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.

Rochell drafted in 7th round; three other former Notre Dame players sign

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All the unnecessary draft conversation may have centered on DeShone Kizer, but the quarterback was not the only former Notre Dame player watching this weekend’s NFL Draft with rapt attention. Aside from Kizer, only Isaac Rochell heard his name called. The San Diego Chargers picked the defensive lineman in the seventh round Saturday with the 225th overall pick.

Rochell finished his Irish career with appearance in 49 of 51 possible games and 167 tackles, including 22 for loss and 4.5 sacks. In 2016, he recorded 55 tackles, good for sixth on the team, with seven for loss.

By the end of the evening, three more former Notre Dame starters had signed on with NFL teams as undrafted free agents. It should be noted, many argue the route available for undrafted free agents is preferable to that of late-round picks. An undrafted free agent can choose which of a handful of situations is preferable to him for whatever reason. A late-round pick does not have that luxury, but still makes a comparable salary.

Linebacker James Onwualu opted to join Rochell with the Chargers. Defensive lineman Jarron Jones signed with the New York Giants. Cornerback Cole Luke latched on with the Carolina Panthers.

Onwualu began his Irish career as a receiver before moving to linebacker before his sophomore season. He finished his career with 143 tackles, including 75 in 2016 with 11.5 for loss and three sacks. His 75 tackles finished behind only now-rising senior linebackers Nyles Morgan’s 94 and Drue Tranquill’s 79.

Battling injuries throughout his Notre Dame career, Jones made 105 tackles with 45 in 2016. His 11 tackles for loss were outdone only by the aforementioned Onwualu total.

Luke made 152 tackles in his Irish career, including 48 last season, and eight interceptions.

Three more players from past years’ Irish rosters could yet find an NFL home—long snapper Scott Daly, defensive lineman-turned-tight end Chase Hounshell and running back Tarean Folston. If any or all do not sign, they can still join teams for rookie mini-camps in hopes of making a positive impression.

RELATED READING: Browns pick former Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer 20th in second round

Browns pick former Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer 20th in second round

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After months of pointless chatter and a night spent waiting, DeShone Kizer’s NFL Draft experience ended Friday night when the Cleveland Browns drafted the former Notre Dame quarterback with the 20th pick in the second round, the No. 52 overall selection.

Originally from Toledo, Ohio, Kizer will have the opportunity to earn the starting job for the franchise less than two hours from his hometown. The Browns trotted out five different quarterbacks in 2016, only two of which remain with the team. Rookie Cody Kessler played in nine games, throwing for 1,380 yards and six touchdowns with only one interception while fellow rookie Kevin Hogan threw for 104 yards and two interceptions in four games.

The Browns have since added Brock Osweiler in a trade with the Houston Texans, though that trade was largely-viewed as a cash-for-picks swap, with the Browns “paying” for picks by taking on Osweiler’s contract in which he is owed $47 million over the next three seasons, including $16 million this season.

A year ago, the No. 52 pick (linebacker Deion Jones to the Atlanta Falcons) received a four-year, $4.546 million contract with a $1.506 million signing bonus.

Hall of fame running back and Browns legend Jim Brown announced the selection of Kizer at the draft festivities.

Speculation a year ago pegged Kizer as an early first-round pick. As the draft approached, projections of his slot varied widely, many including a second-round status. Despite first-round theatrics leading to three quarterbacks going in the first 12 picks Thursday night, Kizer had to wait another day before learning where he will start his NFL career. (more…)

Friday at 4: ‘Attention to detail’ includes Notre Dame Stadium

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Brian Kelly proselytized multiple abstract concepts this spring. By the end of the 15 practices and subsequent media sessions, even the Irish coach knew some of his references to “grit” would be met by muted eye rolls from the press. If a questioner included the word in their query, Kelly reacted with tongue-in-cheek approval, “You’ve been listening.”

In his press conference the day before spring practices commenced, Kelly used the phrase “attention to detail” six separate times. While he was referring to his players on the football field, Kelly could have also been discussing the ongoing—but supposedly close to finished—construction at Notre Dame Stadium known as Campus Crossroads.

