Davonte Neal

Projecting Neal’s role in the Irish offense

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With the soap opera behind us, we can finally turn the focus from Davonte Neal choosing Notre Dame, to projecting what he’ll end up doing for the Fighting Irish. Put simply, Neal can be considered the salvation of a recruiting class that filled a lot of holes but was considered by some a disappointment after fading down the stretch. But after missing on countless elite skill players, the Irish landing Neal brought one of the country’s top skill players to South Bend, a rarity in recent times.

With player evaluation an inexact science, let’s cherry-pick ESPN’s rankings to give you an idea of just how high Neal’s ceiling could be. Only three offensive skill players rank higher on ESPN’s 150 — running back Johnathan Gray, wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham, and one-time Irish target running back Keith Marshall. Familiar names (and Irish heart-breakers) like Arik Armstead, John Theus, Ronald Darby, Devin Fuller, Yuri Wright, Nelson Agholor, Brian Poole, and Deontay Greenberry? Nobody is within 16 spots of Neal, who checks in at a staggering No. 8 in the country. (The closest Irish recruit is quarterback Gunner Kiel, ranked No. 52 for ESPN.)

ESPN’s scouting report on Neal features this gushing review of the Arizona star:

What Neal may lack in size, he makes up for in acceleration and speed. Neal is a gifted, smooth athlete with the ball in his hands and a dangerous space player. He lacks great height and bulk and we are not sure due to his size he will not end up being a cornerback at the next level. Regardless, he will be a return specialist likely early and often in his collegiate career. Offensively Neal displays rapid acceleration off the line and runs with a low center of gravity. Can weave and get on the toes of the defender in such a hurry that they get flat-footed in their back pedal and it is over if he is going vertical. Neal shows decisive burst into and out of cuts and has huge upside to be a lethal route runner because of his feet and quickness and is already a threat in this area. Can play on the outside or inside and is dangerous on quick hitters and bubble screens behind the line of scrimmage. Shows quick hands and does not appear to fear working the middle of the field or making plays in traffic. Gets upfield immediately after the catch and is at his best in the open field where he can change directions and make people miss… His most dangerous attribute is his ability to make plays as a return man. He naturally has a feel for the crease, awareness of the set-up and where to exploit cover teams. He is sharp and decisive and does not do much dancing. Is a north/south type of runner in the return game and can flip field position in a hurry. Neal is one of those undersized athletes that has some natural tools you cannot coach.

After playing a uncomfortable waiting game, Brian Kelly had this to say about adding Neal, to UND.com’s Jack Nolan:

While we’ll know more about the coaching staff’s intentions come spring practice, adding Neal gives the Irish some flexibility it just didn’t have. For players like rising senior Theo Riddick, it’ll allow Kelly and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin to utilize the very best attributes of Riddick, whether that’s at running back, in the slot, or in a truly hybrid role that has been lacking in Kelly’s first two seasons. For all the talk of multiplicity in the Irish offense, and a coaching change that’ll pair Tony Alford with both running backs and slot receivers, there wasn’t much cross-training in the Irish offense, Charlie Molnar’s first two seasons lacked creativity, likely due to the quarterbacking situation.

Kelly himself hinted at the versatility Neal brings, and plugging him into a running back depth chart that’s uncertain behind Cierre Wood would immediately give the Irish an explosive option from the backfield, and a runner with better natural skills than anybody else on the Irish roster. That said, if you look at the multiple slot options the Irish have — guys like rising senior Robby Toma, Riddick, and unknown options like Mathias Farley, still-to-be-determined transfer option Amir Carlisle, KeiVarae Russell, and even Davaris Daniels, there’s a lot of intrigue in a grouping that’s certainly shy on proven commodities.

One area where Neal will likely walk in and make an impact is in the return game. It’s tough to say George Atkinson is going to lose his job as primary kick returner after having a sensational freshman campaign, but the Irish can hopefully turn the punt return job over to Neal and immediately improve a woeful unit.

Neal won’t arrive on campus until summer, where he’ll join the rest of the freshmen in classes, unofficial workouts and strength and conditioning. At five-foot-10, 175-pounds, Neal has some catching up to do to be physically ready to dominate on the field, but if a look at his highlight tape gives any indication, he’s not too far off.

