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Projecting Neal’s role in the Irish offense

Feb 22, 2012, 6:00 PM EDT

Davonte Neal

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’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.

  1. papadec - Feb 22, 2012 at 6:12 PM

    His role will be to leap tall buildings…………………

  2. 9irish - Feb 22, 2012 at 7:20 PM

    Might work out pretty well (who knows). It would be nice to have another Rocket around, tormenting people.

  3. domer77blowsgoats - Feb 22, 2012 at 7:31 PM

    Projecting Nude’s Role in Inside the Irish:

    1. Domer bashing – jealously can be ugly
    2. 18 year old bashing
    3. horrendous recruiting predictions
    4. even more horrendous recruiting plagiarizing
    5. constant pessimism
    6. contradictory statements
    7. over-hyping QBs based on YouTube videos

    Gonna be another substantive posting year!!! GO IRISH!!

    • andy44teg - Feb 22, 2012 at 8:11 PM

      Very insightful post about NOTRE DAME FOOTBALL…at least Nudeman brings something worth discussion to the table…why don’t you, uaw, nudemon, and dickasman start your own blog called “the nothing to offer notre dame football discussion board” and leave this one to sane people who like to discuss things like an adult….

      • nudeman - Feb 22, 2012 at 8:44 PM

        He’s a weird guy andy. Like trying to reason with a rock. Just not worth the effort.

    • nudeman - Feb 22, 2012 at 8:42 PM

      I mean … goat. Sorry. Guess you switched PCs tonight

      Your stuff is very tired. You offer nothing here except your strange fascination with me. Odd.

      What did you (in whichever ID you were using at the time) predict on recruiting? Neal? Armstead? Kiel? The Bowl Game?

      Oh … forgot. You don’t talk ND football. Sorry.


      • domer77blowsgoats - Feb 23, 2012 at 11:40 AM

        I cant believe I have to explain this again to your oh so knowledgeable existence:

        I created this handle to rip on domer77 years ago – but we have since settled our differences and have found a new, common enemy and that lucky gentlement is Nude

        I comment plenty on ND FOOTBALL – thanks for joinging the blog Andy and responding based on your very limited sample size!!

        I just have no desire to live and die based on the minute to minute conversations had in the shower at the gym with some recruits Dad’s cousin’s uncle’s nephew or pronounce it’s the year of any untested, unproven quarterback solely based on selected highlight tapes posted on youtube.

        I don’t plagairize so I guess my comments are also limited

        So for some ND football talk, 2012 prediction:
        1. quarterback a complete mess
        2. defense front 7 will keep it close in most games
        3. medicore corner play will lose 2 for us
        4. Losses vs. UM, OU, USC with at least one courtesy heartbreak

        Another rebuilding year looking to a breakout in 2013 and 2014

      • nudeman - Feb 23, 2012 at 1:14 PM

        Well goat, I’ll give you credit there.
        But it’s interesting that you initially created your handle to “rip on” someone
        Why not from here on just confine the talk to football?

        As far as your predictions:
        1. QB: Agree, but only to a point.
        But the trend in the right direction. More talent this year than anytime since Clausen left.
        But Golson or AH will make some rookie mistakes that will piss us off. That’s life.
        2. Agree.
        3. Can’t be worse than last year.
        Trend upward here with Tee and Davonte if they put him there.
        4. I see them losing 3 regular season games, but not to UM. Payback time for last year’s heartbreaker. And 3 is the max I see them losing. Could be 1 or 2.

        Last comment, and then maybe you and I can bury the hatchet too: I don’t “plagiarize”. Any time I cut and paste from somewhere else, I do so with attribution. Never claimed someone else’s comments or insight or writing as my own. If it’s ever happened with me, that’s been a simple mistake.
        And I never said Kiel should start as you’ve also claimed. Unless he’s lights out magnificent in the Spring and Fall, he’s better off holding a clipboard

      • bernhtp - Feb 23, 2012 at 5:32 PM

        1. QB might not be great, but it will be better than last year. The worst case (and an extremely unlikely one) is that we have a more experienced Tommy Rees behind center. Far more likely we have a semi-experienced Hendrix, an electric Golson, or an up and coming Kiel at the job. In any event, I see improvement.

        2. Agree. Front 7 will be really good – better than last year – assuming key personnel like Te’o stay healthy.

        3. Corners lose experience and gain some athleticism with Tee. Jackson will probably play the other side unless Diaco talks Kelly into devoting Davonte to the task. Corner play may be spotty due to inexperience, but I don’t see a repeat of the UM debacle last year. I also expect to GET more turnovers. The loss of Smith may be harder to replace.

