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.