Sunday, February 26, 2006

Off we go | by Pat

Only a short twenty-four days after the 2006 Signing Day, Coach Weis landed his first verbal commit for the 2007 recruiting class. North Carolina linebacker/defensive end Kerry Neal jumped on a scholarship offer and quickly made his choice to play for the Irish.

"I love Notre Dame," Neal said. "That's where I want to go to school. It really hasn't hit me yet that I get to go."
The under-the-radar committment caught just about everyone outside of the Gug by surprise; most of that is due to the whirlwind nature of Neal's annoucement.

Weis watched a tape of Neal at 5:30 a.m. on Thursday and immediately called Bunn coach David Howle, leaving a message that the Irish were offering Neal a scholarship.

Later in the morning, Weis called back and Neal left his U.S. History class to talk to the Notre Dame coach.

"I was speechless," Neal said. "It was Notre Dame. I watch them all the time on television."

Neal said he first remembers watching Notre Dame play football when he was in the fourth grade and his love for Irish football deepened when he watched the movie "Rudy," which is about a walk-on at Notre Dame.

Neal said Weis, the former offensive coordinator with the New England Patriots, told him that he knew what kind of player he needed to win at Notre Dame.

Then he repeated his offer of a scholarship, which Neal accepted.

If only all recruiting were that easy.

While it was most likely completely unintentional, I do like the fact that the first verbal of the latest recruiting class is a defensive prospect and a potential speed rusher at that. Only ten of the incoming 27 freshman are coming in as defensive players, so landing some quality defensive prospects -- especially at linebacker and defensive line -- is a big need for this current recruiting class. Neal plays outside linebacker for his high school but as he keeps growing might find himself with his hands on the ground at defensive end. The North Carolina native has drawn a few Julius Peppers comparisons from locals, and while that may be just a tad bit premature, it's still nice to hear.

When he selected the Irish, the 6'3", 220 pound Neal had offers from East Carolina and Wake Forest, with North Carolina and Virginia just about ready to pull the trigger as well. As a junior, Neal amassed 327 yards and 7 TDs on only 16 receptions at tight end, and chalked up 111 tackles and 14 sacks from his linebacker position. Here's an excerpt from a local paper detailing his sophomore year efforts.

Real deal Neal oughta transform into a “monster,” Coach Stewart added. “He has athleticism and smarts. He can drop back and cover receivers. He’ll line up on the strong side. Any adjustments we make, we’ll make with him.” The man manufactured 75 stops (5.8 per performance) and picked pockets apart for eight sacks along his 2004 terrorizing tirade. He vandalized Warren County for a career-best 14 carrier cagings, then hammered Northern Vance for seven socks and an interception, then saddled Southern Vance with eight lassoings and two slinger bringdowns, then pulverized Pender County inflicting seven tackles and three rifler bashings during the first round of the playoffs.

(To be honest, the main reason I included the previous paragraph is the writing style. Stuart Scott himself couldn't come up with so many synonyms for sacking a quarterback. Then again, I can't be too critical as I once did use "hogskin wrangler" to describe MSU's Jerramy Scott.)

Neal also plays forward for his high school basketball team, which is always a good sign that a player is more than just a large lumbering mass. Basketball is one sport that really does help to develop a player's quickness and ability to efficiently change direction. While I'm reluctant to bring out any Justin Tuck comparisons on Neal, I will note that Tuck was also a hoops player in high school, twice being named MVP of his Alabama state champion team. Neal doesn't seem to be up to that level of hardwood production, but nevertheless it's a good sign for ND's speed rushing hopes that Neal also plays a sport that relies more on speed than strength.

Furthermore, an article on Irish Illustrated about Neal notes that he started at cornerback as a freshman. That reminds me of incoming freshman defensive end Kallen Wade who started out his high school career as a safety before moving to linebacker and then defensive end. While I don't expect either of them to be lining up in man coverage against any receivers in college, it is nice to know that on certain blitz packages when they drop back into coverage that it won't be a completely foreign experience for them.

With over 300 days between now and Signing Day 2007, it almost seems too early to be concerned with recruiting, but as recruits seem to be voicing their choices earlier and earlier, it's a great sign to see one of the early announcements fall Notre Dame's way.