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Rookie McNeill earning reps with first-team defense

Tuesday, August 3 felt like a personal holiday for Detroit Lions rookie defensive tackle Alim McNeill.

It was the first day that the Lions were allowed to practice in pads in training camp, and McNeill could not wait for it to arrive.

"Oh, man ... I couldn't even sleep last night," McNeill said after practice. "I was so excited about it. I definitely was looking forward to this day. Yes, sir."

Under NFL rules, the Lions' first five practices were without pads.

McNeill could not have asked for a tougher assignment at his position for his first padded practice. He went head-to-head with Pro Bowl center Frank Ragnow. It was a significant step up in competition from anyone McNeill went against as a three-year player and two-year starter at North Carolina State.

"I never really went against a center as coveted as Frank is," McNeill said. "Frank's a technician. I feel like I got a couple good reps on him, and he got some good reps on me.

"I'm just learning from him. I asked him questions. I hope he doesn't think I'm annoying. I'm just trying to get better."

McNeill has made a positive impression on head coach Dan Campbell. McNeill progressed quickly enough in the offseason workouts to be working with the first unit as the nose tackle in the Lions' base 3-4 defense since the start of training camp.

"Twinkle toes?" Campbell said when asked about McNeill before Tuesday's practice.

"He's a big man. He's thick (6-2m 330), and he's got really good feet. I think this kid is going to be able to do more than just play the nose. I think there's going to be more to this kid than just that.

"We'll find out, but I've been impressed. He's smart. He's locked in. He works. He's been good. Todd Wash (the defensive line coach) has done a heck of a job with him. And it's a good room to grow in.

"He's in a good place."

Campbell was interested in seeing how McNeill would react to different situations in live action against veteran players. Playing with the first unit on defense meant that most of the time he would go against starters on an offensive line that is the Lions' strongest unit.

"More than anything, is this guy really a tree trunk?" Campbell said. "Is he really a tree trunk that's got some pretty good feet. We'll find out."

Campbell and defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn – who calls McNeill "Dancing Bear" – have already seen enough of McNeill to think he has the athleticism to play outside in addition to playing the nose.

That possibility excites McNeill.

"I love that opportunity," he said. "Being able to be versatile, move around, get some different looks, play against different players.

"It's a little lighter out there on the tackles. I should be able to get some power moves."

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