Nelson Agholor

Agholor, Neal more than just blue-chip recruits


Perusing the internet last night I stumbled upon two excellent articles written on two terrific student-athletes that Notre Dame is recruiting. While they come from opposite corners of the country, both Nelson Agholor and Davonte Neal have overcome incredible odds to find themselves in a place where they have their choice to attend some of the very best schools in the country.

Both articles (here’s the link to Agholor, here’s the link to Neal) deserve to be read, and give you some addition insight into two recruits you most likely know for their offer lists and potential spot on the Irish depth chart. As we looked at yesterday, the Irish face a battle for both prospects, but it’s one well worth fighting.

The Tampa Bay Times had a wonderful look into the life of Agholor,who came to the United States from Nigeria at the age of 5 when his parents were looking to provide a better life for their family.

Joey Knight of the gives us a little more insight:

The Agholor family arrived in New York from Lagos, Nigeria — where Felix had been well educated and played high-level soccer — when Nelson was 5. Older brother Franklin said the family, which didn’t yet include youngest sister Ruby, had planned to settle in Maryland.

When those relatives couldn’t be reached, Franklin said, the family was taken in by other relatives in Carrollwood after boarding a train for Orlando, then a bus for Tampa. When Nelson’s parents found work, the family settled in a three-bedroom apartment near USF.

“My dad and my mom made sacrifices, whatever they needed to make, to move the family to the states,” said Agholor, who has an older brother (Franklin) in junior college and a sister (Valerie) in nursing school. “It’s just what they wanted in our lives, to be here.”

It was in the Suitcase City patch of northeast Tampa, besmirched by heavy crime and seedy influences, that Franklin says his younger brother developed a “street savvy” out of necessity and learned to think on his feet — traits that would assist him in the recruiting process.

Developing football skills, while playing for at least three local youth football teams, would come later. Initially, Franklin said, Nelson was awful.

“Nelson was about that big,” said Franklin, putting a centimeter between his thumb and index finger. “A toothpick. He was quick, he wasn’t fast. He just wanted to play. He just liked doing it because his older brother (Felix Jr.) and I played.”

His skills on the field obviously blossomed, with Agholor rushing for over 1,900 yards during his senior season. Whatever school he picks from  — Florida, Florida State, USC, Oklahoma and Notre Dame are his finalists — will be getting a classy young man in addition to one of the nation’s best players.

“I’m going to contact every school that I’m not going to and let them know I appreciate everything,” Agholor told the Times. “It’s going to be hard, but as a man, I think they have an obligation to get the best players to keep their jobs. I have an obligation to find the best school to help my job in the future.”


In Arizona, recruiting is still full speed ahead for Davonte Neal, who will still take official visits after Signing Day because he started the process after leading his Chaparral high school team to another state championship.

The 5-foot-10 prototype slot receiver could make an instant impact on any team’s offense, with the evidence found in the 16 rushing and 14 receiving touchdowns he scored this season. (He also played defensive back, a position he could easily play in college as well.) Helping guide Neal through the perils of recruiting is his father, Luke Neal.

As Paola Bolvin of the Arizona Republic writes, that wasn’t always the case.

Luke Neal had a difficult upbringing. His mom left when he was young and he was raised by his grandmother.

“One of my great accomplishments in life is that I made it through growing up in south-central Los Angeles and lived to tell about it,” he said.

He was a troubled teenager and a lost young adult. Even after Davonte’ was born, he didn’t stay in touch with his son’s mother.

“It’s a vicious cycle young African-American males goes through,” Luke Neal said. “We do this, and we have to stop. I’m doing everything I can to be the right father now.”

When Davonte’ was 9, Luke reached out to his son’s mother, who was living in Akron, Ohio, with hopes of connecting with his son. Luke was in a soul-searching place. He had coached at Dorsey High in Los Angeles and at several junior colleges but was looking for more in his life.

He spent two week with Davonte’ in Akron. After he left, the young boy asked his mom, Kito Williams, if he could come to Arizona and live with his dad.

After feeling confident Luke could handle the responsibility, she said OK. Davonte’ flew to Phoenix, and as soon as he stepped off the plane, Luke started crying.

“I thought, ‘Oh, my God, I’m going to be a parent,'” he said. “I think for the first time I had found true love.

