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With spotlight away, Neal needs to make strides

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For Notre Dame fans, landing elite recruit Davonte Neal was a welcome boost to recruiting. Considered one of the best athletes in the country, Neal could be the type of plug-and-play guy that could help ease the loss of another player that made an immediate impact at the wide receiver position: Michael Floyd.

But the enthusiasm that surrounded Neal also meant Irish fans had to put on blinders. Because only a true Domer could look past some of the antics that came with reeling in the two-time Arizona player of the year.

Viewed by itself, you can start to rationalize the circus that took place at Kyrene de la Esperanza, when Neal left 600 elementary students — not to mention dozens of media members and a Fox Sports Arizona’s live web-broadcast — at the altar, making a last minute decision to delay the press conference he himself called.

The family said little about the delay, though his father said a family emergency necessitated the delay. And while Neal did the mature thing and apologized to the students he was supposed to be inspiring, the family originally asked for the broadcast crew to return to the grade school so the announcement — hours later than originally planned — could still receive the same fanfare. The Fox Sports broadcast crew declined the invitation.

This wasn’t the first event that had football fans bristling. The Neal family, led by Davonte’s father Luke, have seen their share of detractors grow as the recruiting process dragged on and on. Supporters can rightfully point out that taking your time and picking your college is a right every high school senior should enjoy, especially after Davonte delayed the beginning of his recruitment so he could focus on football. But that focus on football — something that’s consistently been a part of the Neal family’s dynamic — hasn’t always translated to a successful career at Notre Dame.

The high profile transfer of Davonte earlier in the week isn’t necessarily a shocking decision. The same thing happened after Neal’s sophomore season at Cesar Chavez high school, when Davonte left to join the powerhouse Chaparral program. On the football field, the decision was undoubtedly a good one, with the Firebirds completing a rare three-peat state championship. But with football gone, Neal departed to Phoenix Central high school, displaying an unusual detachment from one-half of the tenants of a student-athlete.

Again, to the Neal’s credit, there is solid rationale being displayed by the family. When discussing the move with Pete Sampson of Irish Illustrated, Luke Neal said the move was designed to clear away distractions and help Davonte focus on the road ahead.

“That’s exactly what this is, an opportunity to focus on school with no distractions,” Luke Neal told Irish Illustrated. “It’s just ‘hi’ and ‘bye’ now at the school. He can just go to class, come home, work out. That’s it.”

There’s no doubt that the distractions that come with being an elite recruit have grown exponentially as the recruiting machine has taken over. But with the spotlight past Neal and his decision, it’s time for Davonte to prove that the nontraditional path he took through recruiting proved to be more the anomaly than his circuitous path through high school.

Brian Kelly has spent much of his first two years working on a culture that focused too much on attaining the next step. Whether it was Charlie Weis using his Super Bowl rings to promote his NFL pedigree or top-end players like Jimmy Clausen, Golden Tate, and Kyle Rudolph leaving early for the NFL when they weren’t  locks to go in the draft’s first round, the Irish football program seemed to lose track of the sense that the proverbial name on the back of the jersey wasn’t as important as the name on the front. To that point, signing Neal might be the biggest risk Kelly has taken as he’s pushed to make the collective goal winning at Notre Dame, not what awaits on future Sundays, an allure that was too much for Clausen, Tate and Rudolph.

Of course, at Notre Dame there’s no place on either side of the jersey for names, a symbol that the traditional blue and gold and the interlocking ND say everything needed. After having all-eyes on him for much of his high school career, maybe that anonymity will do Neal some good.

Five Irish players sign UFA contracts

Matthias Farley
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Notre Dame had seven players selected in the 2016 NFL Draft, trailing only Ohio State, Clemson and UCLA on the weekend tally. But after the draft finished, the Irish had five more players get their shot at playing on Sundays.

Chris Brown signed with the Dallas Cowboys. Romeo Okwara will begin his career with the New York Giants. Matthias Farley and Amir Carlisle signed contracts with the Arizona Cardinal. Elijah Shumate agreed to a contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

After missing two seasons, Ishaq Williams will be at Giants rookie camp next weekend as well, working as a tryout player. Expect Jarrett Grace to receive similar opportunities.

Count me among those that thought both Brown and Okwara would hear their names called. Brown’s senior season, not to mention his intriguing measureables, had some projecting him as early as the fifth round.

