Evan Neal felt a little more comfortable walking onto the field for Tuesday's practice. It wasn't just because the right tackle has started to settle into his new life as a rookie in the NFL. Rather, he was back in No. 73, the jersey number he wore from his freshman year of high school through his All-American career at Alabama.
"Kind of like when Michael Jordan wore number 45 but had to switch back to 23," Neal said. "It doesn't really affect the way that you play by any means; a number can't play for you. Just feeling more comfortable with your number."
The number opened up this week when the Giants released offensive tackle Matt Gono, who had been on the exempt/left squad list. Neal, who was wearing No. 70, was glad it opened up but would have been fine with keeping the one he was assigned upon being drafted.
The patience paid off for the seventh overall pick. Unlike fellow first-rounder Kayvon Thibodeaux, who donated $50,000 to charity to get No. 5 from veteran kicker Graham Gano, the swap didn't cost anything to Neal.
"It's just the number that I've always worn," Neal said. "So it's just grown on me."
The offense is growing on Neal, too. Bobby Johnson, his position coach, said last Friday's scrimmage at MetLife Stadium was the rookie's best practice yet.
"But we all have higher expectations of him, and he is the type of kid that will constantly work to those expectations," Johnson said. "So, he's doing a good job. A very good job."
Veteran center Jon Feliciano also praised the rookie for not acting like, well, a rookie.
"I've been around some good tackles in my career, and I've never seen a rookie like Evan be a vet so early on," said Feliciano, who has played for three different teams since 2015. "That dude is, after every meeting, at night we walk by the weight room and he's foam rolling or doing something. He's well beyond his years in that regard of taking care of his body."
"I want to feel my best going out there to practice and put my best foot forward every day to get better," Neal said. "I can't do that when my legs are constantly feeling heavy or I'm just not doing the necessary things to continue to maintenance my body. Whether it be my joints, my ankles, or my flexibility and things like that. So, I want to take the time to be proactive so that way when I do go on the field, I can play fast."
It's a good lesson to learn sooner rather than later for a professional football player, especially one who weighs 350 pounds and stands 6-foot-7.
"I mean, he's the size of a bus," Johnson said. "If you get in the way of it, you're probably going to get moved. ... He wants to be really good. And that's fun to work with every day – a kid that wants to be special."
Neal is a cornerstone piece in the foundation being laid by the new regime. Another one is Thibodeaux, the fifth overall pick. The two have been going against each other for months now as the Giants are in the dog days of training camp.
"Well, what you see is what you get with him," Neal said of Thibodeaux. "He's a pass rusher, and I feel like he is refining his moves. He's refining his technique. As opposed to only having one move, he works a counter move, going from speed to power and he's ripping up under. Coming from a bullrush and then ripping through. So, seeing him just work double moves and counter moves and also, he has a really fast first step. So, I kind of got to get out of my pass set really fast and get to my spot before he does. It's really fun going up against that guy. He is getting me better, and I believe I'm getting him better, so I'm just excited to continue to butt heads."
On Thursday night, they take the field for the first time as teammates in a live game.
"I expect it to be fast, aggressive, up-tempo, and violent, just like any other football game would be," Neal said of the preseason opener in New England. "I'm excited for that."
View the top photos from Tuesday's training camp practice as the team prepares for Thursday's preseason opener against the Patriots.