“I don’t think people realize how much I love my son. In the past, it was easy for me to pick up and leave because that’s the hand I was dealt.”

Luke worked at a variety of places — including a finance agency and a car wash — but he still struggled at times. For several months, he lived in a friend’s U-Haul truck without anyone knowing.

He would borrow the truck from a friend who owned a mail store in Ahwatukee, saying he needed to move some things. He would pick up Davonte’ from middle school and drop him off at Williams’ home. He would park at the far end of the complex she lived in and sleep in the truck at night. He would pick up his son in the morning and take him to school before returning the truck.

No one ever knew.

The elder Neal makes it clear that he alone was responsible for the mistakes of his past, telling the Republic, “It’s very important to note I was a deadbeat dad. I want that to be known. I didn’t take care of my responsibilities then. I’m trying to do that now.”

With his family united in Arizona (Davonte’s mother moved to Arizona shortly after he did to stabilize the family), Davonte’ flourished as a student athlete, transferring from a neighboring high school to Chaparral, where the school has won back-to-back-to-back state championships. And after a rough start, Luke Neal has been the one guiding Davonte through a recruiting process that the elder Neal has experienced, from his coaching days back in Los Angeles.

“I’m so proud of who Davonte’ has become,” his mother Kito Williams told the Republic. “He’s grown into a young man. And I applaud his dad. The two have kind of grown up together.”

How we got here: Roster Attrition

Rees Golson Kiel

There is the team you recruit and then the team that you coach. And for Brian Kelly, the team he could be coaching certainly isn’t the one that’s taking the field.

Turnover on the Notre Dame roster is by no means exclusive to the Kelly era. For as long as you’ve likely been following Irish football, players have been coming and going–often times sooner than four or five years.

But as we look at the sources of this disappointing season, how this became Notre Dame’s youngest roster since 1972 is worth a look. Because as Brian Kelly struggles to win with a team that’s playing a stack of underclassmen while his fourth and fifth-year classes are all but gone, it’s amazing to see the attrition that’s struck this roster, especially considering this should be when the Irish are feeling the benefits of their national title game appearance.

From fifth-year candidates to sophomores, 20 signees have left the Irish program. That includes transfers, dismissals, withdrawals, injuries or walking away. (It doesn’t include leaving early for the NFL.)

The talent drain has taken big names and small, included five-star prospects like Gunner Kiel, Eddie Vanderdoes, Greg Bryant and most recently Max Redfield. It’s featured shortened career of projected 2016 starters Steve Elmer and Corey Robinson, and shown the bad luck the Irish staff has had bringing in pass rushers.

Let’s look at how this team got so young.


Gunner Kiel, QB — 5 star
Tee Shepard, CB — 4 star
Davonte Neal, WR — 4 star
Will Mahone, RB — 3 star
Justin Ferguson, WR — 3 star

Recap: The second phase of Brian Kelly’s star-crossed quarterback run came after Gunner Kiel transferred after a redshirt season, leaving before Everett Golson was declared academically ineligible. Had Kiel stuck around, who knows what would’ve happened. The departure of Tee Shepard was also costly, the highly-touted cornerback never dressing for the Irish after his early enrollment didn’t help clear up academic issues that seemed to plague him for the rest of his football playing career.

Neal reemerged at Arizona, moving to the defensive side of the ball. Mahone’s high-profile dismissal came after an ugly incident in his hometown of Youngstown, but resulted in a life-changing turnaround. Add in the early departures (though successful careers) of Ronnie Stanley and CJ Prosise and you begin to see how this group certainly accomplished plenty, but left a ton on the table.


Greg Bryant, RB — 5 star
Max Redfield, S — 5 star
Eddie Vanderdoes, DT — 5 star
Steve Elmer, OL — 4 star
Corey Robinson, WR — 4 star
Mike Heuerman, TE — 4 star
Doug Randolph, DL — 4 star
Rashad Kinlaw, DB — 3 star
Michael Deeb, LB — 3 star

Recap: This group could’ve redefined the roster. While Bryant and Redfield never played up to their potential before being cut loose from the university, a front-line defensive lineman like Vanderdoes would’ve changed the complexion of the Irish defense.

Below the radar, the losses of Steve Elmer and Corey Robinson certainly hurt more than we expected. Neither were breakaway talents, but both more than good enough to been veteran starters on a team that clearly needed a few more of them.