        4. We lose 2/3 of UM, OU, USC and one more for a 9-3.

        I expect a much improved team.

      • nudeman - Feb 23, 2012 at 6:57 PM

        The chance of Tommy starting is theoretical only. There is zero practical chance that happens.

        I don’t see why we will miss Smith. Good guy, decent against the run and a leader and all that. But the man intercepted exactly ZERO passes last year. Beyond that awful stat, I always saw him enter the picture right after his man had hauled in a catch for a 1st down.

        Not saying he’s a bum, but I don’t see how his loss is a huge deal. Anyone else can play as well as that, and who knows?
        Maybe even intercept a pass.

      • bernhtp - Feb 23, 2012 at 7:46 PM

        Nude: Smith was really good, and not only against the run and for leadership. Offenses kept the ball away from him on purpose. NFL scouts notice this and he will be rewarded with a good draft position.

  4. andy44teg - Feb 22, 2012 at 8:02 PM

    When’s the season start??? Sonuvab**ch! Let’s get it goin already!!!

  5. jerseyshorendfan1 - Feb 22, 2012 at 8:28 PM

    Hey Davonte, I might’ve said some things, on a previous post, that weren’t entirely flattering to you. You have to realize, I was reacting in the heat of the moment. I saw those little kids in Arizona, eyes wide with hope, left stranded on their multi-purpose room floor, waiting for their hero to arrive. Anyway, I heard that you showed up later and personally apologized to each class. So there’s really no need to go back and read those old posts, is there buddy? So we’re cool, right? I promise, if you develop a decent return game, I’ll never say another unflattering thing about you. Welcome to ND.

    • mbutch6 - Feb 23, 2012 at 10:21 AM

      Maybe you shouldn’t write something down in the heat of the moment for the world to see? Just a thought.

    • nudeman - Feb 23, 2012 at 10:25 AM

      I understand the sentiment here, but honestly, the chance that Davonte Neal – or any recruit – is reading our comments is not strong. Nice gesture though on your part.

      • jerseyshorendfan1 - Feb 23, 2012 at 11:32 AM

        Hey relax guys. The post was tongue in cheek. I know he’s not reading this. It was intended to point out that some people will jump all over these kids when they don’t even know the whole story. And butch, thanks for the helpful words, they are something I now intend to live by….maybe there should be an ABC after school special on this point.

  6. jmfinsd - Feb 22, 2012 at 10:22 PM

    WOW! I just watched his 11 minute highlite film. This kid’s got SPEED. I realize some of his cut-back-across-the-field moves might not work at the next level against guys bigger, stronger, faster than his high school opponents, but he can flat out fly and make people miss. Finishes, too. Adds excitement to bubble screens – a BK favorite to get the ball in the hands of playmakers. Instant huge upgrade to punt returns (sorry Goodie), if the scheme includes blocking and setting up a return rather than have 5 guys stand 3 yards deep in the offensive backfield to protect against a fake. Pretty impressive chucking of receivers at line on defense, too, even if only selected plays shown. Not getting too excited yet, but excited nonetheless. Almost agree with Andy and say let’s get going.

  7. leftcoastirishfan - Feb 22, 2012 at 10:23 PM

    Golson, Neal, Carlisle, this is gettin good

  8. bernhtp - Feb 22, 2012 at 10:57 PM

    Davontre doesn’t quite have Rocket speed (who does?), but his lateral quickness/cutting is really impressive. Great balance, ability to run low, quickness in all directions, great vision, great ball skills, and toughness.

    • nudeman - Feb 23, 2012 at 10:22 AM

      I think the place for him is CB. Could probably start immediately, could return punts. and perhaps make an occasional cameo on offense.

      ND is not “loaded” at slot receiver, but they’re actually better than decent. Don’t forget about Kevarie Russell; he was a huge 4 star get out of the Northwest. Also Farley from last year’s class; GA III if they want to put him there, and good old Robby Toma.

      So the point is that Neal, while probably the most talented, is almost something of a luxury at slot. Could plug an immediate hole at CB.

      • bernhtp - Feb 23, 2012 at 11:34 AM

        I agree that he could help tremendously at corner, but after looking at his highlight video, I just don’t see how you don’t put the ball into his hands at every possible opportunity. Line him up in the slot, wide, and in the backfield, just as we did with Rocket. Of course, have him return punts and put him across the field from GA3 for kick returns.

