THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. – Beads of sweat dripped from Aaron Neary’s facemask as his pan-sized hands firmly clutched a blocking shield.
The Los Angeles Rams reserve center, a former Eastern Washington standout, tussled with big bodies and scorching temperatures during a three-day minicamp at Cal Lutheran University in early June, taking direction at his station from assistant offensive line coach Andy Dickerson.
For Neary, a 6-foot-4, 300-pound Richland native, the most impressive blocks, reads and snaps of his career have often come in this type of setting.
Such is the life of a practice squad veteran.
Since the former FCS All-American entered the NFL as an undrafted free-agent in 2016, he’s earned relative longevity in the league but has rarely suited up on Sundays.
The former Hanford High School star has logged time in one regular season game – he was given a Week 17 start in 2017 when the Rams rested most of their first-stringers – and has primarily served as a practice body.
Neary, who is entering his third year on the defending NFC champions’ practice squad, has still generated a generous annual salary, well into the six-figure range.
He’s happy to have his current gig, but isn’t content.
“You’re always aiming to get to the next-best thing,” said Neary, one of five EWU products currently on the Rams’ roster along with receivers Cooper Kupp and Nsimba Webster and linebackers Samson Ebukam and Ketner Kupp.
“Even if you’re getting some playing time,” he added, “you’re aiming to be a better player, and eventually a starter one day.”
The Rams made some offseason moves at Neary’s position, declining the option of former starting center John Sullivan and apparently elevating backup and 2018 draft pick Brian Allen this offseason.
But even if Neary fails to make Rams’ 53-man roster later this summer, he said the organization does a great job of making practice squad players feel like they’re important commodities.
“I’ve been on other teams where you notice you’re in the back seat,” said Neary, who had short stints with the Broncos, Eagles and Browns. “But here you’re loved. You’re treated like a starter. It’s awesome.”
Not since retired Pro Bowl offensive tackle Michael Roos, who played out his career with the Tennessee Titans from 2005 to 2014, has a former EWU offensive lineman shown a semblance of stability in the league like Neary has demonstrated.
EWU’s starting offensive line in 2014 was littered with players who eventually earned their shot, though.
Alongside Neary, a guard at EWU, was fellow All-American big man Jake Rodgers, selected in the seventh round of the 2015 NFL draft by the Atlanta Falcons.
Rodgers, a Shadle High product, has since had cups of coffee with several NFL teams, but was often often been cut shortly after signing a free-agent contact. He’s currently with the Denver Broncos.
Neary and Rodgers also shared an offensive line in 2014 with Clay DeBord, an All-American tackle in 2015 who signed free-agent contracts with the Arizona Cardinals and Dallas Cowboys but was out of the league by 2017.
The man in the middle of the Eagles’ stacked 2014 offensive line? Second-year EWU offensive line coach and former center Jase Butorac.
Butorac isn’t surprised that Neary has carved out a role with the Rams.
“He’s a really focused individual. When he has his mind on something, he really goes after it,” Butorac said. “He’s not afraid of hard work. He knows how to grind at the end of the day.”
Butorac recalled a game in 2015 when Neary played center, guard and tackle against Sacramento State.
“He’s an athletic, former basketball player,” Butorac said. “And he’s pretty lean for his position.”
Third-year EWU head coach Aaron Best, formerly the Eagles’ longtime offensive line coach, helped develop each of the aforementioned linemen.
“Coach Best was a huge part of why I’m at this level today,” Neary said. “And Jase Butorac is a mold of Best, and is doing a good job up there.”
Butorac chuckled and nodded at that comparison.
“That’s pretty accurate,” Butorac said. “I’ve been around (Best) for nine years.”
EWU, which reached the national title game last season and set a program record in single-season rushing yards (3,839), returns the bulk of its decorated offensive front, including All-Big Sky talents Spencer Blackburn, Chris Schlichting, Kaleb Levao and Tristen Taylor.
Blackburn, an All-American, and Levao are sixth-year seniors who redshirted in 2014 when Neary, Rodgers, DeBord and Butorac helped pave lanes for Walter Payton Award finalist Vernon Adams.
Neary said he expects EWU’s stout and experienced offensive line to have another banner year.
“They’re good. And ever since I was there, I’ve seen how they’re coached and the people who are in charge,” Neary said. “Seeing those guys, the way they’re coached and the maturity that is taught up there, and the toughness that’s taught, it’s a big deal.”
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