Thursday, February 23, 2012

Neal Commitment Comes at Right Time for Irish

Nearly three weeks after National Signing Day had ended, there were still those who were glum about the way things finished for the Fighting Irish. They had lost two highly ranked players, Ronald Darby and Taylor Decker, to Florida State and Ohio State respectively. To make matters worse, 5 star receiver Deontay Greenberry pulled an absolute shocker and switched to Houston on Signing Day. And on top of that, a few prospects that Notre Dame was after chose to go elsewhere.

Kelly is seizing some much needed momentum in recruiting
Now, I'll admit that I was fairly upset about what happened, especially with Greenberry. And I couldn't stand that Darby apparently chose FSU because it would "make him a better person." But after letting the dust settle, I looked back and truly appreciated the class that Brian Kelly had brought in for his second full recruiting class (his first true class came after being named Notre Dame coach in December of 2009. He had barely anytime to salvage a class, and he still did well). He got the franchise QB in Gunner Kiel, an elite corner in Tee Shepard, an uber-athletic safety in Elijah Shumate, great interior linemen in Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones, good running back prospects in Keivarae Russell and William Mahone, and possibly the biggest sleeper in the entire 2012 wide receiver class in Chris Brown. But you still couldn't help but feel that the big gamechanging athlete that all successful programs have and need was missing. ND had lost that in Greenberry in completely unforeseen circumstances, and desperately needed a replacement.

Enter Davonte Neal. The sole remaining truly elite prospect yet to commit and sign in the country, Neal had yet to commit to a school because he started the recruiting process late. Waiting until his senior season was over meant that he necessarily had to push his recruiting deadline past National Signing Day. Notre Dame considered itself in a good position to land the elite receiver/corner prospect from Arizona, given that Irish Assistant Coach Kerry Cooks was the first coach from any program to get into his house after the season was over, and Brian Kelly himself made Neal a priority in the class. Still, a commitment from Neal was far from certain. He apparently liked Ohio State, but turned them away when Urban Meyer showed up for his home visit and incessantly pressured Neal to commit on the spot (a fact that instantly makes him one of my favorite recruits. They should put that stat up there with the 40 time and other measurables - the ability to see through Urban Liar's bullshit). Ultimately, the decision for Neal came down to Notre Dame, Arizona, Arkansas, and North Carolina.

Neal is a gamechanger
He was supposed to make his decision in a rather unique fashion, announcing at his elementary school instead of his high school like recruits normally do. He did this, he said, because that elementary school helped sway him from his troublesome childhood ways, becoming instrumental in his development. However, when the time came for him to show up and announce, he was nowhere to be found. Calls went out and were unanswered by his father, Luke Neal. Soon enough, the Twitter Mafia, otherwise known as modern journalism, proceeded to lambast Davonte and his family, calling them prima donnas for blowing off their elementary school. Rumors were abound that Davonte and his father were fighting over what school to pick, with his father wanting Notre Dame and Davonte wanting Arizona. Eventually, however, Davonte came to the school later in the day and made his decision to attend Notre Dame. He had only missed the earlier announcement because of a family emergency. Yet, I'm sure now that Davonte will unfairly be labeled as someone with character issues. The whole modern journalistic desire to "get there first" is one of the big reasons everyone hates the media. Instead of getting legitimate sources, any media member associated with the instance took it upon themselves to report what they figured happened, instead of the truth. It's too bad; Davonte is a great kid who doesn't deserve it.

But, more importantly, how huge is this pickup for the Irish?! Make no mistake, this is one of the premier athletes in the country. It comes at a perfect time, with Michigan roaring hot on the recruiting trail, picking up early commitments from elite recruits left and right as if they were Texas or something. But not only does Neal hopefully bring some momentum to Irish recruiting, but he brings elite playmaking ability that will have an instant impact. Look at his highlights:

If he reminds you a little of Percy Harvin or Golden Tate, you're not alone. Neal isn't big, listed at 5'10, but what he lacks in size he makes up for in amazing quickness and speed. His skillset is an absolute dream for the slot receiver's role in Brian Kelly's offense. The best comparison I can make is as a quicker and faster Mardy Gilyard, a receiver who dominated for Brian Kelly while he was at Cincinnati. Look at his highlights and you can see the comparison.

Gilyard has the same type of game, working best out of the slot. Neal is quick, can hit the inside slant or mid screen and is dangerous enough to take the ball to the house on every play. More importantly, he brings this skill to a Kelly offense that has sorely missed it the past couple of years. Yes, Notre Dame has talented receivers like TJ Jones and Theo Riddick, and Riddick especially can be a great slot receiver. But when you combine Riddick's injuries and the SEVERE lack of consistent quarterback play from the Irish last season, you have a stagnant offense that all too often relied on jump balls from Tommy Rees to Michael Floyd or Tyler Eifert. Now, with the quarterback competition wide open to any of the talented players who can grab it, the timing is perfect for an elite talent like Neal to shine. And on top of his offensive skill, he'll bring an instant upgrade in special teams. Notre Dame lacked any real presence (and that's an understatement) in the punt return game last year, and adding Neal to George Atkinson's abilities at kick return only strengthens that part of the game as well. Not to mention that Neal is a highly regarded cornerback prospect as well if the Irish see fit to play him there.

Neal's addition also helps draw some perspective on the upcoming season. If you take a quick glance back to last season, the one lacking ingredient was consistent quarterback play. The running backs, receivers, and defense were excellent for the most part, but terrible, crushing turnovers and general lack of production from the QB was sorely missing. If Notre Dame can improve on that, and I believe they can through either/both of Andrew Hendrix and Everett Golson, the sky is the limit for this team. With Neal, the Irish receiving corps can actually be looked at as a strength of the team. Prospects like Neal, Brown, and Justin Ferguson will fit in well with the talent on the existing roster, like Jones, Riddick, and highly regarded redshirt freshman Davaris Daniels. With the talent at tight end, offensive line, and running back, the Irish offense might finally be able to turn into the dominating force that is reminiscent of Kelly's offense. And with the defense coming along nicely, the pieces are starting to fall into place for ND to turn into a consistent contender. If they start to win like they should, recruiting will pick up even more. But let's hope for now that the commitment of Neal starts the trend of elite offense playmakers choosing Notre Dame. You can never have too many of those.