All Evan Neal needs to do to make big history on Thursday night? Go in the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft.

It’s inevitable at this point. After all, the 6-foot-7, 333-pound Neal started 40 games over the past three years on the offensive line for Alabama. He anchored the blindside for a national title team. He’s even gone viral for a 48-inch split box jump. And now Neal’s about to become the first offensive tackle prospect in the 247Sports era listed at over 360 pounds ahead of his senior season to become a first-round pick.

Back then, before the 5-star billing? “Evan Neal, Future First-Round Pick” did not seem so obvious. Many inside the recruiting industry wondered if Neal was ever going to be able to put it all together.

Spoiler: He did, becoming one of the ultimate evaluation anomalies in recent memory.

To understand how far Neal has come along, let’s go back to the spring before his junior season when he checked into one of The Opening’s regionals in Miami and was a Chick-Fil-A sandwich or two away from tipping the scales at 400 pounds as he measured in at a whopping 6-foot-7.5, 391 pounds. If you stretch it, maybe 30 years ago that’s a tolerable weight for an offensive lineman. But with what we know now about prototype offensive tackles, it was a massive red flag.

Despite all that mass, Neal simply dominated 1-on-1s that day, making easy work of pretty much anyone that lined up across from him as he quickly glided from left to right and dispatched twitched-up pass rushers with a wide base and heavy hands.

It was about as impressive of a performance as you would see for someone that technically was in the red danger zone on a standard Body Mass Index chart, and one that moved Neal up in the rankings. But concern lingered behind the scenes. Did Neal have the willpower to eventually trim down and get where he needed to in order to maximize his potential? Because the general rule of thumb in scouting is that it’s much easier to add some mass than it is to take some off, and there aren’t exactly a ton of sloppy bodies signing seven-figure contracts in the NFL these days.

Neal grew up in Okeechobee, Fla., where he quickly made a name for himself in the youth football leagues and was drawing interest from Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide by the end of his freshman season at the town’s local high school. While he could have stayed right where he was and likely still ended up signing with the NFL factory that is Alabama, he made the difficult decision the summer before his sophomore year to leave home for IMG Academy in hopes of better preparing himself for the next level.

Don Zoloty, who serves as IMG Academy’s properties manager, was quick to recall when Neal first showed up at the Bradenton, Fla.-based powerhouse.

“You kind of just knew that he was going to be one of those special guys,” Zoloty said. “The biggest thing that stood out about him was just how focused he was. You’re talking about a kid that was just dialed in. I mean, there was no stopping him.”

A dancing bear with natural gifts, Neal got starter reps his first year with the Ascenders after an injury to senior Robert Congel, who is now at Oklahoma. As a junior, he secured the team’s starting left tackle job opposite of fellow NFL Draft hopeful Daniel Faalele, but it wasn’t until the spring and summer before his senior season did he fully buy into making a physical transformation.

What prompted the change?

As the story goes, NFL offensive lineman Bryan Bulaga was rehabbing at IMG Academy in the offseason and wasn’t impressed by Neal’s physique. Bulaga apparently told one of the school’s trainers that he wouldn’t draft Neal if he was an NFL executive because of Neal’s excess weight. Neal caught wind of it. A flip was switched.

Per Zoloty, Neal quickly embraced the idea of cleaning up his diet, which meant cutting out things like Chick-Fil-A sandwiches. He also found a new love for hot yoga.

“Ask Evan now and I guarantee you that he will tell you he loves yoga,” Zoloty said. “He bought into it.”

Neal’s time at IMG Academy is only one chapter in his rise to a first-round pick, but there’s no question that his two and a half years with the Ascenders laid the groundwork for him to quickly find success with the Crimson Tide. In addition to the state-of-the-art weight room and a dedicated nutrition staff, IMG Academy provided an opportunity for Neal to square off with some elite pass rushers everyday at practice. That group included Georgia star Nolan Smith, who will likely be a top pick in the 2023 NFL Draft.

“Good on good is only going to make you better,” Zoloty said. “If he stayed at Okeechobee, I’m not saying that he couldn’t get to where he is, but there would have been more obstacles. Here, he knew what he had and he took advantage of every opportunity that he had.”

Even when he began to turn his body around, Neal was still an enigma when it came time to finalize the recruiting rankings for the 2019 cycle. Neal came in at No. 32 in the Top247 rankings, which is on the money for projecting him as a first-round pick, but he would have obviously been ranked much higher were it not for concerns about his frame. The industry was speeding away from the traditional big, lumbering offensive tackles in favor of the guys who look like jumbo tight ends.

“Most of the first-round offensive tackles — not all, but most — are the guys who were like 260 to 280 pounds,” says Barton Simmons, the former 247Sports Director of Scouting who’s now general manager for Vanderbilt football.

Neal broke the mold.

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