GREEN BAY — Initially, C.J. Wilson assumed it was his fault.
The Green Bay Packers rookie would wake up early in the morning to find his training camp roommate, fellow defensive end Mike Neal, wide awake.
"He doesn't sleep at all," Wilson said of Neal, a second-round pick from Purdue. "At first, I thought it was my snoring that kept him awake. But he said it wasn't my snoring, he's just always ready. He doesn't sleep, he just waits."
Apparently, there's only so much waiting Neal can do. He's been known to leave for Lambeau Field before 7 a.m., even on days the players aren't required to arrive until 10.
"I really like the way Mike goes about his business," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "You're in there early in the morning and he is one of the first guys in there, eating breakfast. He brings a real blue-collar approach to work every day and you love to see that in our rookies."
Ask Neal about his eager approach to his new job and he just shrugs his shoulders like it's no big deal. The way he sees it, there's plenty to do before the Packers hit the practice field.
• Jumping in the hot and cold tubs or stretching with the foam rolling pad to help his aching muscles recover.
• Watching film or studying his playbook so he's better prepared heading into position meetings.
"I'm always striving to take another step," Neal said. "Whatever I can do to help gain an extra step, I'm doing."
The extra effort seems to be paying off for Neal, who is expected to make his second straight start Thursday night when the Packers close preseason play with a game at Kansas City.
Neal replaced injured veteran Cullen Jenkins in the lineup and registered a tackle for loss and quarterback hurry in the Packers' 59-24 victory over the Indianapolis Colts Thursday. It seems likely Jenkins, who is out with a strained calf, would be held out against the Chiefs so he can be ready for the Sept. 12 season opener at Philadelphia.
Packers defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said last week that Neal is like "a sponge right now, just wanting to learn."
"He's a kid that, after we left here for the summer, he stayed here and worked out all summer," Trgovac added. "He didn't go home, he stayed here and worked out. He didn't go on vacation or anything, he stayed right here in Green Bay."
Before he made an impression with his work ethic, Neal made one with his strength. He bench pressed 225 pounds 31 times at the NFL combine in February. He also holds Purdue positional records for bench press (510 pounds), squat (615) and clean (385).
It didn't take long for Jenkins and the other defensive linemen to come up with a nickname for the 6-foot-3, 294-pound Neal.
He was young and ridiculously strong. So they started calling him "Bamm-Bamm," a nod to the bat-wielding toddler who lived next door to the Flintstones.
"He's strong as heck, real explosive," Jenkins said of Neal, who was timed at 4.89 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the combine. "He's one of the best d-linemen that I've seen come in as a rookie, ready to contribute right away. It's pretty impressive some of the things he can do — and he's still raw and he's still getting used to this stuff, so he's only going to get better."
Neal played defensive tackle at Purdue — he was an honorable-mention All-Big Ten pick last season as a senior — but the Packers viewed him as a good fit at defensive end in their 3-4 scheme. Plus, Neal can move inside when the defense shifts to the nickel package.
Even with all the work Neal's put in, the transition from college to the pros has been a real eye-opener because he can no longer rely on his brute strength to overpower his opponent.
Case in point: Early in the game against the Colts, Neal bull-rushed a blocker almost all the way to Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, but the rookie couldn't close the deal on the sack because his technique wasn't good enough to release from the block.
"It's a lot harder, because the game's a lot faster," Neal said. "You can't get into a wrestling match with everybody, because it wears you out a lot faster. It's definitely hard for me not to go to it, because it's sort of like who I am as a person, period. That's just the way I play football, that's just how I am."
Still, there's little doubt Neal will adapt, especially if he continues to put in overtime.
"Once he really understands how to tie everything together," Jenkins said, "with his quickness and strength he's going to be unbelievable."