Davonte Neal Chaparral

Freshman Focus: Davonte Neal


(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.

Evaluating VanGorder’s scheme against the option

ANNAPOLIS, MD - SEPTEMBER 19:  Keenan Reynolds #19 of the Navy Midshipmen rushes for his fifth touchdown in the fourth quarter against the East Carolina Pirates during their 45-21 win on September 19, 2015 in Annapolis, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Notre Dame’s ability to slow down Georgia Tech’s vaunted option attack served as one of the high points to the Irish’s early season success. After spending a considerable amount of offseason energy towards attacking the option and learning more, watching the Irish hold the Yellow Jackets in check was a huge victory for Brian VanGorder, Bob Elliott and the rest of Notre Dame’s staff.

But it was only half the battle.

This weekend, Keenan Reynolds and Navy’s veteran offense come to town looking to wreak some havoc on a defense that’s struggled to slow it down. And after getting a look at some of the new tricks the Irish had in store for Paul Johnson, Ken Niumatalolo and his offensive coaches have likely started plotting their counterpunches days in advance.

How did Notre Dame’s defense slow down Georgia Tech? Brian Kelly credited an aggressive game plan and continually changing looks. So while some were quick to wonder whether Notre Dame’s scheme changes were the biggest piece of the puzzle, it’s interesting to see how the Irish’s strategic decisions looked from the perspective of an option expert.

Over at “The Birddog” blog, Michael James utilizes his spread option expertise and takes a look at how the Irish defended Georgia Tech. His conclusion:

Did the Irish finally figure out the magic formula that will kill this gimmick high school offense for good?

Not exactly.

The Irish played a fairly standard 4-3 for a large chunk of the game. James thought Notre Dame’s move to a 3-5-3 was unique, though certainly not the first time anybody’s used that alignment.

But what stood out wasn’t necessarily the Xs and Os, but rather how much better Notre Dame’s personnel reacted to what they were facing.

Again, from the Birddog Blog:

The real story here, and what stood out to me when watching Notre Dame play Georgia Tech, was how much faster the Irish played compared to past years. I don’t mean that they are more athletic, although this is considered to be the best Notre Dame team in years. I mean that they reacted far more quickly to what they saw compared to what they’ve done in the past.

Usually, when a team plays a spread option offense, one of the biggest challenges that defensive coordinators talk about is replicating the offense’s speed and precision. It’s common to hear them say that it takes a series or two to adjust. That was most certainly not the case here.

James referenced our Media Day observations and seemed impressed by the decision to bring in walk-on Rob Regan to captain what’s now known as the SWAG team. And while VanGorder’s reputation as a mad scientist had many Irish fans wondering if the veteran coordinator cooked something up that hadn’t been seen, it was more a trait usually associated with Kelly that seems to have made the biggest difference.

“It wasn’t that the game plan was so amazing (although it was admittedly more complex and aggressive than we’ve seen out of other Notre Dame teams),” James wrote. “It was plain ol’ coachin’ ’em up.

“Notre Dame’s players were individually more prepared for what they’d see. Notre Dame is already extremely talented, but talented and prepared? You can’t adjust for that. That’s more challenging for Navy than any game plan.”

Irish prepared to take on the best Navy team in years


Brian Kelly opens every Tuesday press conference with compliments for an opponent. But this week, it was easy to see that his kind words for Navy were hardly lip service.

Ken Niumatalolo will bring his most veteran—and probably his most talented—group of Midshipmen into Notre Dame Stadium, looking to hand the Irish their first loss in the series since Kelly’s debut season in South Bend.

“Ken Niumatalolo has done an incredible job in developing his program and currently carrying an eight-game winning streak,” Kelly said. “I voted for them in USA Today Top 25 as a top-25 team. I think they’ve earned that. But their defense as well has developed. It’s played the kind of defense that I think a top 25 team plays.”

With nine months of option preparation, Notre Dame needs to feel confident about their efforts against Georgia Tech. Then again, the Midshipmen saw that game plan and likely have a few tricks in store.

As much as the Irish have focused their efforts on stopping Keenan Reynolds and the triple-option, Navy’s much-improved defense is still looking for a way to slow down a team that’s averaged a shade over 48 points a game against them the last four seasons.

Niumatalolo talked about that when asked about slowing down Will Fuller and Notre Dame’s skill players, an offense that’s averaged over 48 points a game during this four-game win streak.

“We’ve got to try our best to keep [Fuller] in front of us, that’s easier said than done,” Niumatalolo said. “We’ve got to play as close as we can without their guys running past us. I’ve been here a long time and we’re still trying to figure out how to do that.”


Navy heads to South Bend unbeaten, defeating former Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco‘s team just two Saturdays ago. And while Diaco raised a few eyebrows when he said Navy would be the team’s toughest test of the year (they already played a ranked Missouri team), the head of the UConn program couldn’t have been more effusive in his praise.

“I have been competing against Navy for some time and this is the best Navy team I have seen for, let’s say the last half-dozen years,” UConn coach Bob Diaco told the New Haven Register. “I could click on footage from three years ago and see a lion’s share of players who are playing right now in the game as freshmen and sophomores. They have a veteran group, a strong group, a talented group and they look like the stiffest competition among our first four opponents.”

As usual, there will be those who look at this game as the breather between Clemson and USC. That won’t be anybody inside The Gug. So as the Irish try to get back to their winning ways in front of a home crowd, a complete team effort is needed.

“I’ll take a win by one,” Kelly said Tuesday. “That would be fine with me.”