Okwara, still 20 years old and fresh off leading Notre Dame in sacks in back-to-back seasons, intrigued a lot of teams with his ability to play both defensive end and outside linebacker. He’ll get a chance to make the Giants—the team didn’t draft a defensive end after selecting just one last year, and they’re in desperate need of pass rushers.

Both Shumate and Farley feel like contenders to earn a spot on rosters, both because of their versatility and special teams skills. Shumate played nickel back as a freshman and improved greatly at safety during 2015. Farley bounced around everywhere and was Notre Dame’s special teams captain.

Carlisle might fit a similar mold. He played running back, receiver and returned kicks and punts throughout his college career. With a 4.4 during Notre Dame’s Pro Day, he likely showed the Cardinals enough to take a shot, and now he’ll join an offense with Michael Floyd and Troy Niklas.

 

Robertson picks Cal over Notre Dame, UGA

Demetris Robertson
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Demetris Robertson‘s decision wasn’t trending in Notre Dame’s direction. But those that expected the Savannah star athlete to pick the in-state Bulldogs were in for a surprise when Robertson chose Cal on Sunday afternoon.

Notre Dame’s pursuit of the five-star athlete, recruited to play outside receiver and hopefully replace Will Fuller, likely ended Sunday afternoon with Robertson making the surprise decision to take his substantial talents to Berkeley. And give credit to Robertson for doing what he said all along—picking a school that’ll give him the chance to earn an exceptional education and likely contribute from Day One.

“I am excited to take my talents to the University of California, Berkeley. The first reason is that the education was a big part of my decision. I wanted to keep that foundation,” Robertson said, per CFT. “When I went there, it felt like home. Me and the coaching staff have a great relationship. That’s where I felt were the best of all things for me.”

Adding one final twist in all of this is that Robertson has no letter-of-intent to sign. Because he’s blown three months through Signing Day, Robertson merely enrolls at a college when the time comes. That means until then, Kirby Smart and the Georgia staff will continue to sell Robertson on staying home and helping the Dawgs rebuild. Smart visited with Robertson Saturday night and had multiple assistant coaches at his track meet this weekend.

Summer school begins in June for Notre Dame. Their freshman receiving class looks complete with early enrollee Kevin Stepherson and soon-to-arrive pass-catchers Javon McKinley and Chase Claypool.

Sheldon Day drafted in 4th round by Jaguars

North Carolina v Notre Dame
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Former Notre Dame captain Sheldon Day didn’t have to wait long on Saturday to hear his name called. The Indianapolis native, All-American, and the Irish’s two-time defensive lineman of the year was pick number 103, the fourth pick of the fourth round on Saturday afternoon.

Day was the seventh Irish player drafted, following first rounders Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller, second round selections Jaylon Smith and Nick Martin, and third rounders KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise.

Day has a chance to contribute as he joins the 24th-ranked defense in the league. Joining a draft class heavy on defensive players—Jalen Ramsey, Myles Jack and Yannick Ngakoue already picked ahead of him—the front seven will also include last year’s No. 3 overall pick Dante Fowler, who missed the entire season with a knee injury.

Scouted by the Jaguars at the Senior Bowl, Day doesn’t necessarily have the size to be a traditional defensive tackle. But under Gus Bradley’s attacking system (Bradley coordinated the Seahawks defense for four seasons), Day will find a niche and a role in a young defense that’s seen a heavy investment the past two years.

Smith, Martin, Russell and Prosise all drafted Friday night

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - SEPTEMBER 13: William Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Nick Martin #72 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrate a touchdown during the game against the Purdue Boilermakers at Lucas Oil Stadium on September 13, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
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Jaylon Smith, Nick Martin, KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise were all selected on Friday, with four Irish teammates taken on the second night of the NFL Draft. As mentioned, Smith came off the board at pick 34, with the Cowboys gambling on the injured knee of the Butkus Award winner. Nick Martin was selected at pick 50, joining former teammate Will Fuller in Houston.

The third round saw Russell and Prosise come off the board, with Kansas City jumping on the confident cornerback and the Seahawks taking Notre Dame’s breakout running back. It capped off a huge night for the Irish with Sheldon Day, one of the more productive football players in college football, still on the board for teams to pick.

Here’s a smattering of instant reactions from the immediate aftermath.