      • nudeman - Feb 23, 2012 at 12:19 PM

        I still have nightmares of Gray and Blanton facing the receiver as he hauls in a pass for 29 yards. Or the inexplicable meltdown in the last 20 sec vs. UM. Or the USC receiver blowing past Lo Wood like he was a statue, for a crucial TD.

        I agree: Tough to NOT want to get him the ball on nearly every play.
        But don’t forget about K Russell who was also a 4 star recruit, and GA III.
        Those guys can play too.

        Nice to be able to have this debate.

      • trentnd - Feb 23, 2012 at 12:23 PM

        It would be amazing to see Theo Riddick, GAIII, KeiVarae Russell & Davonte Neal as hybrid slot receiver/RBs. Get all the playmakers on the field! The potential is definitely generating excitement…

        Go Irish.

  9. runners00 - Feb 23, 2012 at 12:26 PM

    Interesting stuff on Davonte. He looks like a true playmaker.

    One thing this group has to keep in mind is that it’s difficult to win without a proven quarterback. Golson may have been an amazing high school quarterback but playing against guys that go the NFL — guys like those who play at Oklahoma or Miami or Southern Cal — is a much different task. Same is true with Kiel. It’s very difficult to win with a quarterback who has no college experience (and I think we’re done with Tommy “the game comes easy for him” Rees).

    So, we have a strong defensive front seven. They should keep us in every game. And we have decent receivers, though losing Floyd will be costly. We have a new offensive coordinator and we’ll have a new quarterback. And we’re losing a strong back in Jonas Gray.

    I haven’t looked at our opponents very closely but I have to think that with games at Oklahoma and Michigan State and some home games against Michigan and Stanford, things will be tough again. It’s critical to land guys like Neal because they’re really talented and they’re going to be in South Bend for four years. But it doesn’t guarantee success. Having an efficient quarterback and running back and defense usually translates into success. It’s too early to predict but I can’t say I am overly optimistic.

  10. bernhtp - Feb 23, 2012 at 12:38 PM

    Question: does anyone have any insight on why Neal was rates so much more highly by ESPN than Rivals or Scout? Rivals had him at #107 and ESPN at #8. Everyone has their difference of opinion, but usually not this big. How much of this is due to the position he was rated in? He had three: WR, DB and ATH. Keith?

    • mmanor01 - Feb 23, 2012 at 2:06 PM

      ESPN is the only one that matters. Does Scout or Rivals broadcast any of our games? Nope and NBC will go with the highest rankings.

      • bernhtp - Feb 23, 2012 at 5:34 PM

        Who covers games has nothing to do with recruiting analysis. Again, why the huge disparity in Neal’s ratings? Is it just the different position for which he is graded/projected?

  11. gpatton90 - Feb 23, 2012 at 2:46 PM

    I think a lot of posters are losing perspective and are already setting themsleves up for disappointment. runners00 is right.

    Breaking in a new quarterback against next year’s schedule is going to result in another non-BCS season. That doesn’t mean progress won’t be made. We could be better than this year but with an equal record. I’ll take it if Kelly develops one of the QBs, setting us up for something potentially special in ’13.

    I can’t see ND beating Oklahoma or USC on the road. We should win the three games in between those (Pitt, BC, Wake). We should win the first two games (Navy, Purdue). That leaves games 3-7, a very difficult slate (Mich St., Mich, Miami, Standford, BYU), with a quarterback and two new cornerbacks that will have only 2 career starts under their belts (I’m ignoring the possibility the TR could possibly be given the starting nod again). Reasonably we could win 3 of 5, but could see us losing 3 of 5 just the same.

    As long as we see progression of the QB and offense, I would still see it as a successful season.

    3 losses or less and we will have turned the corner sooner than expected.

    • nudeman - Feb 23, 2012 at 3:53 PM

      I’m VERY excited about ND football going forward.

      There will be confounding rookie mistakes at QB, but there have been mistakes from an experienced player the last 2 years, and that’s worse, especially when you just KNOW the guy is getting no better.

      It is undeniable is that the talent level is WAY up, across the board from 3 years ago. And don’t underestimate the impact of Chuck Martin taking over the offense.

      Even if he does NOTHING ELSE except CUT THE TURNOVERS IN HALF, they’ll be much better.

      • jrct2450yahoo - Feb 24, 2012 at 9:44 AM

        I hate to be negative but until the coaching staff turns the corner on player development any BCS talk is just wishful thinking. With the schedule this year and the uncertainty at QB I can easily see 7 and 5. Yes, this is a promising recruiting class but I seem to remember the same positive comments last year and we all know how that turned out.

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