The bottom half of this list almost stands out just because they were big swings and misses. With the Heuerman, Kinlaw, and Deeb, the Irish took shots on a few less-than-elite names and came up empty, with Heuerman and Deeb never able to shake off injuries before eventually going on medical hardships. A big recruiting class coming off a historic season, this group had plenty of success, but could’ve been more.


Nile Sykes, LB — 3 stars
Grant Blankenship, DE — 3 stars
Kolin Hill, DE — 3 stars
Jhonathon Williams, DE — 3 stars

Recap: Four defenders, four front seven players, three pass rushers. When Irish fans wonder where the pass rush is, it’s misses like this that end up really hurting. Sykes, Hill and Williams were hardly national prospects. Blankenship was an early target with modest offers, though a strong senior season brought interest from Texas.

Hill’s pass rush skills were evident from his situational use as a freshman. His departure left a hole, and he’s now the second-leading tackler behind the line of scrimmage for Texas Tech. Sykes never made it onto the Irish roster, and is now the sack leader for Indiana. Williams is now in the mix at Toledo, a reach by the Irish staff who saw him as a developmental prospect.


Mykelti Williams, DB — 4 star
Jalen Guyton, WR — 3 star
Bo Wallace, DE — 3 star

Recap: Three wash outs that seemed like promising prospects when they committed. Williams was especially important, a key piece at a position of need who is now reviving his career at Iowa Western CC. Guyton is also taking the Juco route, the leading receiver at Trinity Valley CC in Texas. Wallace is an edge rusher now at Arizona State, never making it to campus after Brian Kelly spoke highly of the New Orleans prospect on Signing Day.


Swarbrick: Kelly will be back in 2017

SOUTH BEND, IN - AUGUST 30:  Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish watches as his team takes on the Rice Owls at Notre Dame Stadium on August 30, 2014 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Brian Kelly will be coaching Notre Dame in 2017. That’s according to his boss, athletic director Jack Swarbrick.

So even with a 2-5 record and a difficult slate still to come, there will be no change atop the Irish football program.

“Brian will lead this team out of the tunnel opening day next year,” Swarbrick told

Swarbrick’s vote of confidence is nothing new—he’s taken a similar stance in his weekly appearances the past few weeks. But it likely became necessary as the season continues to frustrate, and Notre Dame’s head coaching position becomes part of the hot seat discussion.

But even with plenty to accomplish during this week off, both on the field and in the classroom, Kelly was out front and on the ESPN airwaves, openly shouldering the blame of this season’s failures, while also mentioning this is the youngest team at Notre Dame since 1972.

See the entire segment here:


Bye Week Mailbag: Now Open

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 15: DeShone Kizer #14 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish runs the ball during the game against the Stanford Cardinal at Notre Dame Stadium on October 15, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. Stanford defeated Notre Dame 17-10. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

It’s been too long. Or maybe it hasn’t.

Against my better judgment, I’m opening up the mailbag. Drop your questions below or at Twitter @KeithArnold.

How we got here: The Defense

05 September 2015:  Notre Dame Fighting Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder stands with his players in action during a game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Texas Longhorns at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, IN. (Icon Sportswire via AP Images)

The first of a multi-part series as we look at the 2-5 Irish at the bye week. 


Notre Dame’s season was sunk by Brian VanGorder’s defense. That sentence is much easier to write after seeing the unit without its former coordinator. But it was just as clear after watching the Irish play their first four games of 2016 that Brian Kelly needed to make a change. The Irish gave up a combined 124 points in their three September defeats, a season-high for either yards or points (against FBS competition) for Texas, Michigan State and Duke.

For many VanGorder detractors, the move came four games too late. The Irish were plagued by big plays and schematic breakdowns throughout 2015 (and before), a fatal flaw of a defense filled with talented personnel that too often underperformed.

How did the Irish get here? Any why did Kelly make the decision to hire VanGorder—a decision that has already impacted his legacy in South Bend?

Let’s look back.



When Brian Kelly tapped VanGorder to replace Bob Diaco, he was hiring a coach who seemed like an evolutionary next step. While Diaco’s 3-4 base and point prevention philosophies were the perfect tonic for improving a team that was wrecked by the Tenuta era, Alabama undressed the Irish at the end of the 2012 season, a simplicity in Notre Dame’s scheme that received a few comments from Alabama players in the postgame glow that likely had Kelly wondering if they’d hit their ceiling.

