Long wait over for Purdue defensive tackle Lorenzo Neal

“He showed me what he’s shown me already in practice - he’s a 330-pound defensive tackle that can play winning football for us. Now we have to keep him moving forward"

Mike Carmin
Lafayette Journal & Courier

WEST LAFAYETTE – Lorenzo Neal claimed he wasn’t keeping track of the days since Purdue’s defensive tackle last played in a game.

As a refresher – Nov. 24, 2018.

Neal walked off the field at Indiana’s Memorial Stadium, fully realizing he had suffered a torn ACL in his left knee, and he wouldn’t play in the bowl game against Auburn.

He also missed the 2019 season and ended his nearly two-year absence during Saturday’s win over Iowa at Ross-Ade Stadium. Neal shared snaps with fellow defensive tackle Lawrence Johnson, allowing the pair to avoid fatigue issues late in the second half.

Where Neal was playing 60-70 snaps during the 2018 season – due to a lack of depth across the line – he was on the field against the Hawkeyes for about half that number.

“It was great,” Neal said. “I wouldn’t’ say we’ve done that as much in the past. We’re on that track and I think that’s what we are going to do moving forward with me and Lawrence.

“We understand each other and our energy levels and our ability to play as hard as we can for as long as we can. We talked after the game and we both felt good, we both had energy because we were splitting the reps.”

Lorenzo Neal of Purdue smiles after sacking Illinois quarterback Jeff George Jr. in the second quarter Saturday, November 4, 2017, at Ross-Ade Stadium. Purdue defeated Illinois 29-10.

Establishing a steady rotation not only helps the line but the entire defense. The plan before the season opener was to allow as many players as possible an opportunity to contribute.

“It seems as though as the game went on, we got stronger,” first-year defensive line coach Terrance Jamison said. “I think the rotation helped and the confidence in the scheme and what they were seeing during the game. I felt like they got comfortable and started to get strong and gaining more confidence as the game went on.”

Purdue’s defense kept Iowa out of the end zone in the second half, limiting the Hawkeyes to three points on a fourth-quarter field goal. While the Hawkeyes generated 460 total yards, 178 came in the second half, including 87 on the ground.

Neal and Johnson only produced a combined two tackles but that wasn’t their job.

“Me and LJ and other nose tackles do the dirty work and have to eat up blocks and do the stuff that other people might not be able to do,” Neal said. “I think we enjoy the process and enjoy being able to play with solid fundamentals in order to have guys around us make all the plays.

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“Occasionally, we get to make plays too. It’s important for us to be the heart and soul of that front seven and be able to control the tempo of the O-line.”

Following his injury in 2018, Neal underwent surgery in Houston and remained in Texas until second-semester classes started. Neal appeared set to play last season but wasn’t a full participant in training camp and never saw action. Neal even attempted to practice late last season before Purdue played Wisconsin in November but lasted only two days.

One week after the season ended, Neal announced he would return for a fifth year since he had a redshirt available.

“I figured I have eligibility and I haven't played a whole season, so I needed to get back out here and play with my guys,” Neal said earlier this month. “I had never felt like, at any point, that I had just done enough to leave or that I was just going be out of here.”

Despite the setbacks, Neal wasn’t about to walk away from the sport.

“I can't go into it, I won't go into detail about all the things I've been doing in my life, but an injury would never make me quit the sport I love,” Neal said earlier this month. “That's just my personal view on it.

“I took it day-by-day, just trying to get back out here as quick as I could. And when I was ready, I was ready.”

And he appeared ready Saturday and the Boilermakers need him ready the rest of the season.

“He showed me what he’s shown me already in practice - he’s a 330-pound defensive tackle that can play winning football for us,” Jamison said. “Now we have to keep him moving forward.”

SATURDAY'S GAME

Purdue (1-0) at Illinois (0-1)

Time: Noon

TV: BTN

Radio: WAZY (96.5)

Mike Carmin covers Purdue sports for the Journal & Courier. Email mcarmin@gannett.com and follow on Twitter @carmin_jc