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.