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Freshman Focus: Davonte Neal

May 31, 2012, 2:23 PM EDT

Davonte Neal Chaparral

(The fourth in a multi-part series profiling select members of the incoming class of 2012. The more, see wide receiver Chris Brown, safety Elijah Shumate, and defensive lineman Jarron Jones.)

There should have been more celebrating by ND Nation when Davonte Neal, the player of the year in Arizona, and the No. 8 player in the country according to ESPN, committed to the Irish. But Neal’s signing day circus took some air out of the Irish sails, after he airmailed his own press conference and rumors swirled about Neal and his family being in disagreement over where he was going to play, with some reporting that the Irish weren’t Davonte’s first choice.

Yet after a season where just about every 50/50 break went against the Irish, Neal signed on the dotted line and the Irish got one of the best two-way athletes in the country. At 5-foot-10, 180-pounds, Neal has lightning quick speed and could make an immediate impact in all three facets of the game: a dynamic slot receiver, a shutdown cornerback, and a game-breaking return man.

Let’s take a closer look at what Neal will be bringing to South Bend in the next two weeks.

The Skinny: Neal was arguably the most coveted skill player in the Southwest, a terrific football player with offers from some of the best programs in college football, including LSU, Arkansas, Florida State, Ohio State, Oklahoma and USC. He should immediately help a struggling Irish punt return game and compete for time in the slot, where Robby Toma’s solid-but-not-spectacular play will get him starting reps. With the loss of Tee Shepard, Neal could also step in at cornerback, a position he was recruited at as well.

How Ready is he? Very ready it would seem. Of the non-early entry players, Neal is probably the closest to college ready, especially with the training work he’s been doing in preparation for Notre Dame. Depending on how the Irish split reps at the slot, Neal should be in the rotation almost immediately.

Best Case Scenario: The Irish might have one of the most dynamic offensive weapons in the freshman class. He’ll immediately fix the fair catch woes that have plagued the Irish in the punt return game, and he’ll be the explosive slot player the Irish thought they had in Theo Riddick. It may be way too optimistic (but that’s what best case scenarios are for, right?) but Neal could end up the starting slot receiver by season’s end. He also could end up moonlighting as a nickel cornerback, giving the Irish a presence on both sides of the ball.

Worst Case Scenario: Neal still needs to learn the Irish playbook, slowing him down a few steps while he’s thinking. Regardless of how good a punt returner a prospect is in high school, once he’s returning them in front of 80,000 fans, it’s a different game. Neal might one day end up returning kicks, but Brian Kelly still trusts John Goodman to simply retain the ball. At 5-foot-10 and only 180-pounds, Neal might take some time physically to get ready to play, relegated to bit-role duty during his first season with the Irish. (The uber-worst scenario is that Neal continues his transfer trend, something he did shortly after signing day when he left Chaparral High School for Phoenix’s Central High.)

What Should Make People Happy: Neal contributes on special teams, makes a few big plays in the passing game, and pushes his way into the receiving rotation. The secondary plays well enough that they don’t need Neal, and he’s a legitimate option for Chuck Martin’s offense.

How Badly Do the Irish Need Him? On a scale of 1-10, Neal is probably 8, when you consider both Theo Riddick and Robby Toma are exiting, with Cierre Wood potentially on his way out after this year, too.

One Tidbit for the Road: Neal and first round draft pick Michael Floyd connected after Floyd was taken by Neal’s hometown Arizona Cardinals. Neal hopes to wear the No. 3 jersey as a tribute to Floyd, but equipment manager Ryan Grooms has his hands full trying to sort that mess out, as the jersey is already assigned to running back Amir Carlisle.

  1. bernhtp - May 31, 2012 at 2:47 PM

    The RB/slot positions are very crowded with talent right now with Wood, Riddick, Atkinson, Carlisle, Toma, Farley, and the freshmen Neal, Mahone and Russell.

    Keith: it would be great to get your analysis on this (RB/slot) competition and the likely distribution of snaps in the fall. I think it’s the most interesting competition other than QB.

    Neal would have far less competition at corner, but it’s unclear if that’s what he wants or coaches believe is best. Is he also being considered for any of the other WR positions (other than slot)?

    • nudeman - May 31, 2012 at 4:40 PM

      I second this suggestion. It was previously a topic of speculation here as to just how many carries the 3rd RB (GAIII?) and 4th RB (AC?) will get. Prister and Sampson researched this a while back and the most carries any 3rd RB got was Hughes a couple years back with something like 35-40. On Mahone, I’m sort of assuming he’ll do a lot of watching and scout team work.

      The same question could be asked about balls thrown to the slot receiver. Lots of talent there with Toma (who knows the O but is less gifted than the rest), Russell, Neal, and Riddick when he lines up there.

      BTW bern, I think Farley was moved to D this Spring.

    • joeschu - Jun 2, 2012 at 9:25 AM

      Agree… it would be fun to find a stat/film junkie to look at situational touches for the RB and slot positions. Breaking down carries, screens, slants, etc… would be very telling. I’d love to see multi-back sets this year. If you can spring someone like Riddick or Neal on a wheel down the sideline, that “explosive Brian Kelly offense” may finally show up.

  2. ravenseattheirownpoop - May 31, 2012 at 3:52 PM

    Keep him on offense!! We need explosive players there!! Too small for cb.

  3. pjm79nd - Jun 1, 2012 at 8:27 AM

    I don’t know how everyone else feels, but I am sick and tired of reading about “the need to learn the playbook” as an excuse for talented players not seeing the field. Either the players must work harder to learn the plays, or Kelly must structure the offense so the playbook is not an impediment to the talent at his disposal. This excuse has been made even for players with a year of experience. Enough already.

    • nudeman - Jun 1, 2012 at 10:35 AM

      I agree, but only to an extent.

      Like to a 1000000% extent

      This has been the single biggest excuse for foisting Tommy Rees on us.
      For God sake, cut the damn playbook in half.
      Then for each game, cut it in half again.

      And get the most talented guys on the field, as pjm says.

    • kleinick - Jun 1, 2012 at 5:32 PM

      Totally agree! There are true freshman that tear it up every year in CFB….if this kid is a top 10 recruit, he should be one of them.

  4. audomer - Jun 1, 2012 at 8:40 AM

    Sadly, If Davonte is returning punts this year. All he has to do is catch the ball and fall FORWARD and he’d triple our return yards…….ugh

    • joeschu - Jun 2, 2012 at 9:23 AM

      If the PR unit blocks like they did last year, it won’t matter who is back there. They didn’t bother blocking anyone last year, yet the guy staring down 9 guys coming at him at full speed is getting all the blame.

  5. atw34 - Jun 2, 2012 at 7:18 PM

    The learning the play book issue is not just about leearning the plays. It’s about recognizing the defense as that determines each players responsibility. It changes as a defense shifts and changes formation. You may break the huddle being responsible for the middle linebacker if he blitzes, but if the defense shifts, do does your responsibility. That is what a young player has trouble with. The same thing goes for slot receivers too. The route they run is predicated on the defense.

    So, its not about Kelly’s offense being too difficult, its about learning the opposing teams defense. Any good defensive coordinator knows this and plays to a freshmen/inexperienced players weakness.

    Therefore a good offensive coach(Kelly) has to pick and choose when he can get a young player good reps. You don’t want a rookie/freshmen confidence to get shaken because he’s not being successful out there!

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