Davonte Neal

Davonte Neal transferring to Arizona

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After deciding to walk away from Notre Dame to be closer to his girlfriend and newborn daughter, Davonte Neal will play next season for Rich Rodriguez and Arizona. The 5-foot-9 slot receiver was down to the Irish and Wildcats before dramatically choosing Notre Dame in a whirlwind recruiting process. Now he’ll come home and add an intriguing piece to the former Michigan coach’s spread offense.

As he has been from the start, Jason Sapp of BlueandGold.com has been all over this story, getting quotes from Neal on the decision-making process. While some rumors had Neal looking at UCLA or USC, the transfer back home should assist his case in securing immediate eligibility from the NCAA.

This from Sapp, who spoke with Neal directly:

“The primary reason I chose Arizona was because it was close to my family and my daughter can come see me everyday – that was the most important to me and having that family support,” Neal said. “The way Coach Rodriguez throws the ball around is amazing. They do it the entire game. I’ll have an opportunity to play inside and outside receiver in the offense. He does know how to get the ball in his players’ hands and from there they make plays.”

Neal has always been focused as an individual, but the addition to his family presents a whole new meaning to his world – both present and future.

“Having Baylee in my life just opens the door for me to be a better man,” he said. “It allows me to develop more responsibilities. I’ll become more of a man balancing school, football and having a baby.”

Neal was the two-time Gatorade Player of the Year in Arizona. He’ll reunite with his Chaparral high school coach, Charlie Ragle, who is now coaching tight ends for Rodriguez.

In a pretty class move, the Neal family released this statement through Blue & Gold:

We’d like to offer our sincerest gratitude to Coach Brian Kelly, his staff, the student body, and the entire Notre Dame family for all the support they’ve shown us, not only in the past few weeks, but over the past year.

Our experience as part of the Notre Dame football team and community surpassed all of our expectations. From the opening game in Dublin, Ireland, against Navy to the National Championship, we know we were part of something very special. And we have all the confidence in the world that the Notre Dame football program is positioned to have tremendous success in the years to come.

We wish we could be a part of that moving forward, however, Davonte’ has decided after very difficult consideration that the most important thing for him and our family is to be as close to his new-born daughter as possible.

Over the past year, we have developed some great friendships within the Notre Dame community and look forward to staying in-touch with those who have given us so much. We want to take this opportunity to wish Coach Kelly and his outstanding program all the best next season and down-the-road. The Irish will forever be in our hearts and a part of our lives.

All the best and Go Irish!

 

Counting down the Irish: 25-21– RECOUNT UPDATE!

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RECOUNT UPDATE: If there was any question whether I’ve been out of the finance game too long, your fearless leader messed up his Excel spreadsheet and jacked up the rankings. This changes a few of the players we’ve tallied and puts Zeke Motta in at No. 25. My sincere apologies.

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It’s time to unveil the beginning of our annual Top 25 list, counting down the best players on the Irish roster. It’s an especially interesting list, and the group polled had some outstanding, yet very different, takes on who makes up the upper echelon of the Irish roster.

Last year, the top 15 players on our countdown were upperclassmen. This year, underclassmen make up almost one-third of the countdown, with one slotting into the top five. The biggest variance in voting was at the quarterback position. All four quarterbacks received votes, with last year’s depth chart hardly representative in this evaluation.

Here’s our voting panel:

Eric Hansen, South Bend Tribune @HansenSouthBend
John Walters, The Daily @jdubs88
John Vannie, NDNation.com
Eric Murtaugh, representing OneFootDown.com  @OneFootDown
Ryan Ritter, representing HerLoyalSons.com @HLS_NDtex
Keith Arnold, NBCSports.com’s Inside the Irish @KeithArnoldNBC

RANKINGS

25. Zeke Motta (S, Sr.) Quietly, Motta has put together a fairly solid career in South Bend, all while flying through the program much too quickly. Playing as a true freshman, Motta used a year of eligibility on special teams, and then had no choice but to play as a raw sophomore when safeties Jamoris Slaughter and Danny McCarthy went down with injuries. He’s had some bad swings and misses tackling in the open field, but Motta certainly looks the part of a big-time safety, and now we’ll find out if he’s the type of player that can anchor a unit. He was left off only one ballot (mine), and was the 26th man I had listed.

