It didn’t start this way, but there was good reason for the University of Alabama to have a highly heralded offensive line, as it did by the time its 2019 season ended.
It had NFL Draft-worthy juniors at tackle (Jedrick Wills Jr. and Alex Leatherwood), eventually got its best option at one guard spot (Deonte Brown) and added an experience transfer from a Power 5 program (Landon Dickerson, Florida State) to play center.
The one man left out of that list: Evan Neal, the left guard, who may have more reason for excitement than the others.
The freshman from Okeechobee, Florida, was a season-long starter for Alabama in his first season and showed the growth one would hope to see from a freshman learning on the job. As UA goes into its offseason and looks forward to 2020, Neal is a crucial part of the plans for 2020 and 2021, if not 2022 as well.
“Evan Neal has done a real good job at left guard for us,” UA coach Nick Saban said. “I think the fact that he plays, we have two tackles are experienced guys and pretty good players, probably helped him. Landon Dickerson is also a very experienced player playing center, that also probably helped him.
“I think he’s going to get really, really challenged in (the Citrus Bowl) because complexity, multiple stunts that their front is going to throw at us, it’s going to challenge our entire offensive line but the guys with the least experience will be challenged the most. We think he has a very bright future.”
Neal handled that challenge well, as part of a group that did not allow quarterback Mac Jones to get sacked and cleared the way for runners to average 5.1 yards per carry.
The season that came before the Citrus Bowl gave Neal’s linemates faith that a complex defense would not be the thing to trip him up.
“Just his football IQ, you know what I mean,” Leatherwood said. “Just understanding defenses and what they’re trying to do and stuff like that. His technique, he’s made significant improvements since spring ball. It’s been good seeing him.”
That knowledge could be put to a new test between now and the start of the 2020 season
With the developments of recent days, of Leatherwood’s return and Wills’ departure for the 2020 NFL Draft, UA only has one hole to fill on its offensive line: right tackle. UA is also losing a versatile backup, Matt Womack, to graduation.
Neal would be a promising tackle prospect for many reasons. His 6-foot-7 height and ensuing lengthy wingspan would give him an advantage in perimeter pass protection, and the amount of pulling he did in 2019 suggests a certain level of mobility.
UA also has plenty of depth in the interior of its line, with redshirt freshman Emil Ekiyor Jr. performing well in limited snaps at guard this season. Dickerson could also move to a guard spot to make room for freshman Darrian Dalcourt, a center who has drawn the attention of the coaching staff. Either of those moves could handle the interior spots on the offensive line in the event Neal is asked to move to tackle.
However, UA has tackles on the way up that could keep Neal at guard: redshirt junior Scott Lashley and redshirt freshman Tommy Brown, namely.
The position will be up for debate through the offseason, but one thing that is certain: Neal will be a big piece of Alabama’s offensive line next year.
“I think it’s been a steady progression all the way from camp through each game. I think he’s gotten better and better,” Saban said. “I think he plays faster, makes less mental errors and probably executes more efficiently.”
Reach Brett Hudson at 205-722-0196 or firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter, @Brett_Hudson