The news broke late tonight from Blue Gold Illustrated that rising sophomore and former highly touted recruit Davonte Neal will be leaving the Notre Dame program.
Neal is a recent new father and was hoping to have his long-time girlfriend move to South Bend but he decided it would be better if he transferred and went to school closer to his family. It is believed he will look at several Pac-12 schools after sitting out the 2013 season---but as always don't count out a hardship waiver being granted by the ever-surprising NCAA.
Best of luck to Davonte at his new school.
For the Irish it is yet another transfer blow coming just days after 5-star quarterback Gunner Kiel left the program. It also severely weakens the 2012 recruiting class that at one time featured Kiel, Neal, Tee Shepard, and Deontay Greenberry---all top flight talents.
Since 2010 the Irish have now lost (247 Composite rankings in parentheses):
Matt James, deceased (.947)
Cam Roberson, medical (.880)
Derek Roback, transfer (.816)
Spencer Boyd, transfer (N/A)
Tate Nichols, medical (.848)
Aaron Lynch, transfer (.994)
Brad Carrico, medical (.854)
Tee Shepard, transfer (.974)
Gunner Kiel, transfer (.989)
Davonte Neal, transfer (.973)
Top players leaving is a fact of life for the best programs but Notre Dame has lost 5 huge recruits over the past 3 years.
This leaves the slot receiver spot in a precarious position. True freshman Torri Hunter is recovering from a broken femur and likely won't play in 2013, Neal is now gone, and the multi-dimensional Amir Carlisle just suffered a broken collarbone.
Of course Carlisle should be plenty fine for summer workouts but the team is going to have to adjust their strategy a little bit for the remainder of spring practice---and that could very well bleed out in to the fall.
Judging by Kelly's recent comments it sure seems like Carlisle will see plenty of time in the slot. Whether he's an every-down starting receiver there who (most importantly) can handle blocking duties is another story. Still, he brings a calming influence to the position with his athleticism and skill.
Right now I see a few options for the coaching staff:
1) Go Big
This would be pretty much a continuation of last season's offense. Keep using 2 tight ends sets and rely on a crafty running back to offer the option to split out wide for some flexibility. This would also increase Daniel Smith's role at slot as he's been practicing a little bit there recently (anticipating Neal's departure?) and would provide some quality blocking.
2) Move TJ Jones
Jones at 5'11" has always fit the profile for the slot position but he's been on the outside for his entire 3-year career and really blossomed into a rugged and clutch playmaker at his current position. Will the coaches be willing to move him inside though? They might if they are feeling much more comfortable with someone like Chris Brown.
3) Look Elsewhere on the Roster
A month ago I had Cam McDaniel moved to the slot as a hybrid player and now he might start transitioning in to that role. At this point, I'm not sure he'll ever be transformed in to a full-time receiver but that distinction is ultimately blurred in the slot. Other options could be to turn to youngsters like Ferguson or Onwualu for the remainder of the spring and really push them to grab a starting spot---and if not that, some quality minutes come fall.
The most likely scenario in my opinion would be mostly the first with a little bit of the third mixed in. It really seems like the coaching staff wants someone in the slot who is a receiver with good blocking skills and then hybrid players who can play both running back and motion out. Knowing that coaches are always pretty conservative in these situations we'll probably see more of Daniel Smith (and possibly McDaniel) with Carlisle and incoming freshman Tarean Folston being the primary hybrid options once the team begins fall camp this August.
2014 Recruiting Class Numbers?
A month or two ago we were staring at a pretty small '14 recruiting class and a situation where the Irish would have to balance waiting on ELITE recruits versus building depth with other players who would want to commit much earlier in the process but might not be Top 100 prospects.
With the recent news of Chase Hounshell tearing his shoulder again there could be as many as 22 spots open for the 2014 recruiting class.
It always hurts to lose highly touted recruits or players to career ending injuries but if you're looking for a glass half full point of view this will allow the Irish to sign back-to-back large classes at a point in modern history when Notre Dame's stock is extremely high as a program.
As long as the 2012 class can hold its own (now down to 13 non-special team players) the roster shouldn't take too much of a hit. The Irish already have a blossoming top corner in Russell, a (possible) starting defensive end, and perhaps a starting safety from the '12 class. If 4 or 5 more players can make a decent to big impact (Jones, Shumate, Stanley, Okwara, Brown especially) these player losses won't come back to bite the program.
UPDATE: 2012 WR Justin Ferguson is also planning on transferring. He'll leave school this Sunday according to BGI. Add another spot to the 2014 recruiting class.