(Highest ranking: 21st. Lowest ranking: Unranked)

24. Tommy Rees (QB, Jr.) To call Rees the most polarizing player on the roster is probably understating it. The junior quarterback is Notre Dame’s all-time leader in completion percentage, but is probably the fourth most popular quarterback on the Irish roster after 14 interceptions and five fumbles lost crippled the Irish offense. Rees’ lack of mobility limit the Irish offense’s ability to utilize the quarterback in the running game, but he’s got the best grasp of the system, after playing in 20 games over the last two seasons. Rees’ erratic play helps explain the difficulty in ranking him. Two voters left him off their ballots completely, while one placed him on the number.

(Highest ranking: 17th. Lowest Ranking: Unranked x 2)

23. Andrew Hendrix (QB, Jr.) That Hendrix slots in front of the quarterback he backed up all season is telling. Also telling is the diversity in opinions on the junior quarterback from Ohio, who was left off three ballots entirely, but was the top quarterback on two others. Hendrix has all the physical tools necessary to win the starting quarterback job, but his feel for the game still lacks after two seasons in Kelly’s spread system. After completing all four of his throws against Air Force, Hendrix completed just 14 of his next 33 throws, with bad interceptions against Stanford and Florida State. On the ground, Hendrix presents an intriguing option, with the 220-pound bruiser a powerful option.

(Highest ranking: 14th. Lowest ranking: Unranked x 3)

22. Davonte Neal (WR, Fr.) Neal was one of the top ranked athletes in the country as a high school senior. And while wide receiver is an educated guess on where he’ll end up playing, Neal could easily contribute at cornerback and certainly should get a look in the return game. Neal’s speed is his best attribute, and getting the 5-foot-10, 175-pound dynamo in space with the football should give the Irish a much needed game breaker on the edges of the offense.  Neal is the highest rated freshman on this list, and slots in one spot beneath where Aaron Lynch ranked last year.

(Highest ranking: 16th. Lowest ranking: Unranked x 2)

21. TJ Jones (WR, Jr.) It shouldn’t be surprising that a two-year starter at wide receiver is ranked this high, yet Jones’ production leveled off after a promising freshman season. At 5-foot-11, 187-pounds, Jones lacks the size needed for an elite outside receiver, and a career average of 11 yards a catch doesn’t point to top end speed. But Jones carried a heavy burden last season with the sudden death of his father, and his inclusion on the Biletnikoff watch list shows he hasn’t been forgotten. Three voters left Jones off their lists completely, but his rating was buoyed by three votes that had him in the top twenty.

(Highest ranking: 13th. Lowest ranking: Unranked x 3)

 

Russell and Neal will get looks at cornerback

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There’s no question that Notre Dame lacks quality depth at cornerback heading into the season. Needing to replace both Robert Blanton and Gary Gray, the Irish will look to first year starter Bennett Jackson on the short-side of the field as Lo Wood and Josh Atkinson will take their competition for the field cornerback position into training camp.

With converted running back Cam McDaniel added to the mix this spring, and Jalen Brown looking the part but still learning, the Irish essentially have five cornerbacks with zero experience that’ll need to hold passing games in check if Notre Dame has BCS aspirations. That sound you hear? It could be quarterbacks Landry Jones and Matt Barkley, two Heisman Trophy candidates, getting ready for a signature game opportunity.

With Tee Shepard never making it into a Notre Dame uniform, Ronald Darby defecting after a long standing commitment to the Irish and Yuri Wright and Anthony Standifer kept out for non-football considerations, Kerry Cooks’ cornerbacks will need to hold down the fort until reinforcements come in 2013.

Unless of course those reinforcements are already on campus.

Head coach Brian Kelly revealed that talented two-way freshmen Davonte Neal and Keivarae Russell will both get a look on the defensive side of the ball, potentially adding some dynamic depth (albeit youthful) to the rotation, while the running back and slot positions are filled with proven talent.

“I think we’ve got to have all of the options open when we go into camp,” Kelly told the South Bend Tribune. “With those two kids in particular we’ve had conversations with them to be flexible.

“We’re going to do what’s best for our team. I think everybody knows where we need to continue to build some depth in certain areas. We’re going to keep open-minded and give them an opportunity to compete.”

