Game Day

THE LYNCHPIN: Neale holds Montana State offense together

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BOZEMAN — An unlikely decision that Alex Neale knew was not the right choice ultimately helped lead the talented center to Montana State. Now in his final year, the team captain feels the responsibility of leading the Bobcats weighing upon his shoulders.

The Montana State senior is trying to soak up all the experiences that come with being a captain and the lone elder statesmen on MSU’s offensive line.

And Neale’s original decision to go to UNLV after the Rebels offered him less than a month before National Signing Day in 2015 might actually help the Bobcat captain earn another year after this finale is finished.

“This year I feel huge responsibility,” Neale said. “Having (former captain left tackle Dylan) Mahoney gone from last year and all of a sudden, you are the oldest guy somehow in the room…But right now, I’m a captain, I’m a senior, it could be my last year of football, that’s a whole bunch of pressure. I’m trying to embrace it, enjoy it and soak it up even if I do get another year.”

Montana State center Alex Neale (70) in 2016/by Brooks Nuanez

Four years ago, the 6-foot-3, then 280-pound center earned a 3-star recruiting rating thanks to his All-Metro league play on the offensive line at Eastside Catholic in Sammamish outside of Seattle as well as his ability on the wrestling mat. In July of 2014, former Montana offensive line coach Scott Gragg extended Neale his first scholarship offer.

In August of that year, Neale and Eastside Catholic standout defensive end Cody Baker both verbally committed to then Montana head coach Mick Delaney. By the end of the 2014 season, Delaney announced his retirement, giving way to Bob Stitt and all the spread offense principles that came with the hiring of the mysterious offensive mind at UM.

In mid-January of 2015, former Nevada head coach Brian Polian started recruiting Neale. According to his 24/7 Sports recruiting profile, Neale briefly committed to the Wolfpack. Then on January 27, Neale flipped again, this time committing to new UNLV head coach Tony Sanchez, a former high school coach who took over for the Rebels after Bobby Hauck, formerly Montana’s head coach, resigned at the end of the 2014 season.

Neale remembers going to a camp at UNLV during his early high school days and telling his father, Robert Neale, he would never consider spending his college career in Sin City. But with signing day fast approaching, it seemed like the FBS was his best option, particularly because UNLV offered the civil engineering major Neale wished to pursue.

He signed that February and eventually cracked the offensive line rotation for the rebuilding Rebels the next fall. He ended up playing in four games during a 3-9 season in 2015. By the end of his first semester, he knew he needed to get out of Las Vegas and find a fresh start.

“It just really wasn’t a place I wanted to spend four or five years at,” Neale said. “Montana State was always the school I wanted to go to right out of college but (former MSU head) Coach (Rob) Ash didn’t think I had long enough arms to play here so I didn’t come here (laughs).

“I ended up at UNLV somehow. In retrospect, probably wasn’t the best choice I ever made but it helped me end up here so I’d say that’s hindsight being 20/20.”

When Jeff Choate assumed Montana State’s head coaching job, one of his first recruiting calls was to Neale. Choate had familiarity with the prospect because of Choate’s time as an assistant at Washington. Three years later, Neale hasn’t missed a start. That streak could reach 33 games or well beyond that depending on how things play out in coming months.

In the off-season leading up to the 2018 campaign, the NCAA passed a variety of new rules, one centering upon games played for true freshmen while still maintaining the ability to redshirt. Newcomers are now allowed to play in up to four games before they lose the ability to redshirt, the same number of games Neale played in his first year at UNLV.

Neale and his father have been working with MSU senior associate athletic director for compliance Camie Bechtold on assembling a waiver to help Neale get back the year of eligibility he lost in 2015. The initial appeal was turned down by the NCAA but another amendment has been submitted.

Montana State center Alex Neale (70) blocking in the pocket/by Brooks Nuanez

Neale is on track to graduate with his civil engineering degree next fall. Another football season would fit into his life plans perfectly. But until he’s granted that fifth year, he is trying to embrace what could be his final season of college football.

“It’s kind of weird, battling the NCAA thing, trying to get a year back, am I going to be the oldest guy? I’m the oldest guy right now on the offensive line but next year, I could be sharing it. I could still be back. It’s crazy. But I’m treating this like it’s the last time around.”

Saturday, Neale and the Bobcats open up Big Sky Conference play at Portland State. Montana State is coming off one of its most balanced and completely offensive performances in Choate’s three seasons. Last week, MSU rolled up 566 yards of total offense in a 47-24 win over Wagner.

