WEST LAFAYETTE | Soaking up the sun with his teammates and coaches during Purdue's annual media day, Mike Neal looked happy and peaceful.
After missing five games in 2006 with an injured right foot that required offseason surgery, the former Merrillville star said he feels blessed just to be playing again.
Even though Neal proclaimed himself 100 percent healthy Thursday, Purdue defensive coordinator Brock Spack said Neal needs to learn a little bit more about the intensity of the game if he wants to maximize his potential.
"Mike's a real nice kid and sometimes you can't be a real nice kid out here," Spack said. "I think that's a part he's learning. I think he has it in him, but he has to know when to turn the switch on and I think he's starting to figure it out. I think he realizes now you have to have a side to you when you put the pads on and step across the white lines that's a little different.
"I think Mike's going to have a huge impact on our football team this season."
Boilers head coach Joe Tiller said in May he expected Neal to start this fall. He said if he didn't, he'd be disappointed.
Spack acknowledged the junior defensive tackle/nose guard was beginning to assert himself and emerge prior to suffering the injury in practice four days before the Notre Dame game.
Even though he came back and played in the last four games of the season, Neal was hurting badly.
"I was hurting so badly I couldn't put pressure on the ball of my foot," Neal said. "I took pain killers and went out there and played and did what I had to do, but it was frustrating."
With his foot healed, Neal is hungry to take the field again.
He's looking forward to playing with roommates Alex Magee and Keyon Brown, a former Thornton star, and helping Purdue's defense regain some of the respect he thinks was lost last year.
Neal said he and the rest of the defense didn't like what happened last year at all -- Purdue allowed an average of 191.2 yards rushing, 432.4 yards of total offense and 26.7 points per game.
"That just can't happen," Neal said. "We were embarrassed. We've made that one of our priorities this season. I'm looking to play in the backfield more and pressure the pocket."
The 6-foot-4, 293-pound Neal continues his assault in the weight room. He surprised even himself by squatting 635 pounds this summer. He also cleaned 320 and benched 480.
Spack relishes the thought of playing Neal as a nose guard or tackle. He particularly likes Neal over the center.
"He's going to be an anchor," Spack said. "He commands a double team and is athletic enough where he's going to give some centers a hard time. Mike can make plays. He's really an end in a tackle's body.
"A huge part of our front this year will be our tackles and he's going to be a big part of that."