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Path to the Draft: Neal excited for 'once in a lifetime' trip to Chicago

Former Florida safety Keanu Neal during UF's Pro Day on March 22
Former Florida safety Keanu Neal during UF's Pro Day on March 22
Fernando Juncadella/Inside the Gators

It’s been a busy month for former Florida safety Keanu Neal since UF’s Pro Day on March 22, but all of his hard work throughout the draft preparation process will culminate this weekend in him hearing his name called during one of the first two days of the 2016 NFL Draft.

The buzz has been strong recently surrounding Neal, who has heard his name more and more in the conversation of potentially landing as a first-rounder as NFL types have grown impressed with what the hard-hitting 6-foot, 211-pound safety brings to the table. After an impressive junior season at Florida where he racked up 96 tackles, 3.5 TFL, two sacks, a forced fumble and an interception in 12 appearances, Neal only helped his stock with strong showings at the NFL Scouting Combine and then Pro Day.

“You never know with the draft," Neal told Inside the Gators, "but I’m hearing more mid-to-late first.”

Originally, Neal had planned to hold a party for the draft in Ocala, Fla., with his family and close friends, but he plans on making the trip to Auditorium Theatre in Chicago after receiving an invite to the green room for the NFL Draft. Neal took the flight to Chicago with his family Tuesday morning.

“It’s a once in a lifetime deal,” Neal said. “My family can go – it’d be a great deal for my family to go, and I’m taking my high school coach as well. I’m just enjoying the process. Not many people get the chance to do that. Just taking it day by day, just enjoying everything - every bit of it.”

Since Neal worked out at Florida’s Pro Day in front of numerous teams, he’s had a lot on his plate. About a month ago, the Tennessee Titans, who hold the No. 15, 33, 43, 45, 64 and 76 selections in the draft after a blockbuster trade with the Los Angeles Rams for the No. 1 pick, hosted Neal. In early April, the Pittsburgh Steelers, who pick 25th and 58th this weekend, had Neal in town for a visit.

The Steelers obviously have a rich tradition at safety, with eight-time Pro Bowler Troy Polamalu the most recent in the list of standouts at the position to play for Pittsburgh from 2003-14. Pittsburgh is looking for help at safety this draft - and it could very well consider Neal with that 25th pick.

“It’d be cool, man,” Neal said of playing for the Steelers. “You’ve got a lot of great history there, great coaches. Coach (Mike) Tomlin is amazing. Just being able to go in there and fill the shoes of Polamalu and be that guy, it’d be amazing for me. It’d be a great experience for me, and I’d really enjoy doing that.”

As for the meeting with the Steelers a few weeks ago, Neal felt it went really well.

“Really, they brought me out to get to know me and get a feel of the kind of person I am," Neal said, "because at the combine, they only get 15 minutes to really talk to you. Just really sitting me down and having a great conversation with me, that’s really what it’s about.”

Neal said he has also worked out for the Philadelphia Eagles, Atlanta Falcons, Dallas Cowboys and Carolina Panthers. The most recent of Neal's workouts was with the Panthers in Gainesville last Tuesday.

He enjoyed chatting with Falcons head coach Dan Quinn, who recruited Neal while he served as UF's defensive coordinator from 2011-12 before leaving to join the Seattle Seahawks in early 2013.

“It was good getting to see him,” Neal said. “He talked about how proud he was of me and how I did it the right way, like how I handled myself on and off the field and everything. He was just really, really proud of me of how I handle myself and what I do on the field obviously.”

When Neal hasn’t been visiting with or working out for NFL teams, he has spent the majority of his time training with Tony Villani at XPE Sports Academy in Boca Raton, Fla., which is nearby FAU's campus. During his time there, Neal has worked out alongside the likes of Anquan Boldin, Mark Ingram and Jacoby Ford, among others.

“I was just training with them and picking their brains,” Neal said. “Just getting an understanding of what it is to be a pro.”

Neal will officially be one either Thursday or Friday when he hears his named called. He believes he'll bring versatility and physicality to whichever NFL team selects him this weekend.

"Everyone sees me as a physical player, but my work ethic, just the way I handle business - I do things the right way," Neal said. "I train, study film and work like a pro. That’s just what I do. I care about what I put on film, I care about my play.

"I like to have fun, but when it’s time to get serious, I know when it’s time to get serious."

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