Last season, when the Notre Dame Fighting Irish went back to return a punt, it was time to fetch a beer or–in the case of the NBC’s four-minute-plus commercial breaks–go to the bathroom, because absolutely nothing happened. After returning only ten punts for three yards in 2011, Lord knows the Fighting Irish had to do something different this season, and that something seems to have arrived in the form of the 5’10” 175-lb. freshman flash named Davonte Neal.
With Neal, the problem the Irish seems to have now is not whether this western roadrunner fits in with the Irish, but where. Rated “the best athlete in the nation” by ESPN, and awarded the MVP of the US Army National Combine of 2011, Neal was one of the most versatile players in Arizona high school history, rushing for 1,317 yards and catching 62 passes (for 35 TDs) his senior season, while intercepting five passes doubling as a cornerback as a junior.
I don’t doubt that the lacking in “Dublin depth” (due to four suspensions for Saturday’s Navy game), the Irish will end up plugging Neal into one or more of those positions before the day is over, but it was his five return TDs and gaudy 26.6 yard punt return average at Chaparral High School that Brian Kelly and the Irish coaching staff pegged for immediate impact. Several scintillating returns in practice appears to have proved them right.
Time will tell if Neal is the real deal in the return game, but what pleases me is that he has already developed the true Notre Dame trait of returning something to the community away from the gridiron. Besides all his catching, rushing and returning, Neal spent a good portion of his senior high school season serving as a middle school mentor and youth football coach, and in a week (indeed, a whole summer) in which un-ND-like behavior is grabbing the headlines, it’s great to see some of the young guys already displaying traditional Notre Dame decorum. Still, it’s been so long since we had a regular “rocket” (Raghib Ismail, to be precise) as a returner, I am afraid I have forgotten something.
Who is the patron saint of punt returners?