Ready for the next step

Wilson’s Neal hoping to be taken in NFL draft

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Lewis Neal’s name doesn’t come up in any of the dozens of NFL mock first-round drafts proliferating on the internet in recent days, but the former LSU defensive end is supremely confident that he’ll get his chance to play professional football.

“Yeah, I’m prepared for the worst-case scenario but I’m going to get drafted,” the Hunt High graduate said in a telephone interview Wednesday afternoon from his grandparents house in Wilson.

Neal acknowledged that it is a possibility that he won’t get taken in the one of the seven rounds of the draft, but it’s a given that he will land on some team’s roster as a free agent.

Neal, by some estimates, is projected to be a late-round pick in the draft, which starts Thursday and continues Friday and Saturday. The line on the 6-foot-2, 272-pound Neal is that he’s too small to play as a down lineman, too short to play end and not fast enough to play outside linebacker in the NFL. Of course, playing in the SEC against future NFL linemen every week wasn’t a problem for Neal, a two-year starter for the Tigers. He made 118 tackles, including 12 sacks, during his LSU career.

Instead of worrying about whether he’s a good fit at any one position, Neal points to his versatility as an asset in a league where defenses have to switch constantly.

“Teams are all telling me I can play anywhere,” he said. “I hold a lot of value because I can play a 3-4 (defensive alignment) or a 4-3 and I won’t have to come out when they switch.”

Neal said that he’s heard from many NFL teams, including the Baltimore Ravens, Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, Arizona Cardinals, Houston Texans, Pittsburgh Steelers, New York Jets, Jacksonville Jaguars, Los Angeles Chargers and, of course, the New Orleans Saints.

Neal shrugged off that he wasn’t among the more than 330 college players invited to the NFL Combine in Indianapolis in March. Instead, he used LSU’s pro day April 5 to make an impression on the NFL scouts assembled in Baton Rouge, Louisiana to measure and observe prospective Tigers.

“No, I feel like everything happens for a reason,” he said. “I feel like I had a great pro day and wowed a lot of scouts.”

Neal reasoned that because the LSU pro day came just three weeks prior to the draft, his performance there, rather than at the Combine a month earlier, would serve as his introduction to the assembled NFL scouts.

“I’d rather have a great first impression than a last impression,” he said.

Neal is represented by Young Money APAA Sports and Entertainment, an agency that was founded in 2016 by famous rapper Lil’ Wayne by merging with his APAA Entertainment agency.

Neal’s training routine has been the stuff of legend since he was a star player at Hunt, where he had a key to the weight room so he could work out anytime. He hasn’t changed his routine in preparation for an NFL career.

“I’ve been working out and training on the field and stretching and doing the little things that give you longevity,” he said.

Neal, who graduated in December from LSU with a degree in exercise kinesiology in three-and-a-half years, has a lot more going on than just a prospective NFL career. For starters, he became the first African-American to own a foreign exchange investment firm when he started one in December. He used some of the money he earned trading currency from the time he was in high school to open a successful hair salon in Baton Rouge,.

Neal also revealed that he has developed a social media app, Capture That, that will be available “very soon” through Google Play and Apple, among other online retailers.

“He’s just a driven young man and I don’t think there’s anything he can’t accomplish, either on the field or off,” said Randy Raper, who was Neal’s head coach at Hunt.

Raper said it was apparent Neal was a potential NFL player even when he was starring at defensive end and tight end for three Warriors teams that reached the North Carolina High School Athletic Association 3-A semifinals.

“If it boils down to work ethic, there’s no doubt about it because he had the best work ethic of any kid I’d ever had and still has,” Raper said Neal’s NFL prospects.

If Neal is drafted, he is believed to be the first Hunt and Forest Hills Middle product to earn that achievement. It would be a significant accomplishment for Neal, who makes no secret of his pride in being from Wilson.

“I know it’s big because everybody that watched me grow has been a part of my family,” he said. “It’s a huge accomplishment, not just for me, but for my family and Wilson.”

paul@wilsontimes.com | 265-7808