When a reporter brought up Alim McNeill’s name, you could see the excitement swelling inside Detroit Lions head coach Dan Campbell as he swayed back and forth.
“Buttercup?” Campbell responded, adding yet another ridiculous nickname for McNeill, along with previously-used “Twinkletoes,” “dancing bear,” and his actual nickname “Mac.”
The nicknames come from a place of love for Campbell because McNeill is a special player to him and the rest of the team.
“He’s a stud,” Campbell continued. “This guy, he’s been here since day one. Since day one, day one. Shoot man, he’s arguably the strongest pound-for-pound player that we have, and we’ve got some strong guys in this team, but he’s definitely up there and works his rear off. So, I’m bubbling about him.”
The Lions chose McNeill with the 72nd overall in the 2021 NFL Draft as part of their revamping of the defensive line. Detroit hoped he would help tighten up their run defense, which has struggled for years. But when McNeill arrived on campus, they realized they had much more than they originally believed.
“Last year once we got him here, we were like, ‘Man, this guy has got really good feet and moves well,’” Campbell said. “Then just watching his transformation through the year and watching him grow, it’s been good.”
They liked so much of what McNeill can do as a quick, strong defender that they spent this offseason transforming this defense, in part, due to McNeill’s skillset. Instead of having McNeill take and absorb blocks, hoping to hold the line of scrimmage with his strength, clogging up blocks, they have changed their philosophy up front to allow McNeill to use those quick feet—or twinkletoes—to attack.
“We are much more, ‘Hit the blocks and play on their side of the line of scrimmage,’ which is a little bit different than what we were last year,” Campbell explained last month. “I do think this will serve our front well. I think this will help Alim. I think it will help Levi (Onwuzurike). It will help really all those guys up front.”
McNeill, himself, is excited about the change, too. He hasn’t played in a four-down front since his freshman year at NC State, but he feels like this scheme and philosophy could really accentuate his strengths.
“I feel like it fits me because with me being able to play on the edge (of center), it’s just more of an advantage,” McNeill said. “I’m able to use my speed and my power on the edge of guys. I only have to play half of a man instead of being head up. It’s a huge advantage.”
With the Lions hoping to rely on McNeill’s dangerous first-step quickly, the 330-pound defensive tackle spent the offseason taking his health a little more seriously than before. He consulted a nutritionist, who just so happens to be the wife of former teammate Nick Williams.
“She just helped me with my eating, different environmental stuff too, like different products to use,” Alim explained. “But just taking that more serious, making sure I’m getting the right calories, the right foods, in me. Enough water, enough sleep, stuff like that. Cutting out the Doritos and stuff like that.”
And he almost immediately felt a difference in his body composition after Day 2 of OTAs.
“I was like, ‘Okay, now I feel a lot different,” McNeill said. “I was really explosive, I’m hydrated, very attentive out there. I definitely feel a lot different out there.”
The Lions are hoping for a Year 2 jump with both McNeill and Onwuzurike, plus the addition of edge pass rushers like first-round pick Aidan Hutchinson and second-rounder Josh Paschal will bring some life to a pass rush that ranked 29th in overall pressures. And for Campbell, McNeill is one of the most invaluable pieces of the bunch.
“He’s another one of those guys, we look at him and he’s one of those guys that’s the core of our team.”