That’s an important factor to remember when Kelly was hiring Diaco’s replacement. Because the foundation of the defense was well established. Kelly needed someone to build on top of it.

That likely made VanGorder’s pitch music to Kelly’s ears. Because while Diaco relied heavily on his base set, VanGorder’s DNA included sub-packages, complementary parts, Rex Ryan-inspired blitzes, and a philosophy that no throw would be conceded— underneath or otherwise.

Add to that Kelly’s personal relationship with VanGorder. Kelly had watched his former Grand Valley State colleague from the beginning of his career. He had seen him work with young players and believed in him as a teacher (something he referenced multiple times when he introduced VanGorder to the local media) before blazing his own trail, earning a head coaching opportunity at Wayne State, a high-profile coordinator position at Georgia and eventually making his way to the NFL—for a long time, farther up the food chain than Kelly.

Perhaps that was enough to dismiss his chaotic year at Auburn, when the Tigers season—and defense—went up in smoke as Gene Chizik was fired and VanGorder’s defense gave up 63 to No. 20 Texas A&M, 38 to No. 5 Georgia, and were blown out 49-0 to Alabama—after after mid-October.

But for a variety of reasons, likely his success turning to coaches with a personal connection, Kelly once again did so, hiring an NFL position coach who was a few years removed from being an elite-level coaching target for a vacancy that was a high-profile national opening.



The challenge with VanGorder’s struggles always seemed to be the caveats. Injuries decimated his first defense, a group that shutout Michigan and stymied Stanford, but crumbled by the end of the season, with USC naming a number and the Irish tumbling after giving up big, ugly scores to Arizona State, Northwestern, Louisville and USC.

The 2015 defense had strong moments—dominating Texas, holding Clemson to 24 points and nice wins over option opponents Georgia Tech and Navy—but obviously imploded late against Stanford and never stood a chance against Ohio State, with injuries once again leveling the depth chart.

But there were improvements. Between 2014 and 2015 VanGorder’s unit got a better handle on up-tempo attacks. An offseason committed to stopping the option saw those goals achieved with successful defensive performances against Georgia Tech and Navy. And even if VanGorder’s veteran-heavy 2015 unit was mostly moving on (the talent exodus is staggering now that you look at it), most had talked themselves into believing that Year Three would have better institutional knowledge for all, a depth chart ready to step in and perform.

[A necessary footnote: Luck certainly wasn’t on VanGorder’s side. Injuries, transfers and suspensions certainly didn’t do him any favors, either. Whether it was the disappearance of edge rushers—Kolin Hill, Jhonny Williams, Bo Wallace—or the loss of KeiVarae Russell and Max Redfield, injuries to Jarron Jones, Shaun Crawford, Nick Watkins and Drue Tranquill, there was always the defense VanGorder hoped to put on the field… and then the one that he actually did.]



Austin, Texas. Opening night, 2016.

The Irish defense was exposed against the Longhorns, shredded by both the power running attack and freshman Shane Buechele’s passing. It was an all-systems failure: Scheme, blown assignments, questionable personnel decisions—all pointing back to a game plan that required a bunch of assumptions (new offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert was difficult to scout), but nonetheless was a disastrous start.



Even if Kelly gave the staff’s performance a passing grade, by noon after the loss to Duke, the decision was made to relieve VanGorder of his duties.

“This is a difficult decision,” Kelly said in a statement. “I have the utmost respect for Brian as both a person and football coach, but our defense simply isn’t it where it should be and I believe this change is necessary for the best interest of our program and our student-athletes.”



While Kelly won’t likely go any deeper into the decision to make the change than he’s done in a few media sessions, it’s telling just how different the defense is organized with VanGorder out the door.

Full-unit meetings have been turned into position group teaching sessions. Depth chart’s have been reshuffled, resulting in major personnel changes. A base three-man front has taken over as the status quo. And the defense has stopped giving up points and big plays, especially after they found their footing against Syracuse.

Where Kelly goes from here is anyone’s guess—especially considering he’s still trying his best to get this season under control. But after tapping into his personal coaching network to fill a premium vacancy, don’t expect Kelly to settle on the familiar—or for Swarbrick to allow it—when his roster is loaded with young talent and in need of a fundamentally sound plan.