering that happens all around the country each fall.

Neal arrived on foot, swinging a dead snake that he picked up along his walk. The sight of a 6-foot-7 behemoth casually twirling a reptile is seared into the memory of Shay and his wife, Katie.

"She was shocked," Shay said with a laugh in a phone interview. "We're from Illinois. He's backwoods and got a little country in him. He's a down-to-earth, good kid."

That moment offered a window into Neal's unassuming path, a nod to his family's roots in rural Okeechobee, Florida, a town with a population just under 6,000 located between Orlando and Fort Lauderdale.

Growing up there shaped Neal's humility, work ethic and focus, all traits that remained intertwined with his rise. It also didn't hurt that Neal's father, Eddie, played linebacker at Tulane, and he had two uncles -- Cleveland Gary and Jimmie Jones -- who played in the NFL.

"He's an enormous human being," said Oregon coach Dan Lanning, who coached against Neal as Georgia's defensive coordinator. "If he and [341-pound UGA defensive lineman] Jordan Davis walked into a room together, they'd make everyone else within 20 miles feel extremely uncomfortable."

Neal helped IMG go 27-1 over three seasons and left the school as the No. 4 player in the ESPN 300 for the Class of 2019. Soon after his arrival in Tuscaloosa, he showed the character that helped distinguish him there.

As a sophomore, Neal backed up Oklahoma lineman Robert Congel and filled in at guard when he got injured.

"Robert came back healthy, and Evan said, 'Hey, listen, it's his spot,'" said Don Zoloty, IMG's football properties manager. "'He's a senior and needs to get back in. I'm here to support him.'

"That told us out of the gate what Evan's personality was going to be like. He's a leader. Period."

But to mold that 6-foot-7 physique required overcoming one of the few speedbumps of adversity on his path to the NFL draft.

IMG Academy is a high school set on a 600-acre campus in Bradenton, Florida, that also serves as a training center for professional athletes. That allowed Neal to run into longtime NFL lineman Bryan Bulaga one day in the weight room. Bulaga, who is entering his 12th NFL season, saw Neal's massive frame still holding onto too much baby fat and delivered a stern but accurate assessment: "If your goal is to be a professional football player, you're going to have to get your body in better shape."

Neal was a bit rattled by the advice, according to Shay, as he'd rocketed to stardom and become an elite recruit without too much blunt criticism. But after some initial bristling, the conversation became a turning point. "It was like a light switch flipped," Shay said. "He turned into a different kid."

At IMG, Neal played on a team during his junior year that already has had 10 players drafted into the NFL. He and fellow massive tackle Daniel Faalele (6-foot-8, 384 pounds) of Minnesota will bump that number to 12. Neal relished his daily battles with players like current Georgia linebacker Nolan Smith, who finished as ESPN's No. 2 overall recruit in Neal's class and will be a top 2023 NFL prospect.

"Pretty much all the college coaches you spoke to were on the same page," Zoloty said. "They looked at [Evan] and his athleticism, and [his potential was] almost a given. You just didn't want to screw it up."

WHEN FLOOD ARRIVED as Alabama's offensive line coach in January 2019, he had never met Neal. It didn't take long for Flood to realize Neal would fulfill his vast potential.

Flood explained to Neal in their first meeting that with experienced tackles Alex Leatherwood and Jedrick Wills Jr. returning -- both of whom became first-round picks -- that it'd be tough for him to capture a starting tackle spot.

Flood recalled Neal's response: "I don't care where I play, I just want to play."

That same snake-twirling, downhome attitude had clearly carried over to college, as Neal became the rare Alabama true freshman to start on the offensive line, winning a starting spot on the interior. He sought practice reps with imposing veterans like Christian Barmore and Raekwon Davis.

"Every kid these days thinks they are the next Anthony Munoz," Flood said. "From Day 1, his attitude was that of a kid who just wanted to compete."

Neal started at left guard in 2019, switched to right tackle in 2020 for Alabama's national title season and played the whole season at left tackle last year. Neal's lone sack allowed in 2021 came on the season's final play in the national championship loss to Georgia.

Neal started 40 games in three seasons and grew so dominant he allowed pressures on just 1.1 percent of his pass blocks last season.

"I think he really exemplifies the mold of an Alabama guy, everything that Coach Saban preaches about 'The Process' and dedication and what it takes to be good," Alabama redshirt senior Emil Ekiyor Jr. told ESPN. "He embodies that and tries to do it every day. The guy has worked his butt off, and he's reaping the benefits of it right now."

Perhaps more famous than any single play Neal made on the field at Alabama is the clip that epitomizes his athleticism: a 48-inch split leg box jump that popped up on social media last summer. It's simply outlandish explosiveness for a human his size.

By the time Neal reached the NFL combine, he carried a chiseled 337 pounds on his 6-foot-7 frame, holding that much weight so casually he looked more like a sleek tight end than a beefy tackle. That's impressive considering Shay estimates Neal arrived at Alabama around 380 -- his listed high school weight was 365 -- and worked hard on his body to become an elite prospect.

"He's one of the better body types I've seen on the road," a second NFL scout who studied Neal told ESPN. "How he holds 350 pounds, that's what he played at this year, he's not fat at all. He's really, really impressive physically."

Neal missed just one game during his career -- against Arkansas during the 2020 season because he said he contracted COVID-19. That also meant he couldn't practice the week of the SEC title game against Florida, even after he flew over on a private plane the night before the game. "I was basically a couch potato for two weeks," he said.

Ekiyor recalled Neal breathing so heavily in the SEC title game that he had to repeat some line calls because Neal was so focused on catching his breath. Alabama staffers still remember him darting to the oxygen tank on the sideline between series.

They still chuckle at the memory of the oxygen mask looking like a bottle cap in his massive hands, immediately fogging up as he gasped for air. "It felt like I was breathing through a coffee straw," he said.

Flood and Ekiyor consider that one of Neal's best and most memorable performances, as Alabama scored 52 points and amassed 605 yards. "I still to this day don't know how he did it," Ekiyor said.

Neal's game isn't flawless. Scouts question his aggressiveness, given his personality and playing style, and say things like, "You don't know if he plays super hard because he makes it look so easy."

Another pointed out there's room for improvement, including staying on his feet better and sustaining blocks. Many offensive linemen are fifth-year college players, so Neal being relatively inexperienced is a sign that there's room to grow.

There's also plenty of nuanced traits that stand out, as Flood has been singing his praises to the NFL: "He has an uncanny ability to bend at his size. He's 6-foot-7 and can still block low to high and get underneath smaller people. He does that better than anyone, he wins low consistently."

On the interview dais at the NFL combine, Neal stood with full awareness of his place on the cusp of Alabama lore. If he goes No. 1 or No. 2, he would become the highest Alabama draft choice coached by Saban. He'll also surely help Saban tie John Robinson of USC for the most first-round offensive linemen for one coach (nine) in the common draft era.

Asked if it bothered him that he has been overshadowed by higher-profile teammates, he casually batted away the notion as if still twirling a snake.

"I'm an offensive lineman, man," he said with a laugh. "It's all guts and no glory in the trenches. ... I'm happy for all of those guys, happy for their success, and I'm excited to share some of that with those guys."