Davonte Neal’s punt return output in Notre Dame’s 20-17 victory over Purdue on Saturday looked awfully familiar to Irish fans — four returns, 1 yard. Notre Dame had 10 returns for 3 total yards in the entire regular season last year. Neal — a true freshman wideout with electric running ability won the job in training camp, bolstering Irish hopes that a problem area would be resolved in spectacular fashion.
But while he returned his first punt for 11 yards against Navy, it came only after he misplayed it first. And Neal has been a little shaky since, too. Early in the second quarter against Purdue, Neal fielded a punt at the 3-yard line rather than letting it go into the end zone. He made three guys miss with some shifty moves, and got the ball to the 12, but it was a clear mistake to play the ball. In the second half, he had one return of minus-2 yards, one of zero, and another of minus-5.
Irish coach Brian Kelly — who pointed that on four of Purdue’s seven punts, the Irish were in a safe, defense mode, not a true return mode — would like to see Neal be a little smarter out there, but at the same time, he likes the kid’s boldness.
“Quite frankly, there was a ball he shouldn’t have fielded, obviously,” Kelly said. “But he’s a gutsy kid. He caught two in windy conditions inside the 10. One time, he probably got a little out of his element when he caught it at the 3. But he’s not scared now. Yeah, we’ve got some work to do there. But we’ve finally got somebody who — and I’m not saying that the other guys were scared — but he loves being in that moment, and I love putting guys out there that want to be there, that relish that opportunity. Yeah, we’ve got to polish him up a little bit, but I think we’ve got a guy there who’s going to be a good player for us.”