Nelson Agholor

Agholor, Neal more than just blue-chip recruits

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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 TampaBay.com 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.”

Jarrett Grace signs FA contract with Chicago Bears

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 5: Jarrett Grace #59 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in action during a game against the Texas Longhorns at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Texas 38-3. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Former Notre Dame linebacker Jarrett Grace has signed with the Chicago Bears. The former Rockne Award winner will continue his improbable return from a devastating leg injury during OTAs and training camp, fighting for a roster spot on the NFC North squad.

Grace worked out for the Bears at a tryout camp and Chicago made the roster move official Wednesday, signing Grace and releasing linebacker Danny Mason.

After redshirting as a freshman and sitting behind Manti Te’o, Grace moved into the starting lineup as a junior and led the Irish in tackles before suffering a severe leg injury against Arizona State. It took nearly two years for Grace to return to duty, needing to re-learn how to run as he underwent multiple procedures to repair the rod that held Grace’s bone in place.

He played in 32 games for the Irish, finishing with 78 total tackles.

Irish A-to-Z: Grant Blankenship

Notre Dame v Syracuse
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Notre Dame’s junior defensive end has an unclear status entering his third season in the program. Suspended by Brian Kelly this spring after playing minimal snaps as a sophomore, the Texas native already had an unclear path to the field even before you consider his status as a member of the team and student at the university.

After playing in 11 games as a true freshman, Blankenship struggled to make progress after adding the mass needed to play on the strong side. With the depth chart at defensive end already in question, Blankenship is a true unknown entering 2016.

 

GRANT BLANKENSHIP
6’5″, 278
Junior, No. 92, DE

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A late-riser on the recruiting scene, Blankenship turned down an offer from Charlie Strong to stick with his commitment to Notre Dame, his favorite program as a child. An early target by former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, and he stuck with Notre Dame even after Diaco departed for UConn.

Not highly rated, Blankenship fell outside the 250 recruits on 247’s composite.

 

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Played in 11 games, making 12 tackles including one TFL. Didn’t play against Navy or LSU. Made three tackles against Syracuse.

Sophomore Season (2015): Appeared in three games, making one assisted tackle. Played a season-high 10 snaps against UMass.

 

WHAT WE PROJECTED LAST YEAR

Blankenship’s participation took a step backwards. He looked like a potential redshirt until he played in garbage time. Partial credit, at best. Nobody gave Rochell and Day a break.

It’s too hard to project Blankenship as a 30-snap-a-game contributor. But if he’s forced into action, the experience he got last season will come in handy. More likely, Blankenship will be part of an expanded front seven depth chart, and will make it easier to keep guys like Isaac Rochell and Sheldon Day fresh.

As a second-year player, he and Andrew Trumbetti have a chance to both make big steps forward this season. If either can help a pass rush that needs to win more from base packages, it’ll be huge for the defense. Expect new defensive line coach Keith Gilmore to get this through to Blankenship, who likely derives fuel from being overlooked, something he certainly was last season.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

We’ll know a lot more about Blankenship’s future when the Irish enroll in summer school. If he’s there, it’ll signal that there’s a road back onto the team. If not, it’ll be another washout at defensive end, a position that’s been very difficult to keep together.

At this point, barring some remarkable change to his production or the depth chart, there doesn’t look like much of a road to playing time for Blankenship, at least not with Isaac Rochell on the roster in front of him.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Very unclear.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Blankenship was a part of a different program come next fall or buried on the depth chart at Notre Dame. The one reason for optimism is the position he plays. There’s opportunity at defensive end, especially if you can rush the passer.

Blankenship hasn’t show that ability yet. Part of that came from gaining a ton of weight between his freshman and sophomore seasons. The other part of it was scheme—he was recruited by Bob Diaco to play a different type of end.

Let’s get Blankenship out of the doghouse and back onto the field before we look for optimism.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin

 

This week’s episode of Blown Coverage features me pitching John Walters on the perfect three-year solution for Notre Dame’s QB conundrum. And a bunch of other stuff. Enjoy. 

Even with talent drain, Irish can be CFB Playoff contender

LANDOVER, MD - NOVEMBER 01: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks on from the sidelines during the first half against the Navy Midshipmen at FedExField on November 1, 2014 in Landover, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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Brian Kelly’s next football team might have less talent than the group that produced seven of the first 103 picks in the NFL Draft. But it might have a better chance to make it to the College Football Playoff.

It’s a trendy thought lately. The kind of thing you do when it’s May and we’re still a long way away from any football this fall.

But there’s good reason to be bullish on the Irish. And SBNation’s Bill Connelly providing the thinking man’s rationale for the optimism last week when he unveiled his preview of the 2016 Fighting Irish.

The entire preview is very much worth your time, but here’s the synopsis:

  • Brian Kelly is an excellent coach. (Sorry complainers.)
  • Whoever wins the quarterback job is going to be really good.
  • An offensive line that’ll reload.
  • Tons of skill talent.
  • A defense trending in the right direction.
  • A good close game team.
  • A schedule that’s more conducive to winning.

Again, go read the article. (You’ll be smarter for it.) But after crunching many of the variables, here’s Connelly’s mighty optimistic conclusion:

There isn’t a sure loss on the schedule. In fact, there’s only one game in which Notre Dame has a worse than 59 percent chance of winning. But operating in close games will be critical. That means finding go-to receivers for the quarterback in times of need, continued quality from Yoon, and a defense that improves up front despite turnover and holds steady in the back despite freshmen on the two-deep.

All of the “ifs” are realistic, and while the defense still has plenty to prove, I’m not going to doubt Kelly after last year. If I had a poll vote — and thank goodness I don’t — I would seriously consider Notre Dame in the preseason top five.

