Tuesday, January 3, 2012 Updated: January 5, 11:39 PM ET
Neal ready to play anywhere
By Jamie Newberg ESPN Recruiting Nation
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Versatility comes in handy for athlete Davonte Neal (Scottsdale, Ariz./Chaparral). The four-star player came to the Under Armour All-America Game (7:30 p.m. ET Thursday, ESPN/ESPNU) slated to play cornerback, but after a hamstring injury to tight end Justin Meredith (Anderson, S.C./T.L. Hanna), coaches decided to move Neal to the other side of the ball for the Black team. Now the 5-foot-10 175-pounder will play both ways, a first for this game, now in its fifth year.
"I was picked to play defense first," said Neal, who'll play slot receiver. "It doesn't matter to me. I just want to play. Then someone gets hurt, and they wanted me to go to offense. I made the transition, and I have to make it work.
Four-star recruit Davonte Neal had 30 TDs on offense this season for Chaparral.
"The first day was rough, just because I had to get to know the system. I am getting it down and learning the plays."
Offense is nothing new for the recruit, ranked No. 29 overall in the ESPNU 150. This past season, Neal rushed 100 times for 1,317 yards and 16 touchdowns and added 62 passes for 1,113 yards and 14 scores.
His UA Game offensive position coach, Jeff Weachter (Harrisburg, Pa./Bishop McDevitt), is thrilled to have Neal on his side of the ball.
"He's full time on offense and may play running back," Weachter said. "That's a special kid. He's very coachable, eager to learn, and picking things up very fast. That's tough coming in and switching, and he has picked up the offense very quickly. He's quick, has good speed and gets down the field. Someone will get a great player."
That's the thing about Neal: He excels at whatever position he plays on the football field. This past season on defense, he recorded 31 tackles and 12 pass breakups. He's also a special-teams demon, totaling 607 return yards and returning three kicks/punts for scores.
"I think his skill set is very unique because he doesn't mind where he plays on the field," said his father, Luke Neal. "It doesn't matter if it's offense or defense. If you were to pin him down, he wouldn't have a preference; he just wants to play football. I think he's unique because he can play both sides; one side isn't better than the other. They are both equal."
In the short time that Davonte Neal did play with the defensive backs, he showed the coaches just what he can do. One of the secondary coaches, Claude Mathis of DeSoto, Texas, said Neal is the real deal.
"We had him at corner, and they stole him from us," Mathis said with a big laugh. "He's a great corner that plays with great technique and footwork. I hope we can get him in on defense, if it's good for us. I know he's helping out the offense big-time. His footwork, knowledge of the game, ball skills and change of direction is really, really good."
Neal is unique, and his father knew when his son was about 10 that Davonte had a gift. While in the eighth grade in 2008, Davonte sat down and created a set of high school goals. They included graduating with a 3.0 GPA, scoring two touchdowns as a freshman in his first game, starting as a freshman, being all-state as a freshman, winning the Gatorade Player of the Year twice, winning two state championships and becoming an Under Armour All-American. He hit his goals and then some.
"On Christmas Day we were looking through my files and stumbled on his 2008 goals going into high school," Luke said. "It's amazing what he did. That shows you how powerful goal-setting is. We were sitting there looking at it and couldn't believe it."
Goals are obviously important to Neal, and he knew then that this would drive him to become the player he has been at Chaparral High School.
"Goals give you something to reach for," Neal said. "I wanted to strive for something. I wanted to work for something. Looking back on it and hitting all those goals, I was surprised."
But wait, there's more ...
Now Neal and his family have a pressing issue: which school he will attend. This late in the recruiting game, Neal has made only one official visit to Notre Dame.
"I love it," Neal said. "I love the chemistry between team and coaches. They are together like a family. I loved the campus life and school. Their academics are great. The administrators and professors are involved. I liked being around everyone there."
He has two more visits slated, to Arkansas (Jan. 13) and Ohio State (Jan. 20). Neal, who is from Akron, Ohio, has a special place in his heart for the Buckeyes.
"It is kind of special," Neal said. "I was a ball boy for Ohio State when they played Kansas State and when they played against Miami for the national championship, so it's special. Plus, I am from Ohio, so that adds more juice to it."
Another tie to the Neals is Norm Chow, the new head coach at Hawaii. Chow played some football with Neal's father. Davonte said he might visit Hawaii.
Other teams high on his radar for potential visits are Auburn, USC, FSU, Miami and North Carolina, as well as in-state schools Arizona and Arizona State.
Neal was likely set to leave the state, but then the coaching changes happened and gave new life to those two -- especially Arizona, which brought in Neal's high school head coach, Charlie Ragle, as the assistant director of football operations.
"He's there, and that's a good connection," Neal said. "I know my coach, and he's someone to fall back on and talk to. I have not talked to the new ASU coach, but I am willing to listen and see what he has to say."
With one visit in the books and two more slated, that gives Neal only one open weekend for an official visit before national signing day on Feb. 1. There's a good chance Neal will make his fifth and final visit the weekend after signing day -- which will prolong his decision.
Neal knows what he's in for through the next few weeks with recruiting. But right now he has one more game to play, and he has one goal in mind.
"It's an honor to go both ways for this game," Neal said. "I am just excited about it. The coaches are excited about it. I just want to help the team. I will give it my all, give it my best and play the hardest I can play."
Jamie Newberg has been covering recruiting both in the Southeast and nationally for 19 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.