Jaylon Smith goes to Dallas with 34th pick

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07:  Jaylon Smith #9 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates by wearing the hat of team mascot, Lucky The Leprechaun, following their 42-30 win against the Pittsburgh Panthers at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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Jaylon Smith’s nightmare is over.

After watching his football life thrown into chaos with a career-altering knee injury, Smith came off the board after just two picks in the second round, selected by the Dallas Cowboys with the 34th pick. His selection ended the most challenging months of Smith’s young life, and come after cashing in a significant tax-free, loss-of-value insurance policy that’ll end up being just shy of a million dollars.

No, it’s not top-five money like Smith could’ve expected if he didn’t get hurt. But Smith isn’t expected to play in 2016.

And while there was a pre-draft fascination that focused on the doom and gloom more than the time-consuming recovery, it’s worth pointing out that Dallas’ medical evaluation comes from the source—literally. After all, it was the Cowboys team doctor, Dr. Dan Cooper, who performed the surgery to repair Smith’s knee.

Smith joins Ezekiel Elliott with the Cowboys, arguably the two best position players in the draft. While he might not be available in 2016, Smith will be under the supervision of the Cowboys’ medical staff, paid a seven-figure salary to get healthy with the hopes that he’ll be back to his All-American self sooner than later, especially as the nerve in his knee returns to full functionality.

Will Fuller brings his game-changing skills to the Texans offense

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07: Will Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish catches a pass before running into the endzone for a touchdown in the second quarter in front of Avonte Maddox #14 of the Pittsburgh Panthers during the game at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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In all the weeks and months leading up to the NFL Draft, one key tidbit linking Will Fuller to the Houston Texans never seemed to come up. The relationship between Brian Kelly and Bill O’Brien.

The two coaches share a high school alma mater, a friendship that made the due diligence on Notre Dame’s prolific playmaker easy. And it was clear that after all their research, Houston was aggressive in their pursuit of Fuller, trading up to make Notre Dame’s All-American the second receiver off the board, triggered a run at the position.

“He was a guy that we felt strongly about,” Texans general manager Rick Smith told the team’s official website. “We didn’t want to take a chance on not getting him. We were aggressive. We went and made the move.”

That move made Fuller’s decision to leave Notre Dame after three seasons a good one. While it’ll require the Irish to rebuild at a position where Fuller served as one of college football’s best home run hitters, it gives Houston a vertical threat that can extend the top of a defense for a Texans offense that was serious about finding some solutions for a team already in the playoff mix.

Yes, Fuller has work to do. Completing the easy catch is one big area. But for all the pre-draft talk about his limitations, Brian Kelly took on some of the criticism head-on when talking with the Texans’ media reporter.

“Some people have compared him to Teddy Ginn, that’s not fair. He can catch the ball vertically like nobody I’ve coached in 25 years,” Kelly said (a sentiment some hack also laid out). Teddy Ginn is a very good player, but this is a different kind of player. If you throw the ball deep, he’s going to catch the football.”

Fuller is never going to be the biggest receiver on the field. But while most of the banter on his game focused on the negative or his deep ball skills, expect Fuller to find a role not just running deep but unleashed in the screen game as well. After the Texans spent huge on quarterback Brock Osweiler and have invested in fellow Philadelphia native and 2015 third-round pick Jaelen Strong, Fuller wasn’t selected for the future but rather expected to be a day-one piece of the puzzle.

“This will change the speed on offense immediately,” Kelly said. “It was not ‘Hey, let’s wait a couple of years’. It was ‘Let’s go get this right now’ and I think Will will do that for them.”

Hiestand key to Ronnie Stanley’s ascent

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 28:  Ronnie Stanley of Notre Dame holds up a jersey with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell after being picked #6 overall by the Baltimore Ravens during the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University on April 28, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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With Ronnie Stanley ending Notre Dame’s top-ten draft drought (seriously, we are running out of things to complain about), the Irish left tackle became Baltimore’s answer for a cornerstone along their offensive line. And as Ozzie Newsome, John Harbaugh and the rest of the Ravens well-respected staff did their due diligence, credit was heaped onto offensive line coach Harry Hiestand.

“One of my very best friends in coaching is Harry Hiestand,” Harbaugh said. “I talked to Harry a long time…all about Ronnie and he couldn’t speak highly enough about his character, to his intelligence, to his toughness. So you have people you trust in the profession and that goes a long way.”

