LSU’s Connor Neighbors goes from afterthought to critical cog

The photo popped up on Wes Neighbors’ phone: a pile of hair on the floor.

His son’s long locks had been cut, swept into a pile and photographed for all to see.

“It looked like a dead squirrel,” he said with a laugh.

The message: Connor Neighbors’ rebellion at LSU had ended.

This wasn’t your typical rebellion. There was no dissent. No uprising or insurgency.

This was one of motivation.

It began during LSU’s fall camp in 2011. Coaches bumped Neighbors, then a sophomore walk-on fullback, from second string to the scout team.

He got mad. He showed his detest for the decision by growing out his normally short brown hair to resemble, his father said, a Neanderthal.

He did something else, too.

“He worked his tail off,” Wes said.

The rebellion sparked Connor Neighbors to become the ruthless, defender-bashing, lead-blocking fullback seen today. They don’t call him “Bone Saw” for nothing.

Neighbors, an Alabama native from a football-playing family, has developed into one of LSU’s most lethal offensive weapons. He creates the path for a rushing offense that rolls up nearly 200 yards per game.

Playing a position that’s slowly becoming extinct, Neighbors is showing new-school defensive coordinators old-school charm — a punch in the mouth.

“He is a physical participant,” LSU coach Les Miles said in his own, weird manner.

He’ll be doing it for another year, too.

When No. 15 LSU (8-3, 4-3 Southeastern Conference) meets Arkansas (3-8, 0-7) on Saturday in its home finale, Neighbors won’t be one of 15 seniors honored during a pregame ceremony. The NCAA granted Neighbors a fifth year of eligibility, allowing him to play next season. Neighbors played in just one game his freshman year.

A lengthy appeal process ended on the Saturday before the loss to Alabama, when LSU had a bye. Neighbors was lounging in his apartment when assistant athletic director Sam Nader called to deliver the news.

“I’m pretty sure everybody in my building heard me scream,” Neighbors said.

He had to write “a couple” of letters to the NCAA, and so did a few LSU coaches. They pleaded to the governing body to let Neighbors have a fifth season.

“I needed the pity factor, ‘Come on; let me come back,’ ” a smiling Neighbors said. “I’ll be able to be the full-time starter next year if I keep it up. I want to be that guy.”

He’s nearly there already.

Neighbors is hitting his stride, slowly overtaking J.C. Copeland for the lead role at fullbback. He has started six straight games and played twice as many snaps as Copeland in last week’s win over Texas A&M.

Wes Neighbors said running backs coach Frank Wilson told his son that he played the best game of his career against the Aggies.

“He was killing guys,” Wes said.

That’s not bad for a guy whose path to this point began four years ago as a walk-on scout-team linebacker. He moved positions and began exchanging titles — walk-on scout-teamer to walk-on backup, scholarship backup to scholarship starter.

“The road he took was so hard,” defensive tackle Ego Ferguson said, “but he made it to this point right here.”

Here — it makes there seem so far away.

A lightly recruited player out of Huntsville High, Neighbors didn’t receive scholarship offers to any of his preferred major college programs: Alabama, LSU and Florida State. But not playing college ball wasn’t an option for someone reared on the pigskin. Neighbors’ father played guard at Alabama, and his grandfather Billy was an All-America center for Paul “Bear” Bryant.

LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis encouraged Neighbors to walk on, and he did.

“He felt the most home at LSU,” Wes said. “I told him, ‘You’ve got to follow your heart.’ ”

What followed was a rough two years. He was a scout-team walk-on learning a new position. For the first time in his life, he had to study an offensive playbook.

Miles even admitted this week that, at certain points, Neighbors wasn’t “big enough to do” this or that.

Neighbors thought about transferring. He thought about quitting. Then he remembered a story his grandpa told him.

After Billy Neighbors’ first season playing under Bryant at Alabama, he returned home. Billy never made it inside the house.

“His mom came out and said, ‘You’re not welcome here,’ and sent him back to school,” Connor said. “I thought about that and, like, I can’t quit now. I’ve come too far to give it up. Quitting’s not in my nature. I would regret that the rest of my life.”

So he stayed. He climbed the ranks despite that troubling 2011 fall camp, when he was “demoted” to scout team, Wes Neighbors said.

He put any negative energy into reclaiming his spot and getting better, his father said. This past summer, he was put on scholarship and, over the past few weeks, he has usurped Copeland as LSU’s go-to fullback.

He’s living up to his nickname.

“They call him Bone Saw,” Ferguson said. “Neighbors has no feeling of pain.”

“Smash mouth,” left guard Trai Turner said to describe the 5-foot-11, 240-pounder.

He has other nicknames, Wes said. One is Natty Badger, a play off former LSU standout Tyrann Mathieu’s nickname, Honey Badger.

Why Natty?

“He drinks Natural Light,” Wes said, laughing.

This cheap-beer-drinking, soon-to-be 22-year-old is finally being noticed on a national stage. During the win over A&M, CBS color analyst Gary Danielson mentioned Neighbors multiple times.

Back home in Huntsville, Wes not only hears about his son, he sees folks around town wearing his No. 43 LSU jersey. Purple and gold have seeped into crimson-and-white country.

“There are more people in Huntsville, Alabama, watching LSU games than ever before,” Wes said.

These days, Connor’s hair style remains a short, cropped look, the same he sported before “the rebellion.” Quarterback Zach Mettenberger and linebacker D.J. Welter were the scissors-wielding stylists who ended that time of Neighbors’ life, his father said.

There’s no need for the shears these days.

“Sometimes you question, ‘Is it worth it?’ ” Neighbors said. “When I got here, people told me that, you know, walk-ons never play, that ‘You’ll never see the field.’ It’s really a dream come true.”