It’s a common sense move, especially considering the depth chart Neal and Russell find themselves walking into on the offensive side of the ball. Neal was recruited by some colleges as a two-way player and many see the 5-foot-10, 175-pounder to be a potential lockdown cornerback.

Russell, who showed tremendous versatility during his high school career, is also said to be coming into South Bend with an open mind.

“He didn’t go in there thinking he wanted to be one spot,” Mariner High head coach Dave Odrizack told Scout.com. “He didn’t go in thinking, ‘I want to be a corner,’ or ‘I want to be a running back.’ He just went in to be a football player.”

At 6-foot, 180-pounds, Russell has the size coveted by Kelly and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco. He’s also showed good speed, running in the state finals of the 100m dash and having a vertical leap of 37-inches. He saw time all over the field and on both sides of the ball as a running back, receiver, cornerback and safety, making any transition a little bit easier.

Of course, after having no depth at safety the past two seasons, the Irish will now have a whopping 12 scholarship safeties this season. Even with Austin Collinsworth lost for the season, you’ve got to think the coaching staff will be looking for candidates to play on the edge of the defense as well. That might mean talented rising sophomore Eilar Hardy could get a look. It could also mean that Jamoris Slaughter still dabbles at cornerback, entrusting the alignment duties to fellow senior Zeke Motta.

Even with two returning starters, the cornerbacks disappointed in 2011, with Gray regressing in his final season at Notre Dame. There’s no room for regression with this group, as each candidate will go in essentially a blank slate.

We’ll find out in a few months if that’s a good thing.

Neal ready for Notre Dame

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After a recruitment that was high on drama and excitement, Notre Dame fans hope Davonte Neal brings the same thing to the football field as he enrolls in summer school today. Neal, who flew into South Bend on Sunday, represents one of the best options to walk in and contribute in an offense that’s desperately looking to fill the production void Michael Floyd has left behind now that he’s wearing an Arizona Cardinals uniform.

At 5-foot-10, 175-pounds, nobody is going to confuse the diminutive Neal with the former Irish star. But Neal’s pedigree is every bit as impressive as Floyd’s was coming out of high school. Neal’s prep exploits are well known, but worth mentioning again. Two-time Gatorade state player of the year. An all-region player as a freshman star receiver and defensive back at Laveen Cesar Chavez before transferring to Chaparral High in Scottsdale, where his team won back-to-back-to-back championships. Wondering about his speed? Neal anchored the state-record 4×100-meter relay, the fifth-best time nationally, as a true freshman.

With Neal leaving Arizona after an incredible prep career, he caught up with former Notre Dame star Bertrand Berry last Friday on his radio show to discuss moving on to South Bend. He was asked pointedly on what his goals were entering his first season with the Irish.

“My goals are to just do my part,” Neal said. “Do what I can for the team. Do what’s best for the team. If that means being a starter and the coaches put me on the field, then that’s what’ll happen. I’m looking to go up there and have fun, contribute for the team, and do what’s best for the team.”

Neal’s response is more polished than some might expect from a guy that got a ton of bad press for not showing up for his own press conference to announce his college decision at his grade school. It was a situation he learned from, and one that’ll likely help as he comes under an even more intense microscope in South Bend. But as he prepares for that scrutiny, Neal has also had an unlikely mentor in the process helping him along: Michael Floyd himself.

His relationship with the former Irish receiver has flourished with both being in the Phoenix area, and has helped give Davonte an idea of what life will be like under the Golden Dome.

“Mike and I have talked a lot and he has told me what to expect and how Notre Dame will help me succeed, not just in footballbut in life,” Neal told the Arizona Republic’s Richard Obert. “That is what I was always looking for in a college. I know some colleges, it’s all about football. But Notre Dame makes sure you do your class work and you do it well. They teach you priorities.”

Neal will have a few months this summer to help with the adjustment period from high school to college, an adjustment worth watching for someone that spent time at three different high schools in the past four years. On the field, it looks like Neal will focus his efforts at wide receiver, with the running back depth chart stacked and the Irish willing to roll the dice with what they have at cornerback. (There isn’t much doubt that Neal could play corner, but the Irish staff thinks Neal might be too good on the offensive side not to play there.)

With fitness tests and classes all set for today, it’s total immersion for Neal and his fellow freshmen. It also could be the start of a highly-anticipated Irish career.

Freshman Focus: Davonte Neal

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(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.