With Notre Dame’s two regular-season losses coming in the final moments of road games to top-five teams, this isn’t the type of “Here Come the Irish” headline that invaded our psyche and ruined the enjoyment of seasons under Bob Davie, Ty Willingham or Charlie Weis, the later still finding his way into the schlock headlines thanks to Notre Dame’s latest tax return release.

But Brian Kelly’s consistency has turned proclamations like Connelly’s into a decidedly uninteresting one. And at the same time that we go inch-by-inch through the roster, it’s helpful to see what the Irish look like from a 30,000-foot view—a better vantage point to evaluate progress than the perch most of us inhabit.

So while all previews in May expire by the time the calendar hits August, let’s go through the bullet points (as appropriated by me, not Connelly) just to add to the discussion.

 

Brian Kelly: elite coach. (No question mark) 

Right now, that’s a fairly undeniable assertion. And for those of you who’ll haggle about the definition of elite or harken back to a two-point conversion chart or the selection of the team’s defensive coordinator, this might be the best question to ask yourself: “After Nick Saban and Urban Meyer, who else do you want running your program?”

 

The quarterback battle.

If there’s something that I find reassuring, it’s the fact that Connelly hasn’t lost the plot on this. Whoever wins the quarterback battle will play at a very high level. Or they won’t play at all.

As Kelly, Mike Denbrock and Mike Sanford showed last season, the Irish will coach up a quarterback and get very productive play out of them. (Unlike what happened at Ohio State last year.) And with Brandon Wimbush putting the redshirt on, Notre Dame has one of the country’s most dangerous weapons waiting in the wings.

 

The offensive line should be good again.

Remember all those data-driven pieces about minutes-played correlating to excellent offensive line play? I still believe them. But I also think the Irish will produce a very, very productive offensive line even with three new starters, thanks to two starting NFL linemen on the left side of their center and Alex Bars likely on his way, too.

 

Those skill players? They’ll be good.  

I’m bullish on the ground game. I’m high on the young talent in the secondary. And I’ll give the benefit of the doubt to a receiving corps that I think is still a little more unsorted than I’d guess this staff wants.

Torii Hunter should lead the unit. After that, I’m not sure what to expect.

The move of Alizé Jones to the “W” (boundary side) receiver gives you an idea that this staff is preparing to go forward if Corey Robinson steps away from the game because of concussions. It also might point to an offensive direction that’s more similar to 2012, a physical approach that could put more tight ends on the field and would allow the Irish to lean on a very strong running game and a quarterback who’ll be able to take deep shots down the field.

 

The Defense?

How you improve after losing headliners like Sheldon Day, Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt, Elijah Shumate and KeiVarae Russell is hard to comprehend. But I think this unit will have more versatility, as injuries and certain personnel limitations really hamstrung a unit that was maddeningly inconsistent at times.

Can they improve against the run? I think the answer starts with Jarron Jones and Jerry Tillery, two stout guys who’ll hold up in the trenches in front of Nyles Morgan. That’ll serve as the critical building block to the scheme, with pieces added and subtracted to make sure the Irish can be multiple and match-up with opponents on a weekly basis.

I’m punting on this topic (for now), while acknowledging that improvement on this side of the football is critical to success and the biggest unknown heading into the season.

 

Good play in tight games

Remember those heart-stopping finishes in the Weis era? Or that dreadful feeling you got every time a game got close and an opponent mounted a comeback?

For some, it’ll never go away. But under Brian Kelly, the Irish have been a very good close game team—even considering the two tight losses last year.

I appreciate the comparison Connelly made in his piece to a baseball team with a good bullpen. When the Irish have been at their best, they’ve been able to control the game late with solid quarterback play, a dependable running game and a defense that held up.

Justin Yoon and Tyler Newsome play an important part in this process, too. The specialist duo will help control field position and make critical kicks, with Yoon putting together a really respectable freshman season and Newsome showcasing a booming leg.

 

The Schedule

I haven’t fully dug into the intricacies of the schedule, but just at face value it’s a much less daunting climb that years past. The Irish get Michigan State and Stanford at home (and under the lights) and replace Clemson with North Carolina State. Army comes back onto the schedule and Navy loses the majority of its team, including star Keenan Reynolds.

There is no shortage of coaching pedigree that Brian Kelly will face. Mark Richt, David Cutcliffe, and some young rising talent like Justin Fuente and Clay Helton in a regular season finale in Los Angeles.

But you can only win the games you play, and you can only play the teams on your schedule. (Thanks, Yogi.) As Connelly mentioned, there’s no “sure loss” on this slate, and I think Notre Dame will be favored every time they take the field next year.

 

Jurkovec’s commitment as solid as it can get

Phil Jurkovec 247
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In a sport like college football, not much is certain. Coaching changes, recruiting battles, it is a week to week sport in nearly every sense of the word.

So when coveted 2018 quarterback Phil Jurkovec chose Notre Dame last week, many kept their enthusiasm tempered. Especially with memories of prospects like Blake Barnett fresh in their minds.

But Jurkovec seems to have his priorities aligned. And a recent comment to Matt Freeman of IrishSportsDaily.com should have Irish fans feeling very good about their young QB-in-waiting.

For as long as Notre Dame has recruited, teams have recruited against Notre Dame. And in recent years, the sales pitch has changed—not from worries of a head coach or assistants being fired, but rather the chance that they may leave for greener pastures.

In this case, you have to feel good that Jurkovec seems to understand the realities of the situation. Because even if Brian Kelly is in the NFL or Mike Sanford is running his own program, the Golden Dome will still be standing.

Of course, it doesn’t do anything to guarantee Jurkovec will be in South Bend come 2018, but it certainly points to a kid and family having done their due diligence before making such an important decision.