The three buildings around the exterior of the Stadium, the added suites and the video board above the south end zone have garnered the headlines. On a macro level, those are the changes of note. On a micro level, however, other details have trickled into the public stream of knowledge as the work nears its conclusion.

Over the weekend—and now reignited by a column from the South Bend Tribune’s Mike Vorel—the image of the newly-added visitors’ tunnel delighted Irish fans. Vorel likens the narrow entry to “the spot they’d stash the gladiators before feeding them to starving tigers in The Coliseum.” Assuredly, Vorel is going for dramatic effect, and it must work considering its citation here, but even a realistic view of the tunnel’s effects bodes well.

If nothing else, Notre Dame players should enjoy something of a psychological boost when racing out of their adult-sized tunnel and seeing their opponent trickle out of a tunnel seemingly-sized for ants. (Yes, the north end zone tunnel is at least three times bigger than the visitors’ tunnel.)

That pale, slanted staircase holds none of the luxuries of the home team’s entrance, something Kelly went out of his way to praise after using it in Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. (more…)

Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers

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You want complete honesty? The linebacker version of this series includes no revelations, no unexpected developments, no surprising spring performances. There is an allusion to a position switch, sure, but this piece became much simpler with the rover being discussed separately Thursday.

The idea was to capitalize on the NFL Draft for the morning and let the linebackers slip by in the afternoon, noticed only by those twiddling their thumbs through the last hours of the work week. Alas, former Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer was not drafted in the first round and a brief recap of his draft destination will need to await at least another day. Programming note: The NFL Draft reconvenes tonight (Friday) at 7 p.m. ET. The Green Bay Packers are on the clock. They will not draft a quarterback.

But back to the linebackers. This piece may have been intended to slip by with little fanfare, but that is not indicative of the Irish linebackers. Where Notre Dame was is so similar to where Notre Dame is simply because two experienced senior captains lead the way at linebacker.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
Aside from questions about defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s rover position, only one question stood out about this linebacker group: Who would start alongside senior Nyles Morgan: senior Greer Martini or junior Te’von Coney?

A year ago Coney recorded the fourth-most tackles on the team with 62. Martini finished fifth with 55, and his seven tackles for loss, including three sacks, dwarfed Coney’s 1.5. Yet Coney technically started nine games compared to Martini’s four.

RELATED READING: Two days until spring practice: A look at the linebackers

With the rover often lining up essentially as a linebacker, there would only be space for one of Martini or Coney in most formations.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
In his first season with the Irish, Elko will have quite a luxury in referring to Coney as a backup linebacker. In some respects, that designation was inevitable as soon as Martini was named a captain. Nonetheless, Coney will see plenty of playing time.

The two captains—along with fellow captain, senior Drue Tranquill at rover—will be counted on throughout the summer and fall camp to continue the defense’s growth in Elko’s system. Elko said he installed “close to 50 percent” of his entire defense throughout spring practice. The linebackers must deal with the most difficult aspects of that learning.

“There’s been a noticeable improvement in terms of this starting to look like the defense we want this to look like as spring has gone on,” Elko said a week ago. “… Linebacker probably more than any other position, linebacker and safety, where the scheme takes some time to get used to, how you see it, how you fit it, how you feel it. Those guys have gotten better with that which has then allowed them to play faster as the spring has moved on.”

Sophomore Jonathan Jones will likely provide any further depth that may be needed in 2017, unless either of the incoming freshmen, David Adams and Drew White, excel from the outset. Irish coach Brian Kelly indicated sophomore Jamir Jones (no relation to Jonathan, but is former Notre Dame defensive lineman Jarron Jones’ brother) may be destined for time on the defensive line, in large part to Jones’s continued growth. Junior Josh Barajas let the spring come and go without mandating he be involved in these conversations, which may as well count as removing himself from the conversation in most regards.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame Was, Is & Could Be: Rover