Scottsdale Chaparral football star Davonte Neal weighed his college options for months, then delayed a scheduled news conference to announce his choice.
In the end, Neal decided that the golden dome trumps staying at home.
Neal chose Notre Dame over offers from the Arizona Wildcats, Arkansas and North Carolina today, giving Irish coach Brian Kelly a franchise-caliber player to build around. He made the announcement at Kyrene de la Esperanza Elementary School, his former school.
Though he stands just 5 feet 9 inches tall and weighs 175 pounds, Neal — a two-time Gatorade State Player of the Year and Parade All-American — is viewed as a difference-maker. He rushed for 1,317 and 16 touchdowns, caught 62 passes for 1,113 yards and 14 touchdowns and registered 44 tackles last fall, as Chaparral won the Division II state championship over Cienega. Neal may have been at his best on special teams: He averaged 39.40 yards per kickoff return, and 19 yards per punt return.
Neal's afternoon decision capped a stressful — and, frankly, embarrassing — day.
He was a no-show to a scheduled 9 a.m. news conference, leaving 600 elementary school children waiting. Neal did not arrive for the start; by 9:52 a.m., Esperanza's principal dismissed the waiting schoolchildren from the assembly. He returned around 1:30 p.m. to announce his decision.
The location of Neal's announcement and the hype leading up to it made this morning's developments even more puzzling. Neal chose not to sign a national letter of intent on Feb. 1, in part because he wanted to consider the Arizona Wildcats. Neal's father, Luke, was pushing for Notre Dame, according to reports.
Brandon Huffman, Scout.com's West Coast recruiting editor, said this morning's developments "might take the cake" when it comes to recruiting nightmares.
"This is just an absolute terrible indictment of the whole recruiting process," Huffman said. "It ruined what should have been an exciting day for Davonte — and for the kids, too. That it happened in front of grade-school kids, it's indescribable."
Neal isn't the first highly touted recruit to hedge when faced with a big decision. Westlake Village (Calif.) Oaks Christian wide receiver Jordan Payton switched his verbal commitments from Cal to Washington to UCLA in a span of 48 hours last month. Before that, Payton had verbally committed to USC.
Huffman said Neal's situation reminds him "a little bit" of former Stanford star Erik Lorig's recruitment. Lorig waited four months after signing day to pick his school, in part because he wanted to do more research.
Huffman said the power struggle between Neal and his father had been simmering for a few days. Monday night, it appeared Neal would play at Notre Dame, Huffman said, "and not necessarily because that's where Davonte wanted to go."
Neal's decision marks a very public swing-and-miss for Arizona first-year coach Rich Rodriguez.
Rodriguez made recruiting Neal a priority shortly after he was hired Nov. 21 as Mike Stoops' permanent replacement. The UA coach hired Charlie Ragle, Neal's coach at Chaparral, as Arizona's new liaison to in-state high schools. The Wildcats then signed two Chaparral players, linebacker Cody Ippolito and defensive end Dylan Cozens, with hopes Neal would follow.
Neal was considering offers from more than a dozen schools until late-January, when he agreed to postpone his decision so he could take a Feb. 11 recruiting visit to the UA. Neal was forced to cancel his trip, however, due to a death in the family. Neal narrowed his choices down to Arizona, Arkansas, Notre Dame and North Carolina two weeks ago.
Scout.com lists Neal as a four-star recruit and the nation's fifth-best cornerback prospect. Neal was, until this afternoon, the country's best undecided recruit.
Check in to StarNet and read more in Wednesday's edition of the Arizona Daily Star.