That opinion of Hiestand is hardly specific to Harbaugh. It’s actually one of the many reasons Brian Kelly hired Hiestand when the Irish and Ed Warinner parted ways. Here’s Notre Dame’s head coach from his initial press release introducing Hiestand as his new line coach.

“When I was searching to fill this position, I asked some of the most respected offensive line coaches in football whom they would recommend,” Kelly said. “And Harry’s name was routinely mentioned as one of the best. His history of developing NFL-caliber offensive linemen speaks for itself, and I know our linemen will learn a lot from him.”

In an era where developing offensive lineman—not just at the college level but for play in the professional ranks—what Hiestand is doing is pretty special. Zack Martin certainly stands above the rest already, a Pro Bowl and All-Pro performer just two years after being a first round draft pick. Chris Watt was selected in the third round by the San Diego Chargers, and expect Nick Martin off the board by the time the evening is over.

 

For as surprising as Hiestand’s effectiveness is on the recruiting trail, maybe it shouldn’t be after you hear the raves that come from those that appreciate his work. That’s especially important as NFL coaches like Pete Carroll bemoan the lack of fundamentals some offensive linemen possess as they prepare for life in the professional ranks.

Here, CoachingSearch.com’s Chris Vannini pulled an interesting snippet from the Super Bowl winning head coach, with the Seahawks taking the drastic approach of converting defensive lineman at the NFL level because they think they’re better suited for the physicality.

“The style of play is different,” Carroll said. “There will be guys that we’re looking at that have never been in a (three-point) stance before. They’ve always been in a two-point stance. There are transitions that have to take place. In the last couple years, we’ve seen pretty strong adjustments by college offensive coordinators to adjust how guys are coming off the ball. They’re not as aggressive and physical-oriented as we like them to be.

“It is different. There is a problem. I looked at a couple guys this week, and I couldn’t find a running play where a guy came off the ball and had to knock a guy off the football. There wasn’t even a play in the game. It’s hard to evaluate what a guy’s gonna be like. We learn to, but it’s not he same as it’s been.”

The good news for Irish fans, especially after having to replace back-to-back first-round left tackles, is that there’s more talent coming through the pipeline. Mike McGlinchey’s move to the left side is already taking root. Left guard Quenton Nelson has earned raves from Kelly. Projected starting right tackle Alex Bars sounds not that far off, either.

In Stanley, the Irish found a talented high school athlete and molded him into a first-round pick. They did so even as he battled injuries that made it hard to dedicate time in the weight room, and bounced him around the offensive line from the right side to the left to find him playing time. Yes, he was a four-star recruit. But as we saw last night, star-rating takes a very large backseat to development.

With Stanley joining rarified air—he and Will Fuller make 66 first-round selections in program history—the Las Vegas native goes up on the wall as an aspiration for present and future Notre Dame lineman.

Just as importantly, he’s another tip of the cap to Hiestand.

 

For more reaction to the NFL Draft, give a listen to the latest episode of Blown Coverage, my podcast with John Walters. 

Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller taken in first round of NFL Draft

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 28:  Ronnie Stanley of Notre Dame holds up a jersey with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell after being picked #6 overall by the Baltimore Ravens during the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University on April 28, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller were taken in the NFL Draft’s first round. Both came off the board on night one, with Stanley the first offensive tackle taken and Fuller the second receiver selected.

Stanley joins the Baltimore Ravens, a key addition to a franchise needed help along the offensive line. He’s Notre Dame’s first Top 10 pick since 1994, ending a draught that’s spanned since Bryant Young was taken by San Francisco.

Fuller will join a Houston Texans offense that just spent major money on quarterback Brock Osweiler and running back Lamar Miller. To back up that investment, the Texans added college football’s most dangerous deep threat, trading up to spot No. 21 to pair Fuller with DeAndre Hopkins on the outside.

Linebacker Jaylon Smith was not selected in the first round. Both he and Myles Jack, widely considered to be Top 10 talents, slid down the board because of knee injuries. (Both also have loss-of-value insurance policies, cushioning that blow.)

The draft continues tomorrow with rounds two and three. Smith should be selected then, along with Sheldon Day, Nick Martin, and potentially C.J. Prosise.