The Vikings employ a varying, confusing flex defense that tries to outnumber offenses in the box before and after the snap. Neale’s football IQ will be essential if MSU hopes to keep its offensive momentum moving.

“Against a defense like this, Alex is making most of the calls, identifying the fronts, getting us into the plays,” MSU offensive coordinator Brian Armstrong, Neale’s offensive line coach in 2016, said earlier this week. “He’s the straw that stirs the drink as far as pointing to who everyone is working to and everyone works off of him.

“We’ve been a pretty solid rushing team since Alex has been here and a lot of that has to do with him and his preparation. I think it’s a mindset that we need to get into every week, a lot like we finished the year last. We found a way to run the ball on most everybody we played. For us to be successful, that’s going to have to continue and a lot of that starts with the center.”

Montana State center Alex Neale (70) in 2017/by Brooks Nuanez

Neale helped spearhead a Montana State offense that led the league by rushing for nearly 250 yards per game last fall. The Bobcats became the first team other than Cal Poly since the Mustangs and their vaunted triple option joined the Big Sky in 2012 to lead the conference in rushing.

Last year’s MSU offensive front featured just one senior in Mahoney, MSU’s starting left tackle. The rest of the lineup included third-year sophomore Mitch Brott at right tackle, redshirt freshman Taylor Tuiasosopo at right guard and redshirt freshman Lewis Kidd at left guard. Neale proved to be the glue for a young offensive line that blossomed into one of the Big Sky’s most physical units by the second half of MSU’s 5-3 finish in Big Sky play.

“His football IQ and the kind of person he is makes a good combination for a leader,” said Kidd, who is now playing right guard. “He’s a very kind and loving guy. He’s not afraid to get after you but you never have to question if it’s personal or if he is trying to attack you. It’s all because he knows and expects the most out of you and the best out of you.”

During spring football, first flopped the offensive line lineup, moving Brott and Tuiasosopo to the left side and trying Kidd at right tackle. That lineup also included Neale playing right guard and redshirt freshman Zach Redd playing center.

The unit got good push and showed good physicality but Redd’s minor hearing deficiency was cause for concern for an offense that ideally likes to operate up tempo, particularly when dual-threat sophomore Troy Andersen is at the reigns.

During fall camp, Brott and Tuiasosopo stayed on the left side, Neale moved back to center, Kidd moved into right guard and redshirt freshman Connor Wood entered the starting lineup. Through the transition, Neale has helped keep the group together both from a scheme and chemistry perspective.

Montana State center Alex Neale (70) making calls for offensive lineman Zach Redd (59) in 2018/by Brooks Nuanez

“He’s the backbone for sure,” Tuiasosopo said. “He’s a great leader on and off the field. This past summer, he took me under his wing.

“Some people are the hurrah leaders and some people show by action. When I see somebody go out there and do it without really wanting the attention for it, that’s the real deal. He’s in the weight room out-working everybody. He’s on the field after, before. He’s a guy you want to model your game after.”

The praise for Neale’s diligence and prowess in the weight room is wide spread. The Bobcats lift after most football games. For most players, Tuiasosopo said, it’s four light lifts and an ice bath.

“But there is no light for him,” Tuisasosopo said, flashing a smile.

Neale reported to Montana State at 310 pounds. For most young offensive lineman, more weight is never enough. But over the last three years, Neale has concentrated on gaining strength while not packing on pounds in an effort to stay mobile, strong, explosive and in better physical condition than his opponents even if they often out-weigh him significantly.

“He’s a leader by example, especially in the weight room,” MSU senior defensive tackle Tucker Yates said. “He goes out there and works hard every single day, in the weight room all the time, in there working, stretching, working on his pass sets. You can even see the change in his body. When he first got here, he was 310 pounds and now you can see how his body has changed, how much better shape he is in now and that’s helped him improve as a football player.”

Neale is officially listed at 6-foot-3, 285 pounds on Montana State’s roster. Over the last year in particular, Neale has changed his body composition through a stringent focus on nutrition. Montana State nutritionist Brittney Patera has helped Neale build a consistent meal plan. He’s been able to maintain his strength even while dropping mass. He has recorded personal-best lifts of 355 pounds bench pressing, 505 pounds squatting and 345 pounds power cleaning.

“I put a big emphasis on eating well this year,” Neale said. “A lot of dudes make fun of me for eating clean. They call me ‘steak and rice’ a lot of times. I try to do my best but I’m still 300 pounds. I feel like I could look better some days.”

Going back to his high school days playing for former Montana State assistant coach Jeremy Thielbahr, Eastside Catholic’s successful head coach, Neale remembers latching on to whoever his strength coach was at the time. He said every coach he’s had, from personal trainers and coaches in high school, to MSU strength and conditioning coach Alex Wilcox, has “always been one of my best friends.”

“Pretty much all my energy, as much as I can put in, I’ve put into preparing my body,” Neale said. “I just love to take pride in the weight room and the grind. If you are not in football season, you are in the weight room or doing class so it’s constant work. The weight room has always been my friend.”

There have been plenty of jumbo-sized centers who have had success in the Big Sky, even recently at Montana State. Joel Horn transformed from guard to All-Big Sky center at 6-foot-5, 320 pounds before handing the controls to Neale.

Although Neale has shed weight during his time at MSU, it has had no impact on his ability to perform. He enters Saturday with a streak of 25 consecutive starts at center. He earned honorable mention All-Big Sky honors and shared MSU’s Rob Higgs Toughness Award with safety Brayden Konkol last season.

“I don’t think physicality has anything to do with size, length or mass,” Armstrong said. “Shaun Sampson was an All-American center here (in 2012). You can’t tell me that guy was big at all (6-foot-1, 260 pounds). It’s about passion and the pride you have in your own personal performance. Alex has that.”

Montana State center Alex Neale (70)/by Brooks Nuanez

Neale could be closing in on the last conference season of his collegiate career. Or he might be entering a potential breakout junior year that could lay the foundation for a dominant final campaign in 2019.

Either way, he remains focused on guiding a Bobcat offense that remains in flux with two-year starting quarterback Chris Murray sitting out the season to concentrate on his academics. MSU started converting running back/linebacker Troy Andersen in its season-opening victory over Western Illinois but Andersen suffered an injury to his non-throwing hand.

The following week, a calamity of errors and non-executions led to MSU’s 45-14 loss at No. 3 South Dakota State. Redshirt freshman Tucker Rovig found a little traction after halftime as MSU’s quarterback but not before MSU trailed 31-0.

Last week, Rovig all of a sudden emerged, throwing for 310 yards and three touchdowns, all the while displaying the confidence he had been missing through most of 2018’s practices.

Andersen practiced at quarterback this week and is expected to line up under center for at least part of Saturday’s game at PSU. Neale will be the man getting the play under way no matter if Andersen or Rovig is snapping the ball.

“In the huddle, he’ll say certain things that will really help you out, little details,” Andersen said. “He’s a calming influence. He’s a leader on this team, a captain for a reason. Everyone on this team respects and likes him as a player and a person. We are lucky to have him.”

Neale is unsure if he will pursue football after his college career ends, whether the finish is in a few months or at the end of next year. He has always dreamed of building amusement park rides at Disney Land with his engineering degree, an aspiration that likely will override any pursuit of the NFL.

Montana State’s offensive line in 2017/ by Brooks Nuanez

Over the last three years, he has fallen in love with Montana more and more. Although he has not been able to pursue the outdoor activities that initially drew him to the area with much regularity — “I’ve been pretty busy,” he laughed — the tight-knit community and the need for young engineers might keep him around Southwest Montana after graduation.

Regardless of what the next 16 months hold, Neale is embracing the opportunities he has found in Bozeman. Even though he knew UNLV was the wrong fit right away, he has no regrets. The choice put him on the path he’s on now as his career winds down, final season or not.

“This has been exactly that: a second chance,” Neale said. “I don’t want to say I screwed up by going to Las Vegas but I think just being here, I feel like this is where I needed to be to become who I am.

“These players, that is what I will remember. These guys are my brothers and always will be. I honestly don’t play football for anything else other than the camaraderie. I just love these guys so much.”

Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved. 

About Colter Nuanez

Colter Nuanez is the co-founder and senior writer for Skyline Sports. After spending six years in the newspaper industry with stops at the Missoulian, the Ellensburg Daily Record and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the former Washington Newspaper Association Sportswriter of the Year and University of Montana Journalism School graduate ('09) has cultivated a deep passion for sports journalism during his 13-year career covering the Big Sky Conference. In August of 2014, Colter and brother Brooks merged their passions of writing and art to found Skyline Sports.

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