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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


Column: DaVonte’ Neal has underperformed what was once a promising career for Arizona football

Then Arizona redshirt sophomore wide receiver, DaVonté Neal (19), prays before Arizonas season opener against UNLV at Arizona Stadium on Aug. 29, 2014. Neal is in his final season at the UA and has since switched to defensive back.
Rebecca Marie Sasnett

Then Arizona redshirt sophomore wide receiver, DaVonté Neal (19), prays before Arizona’s season opener against UNLV at Arizona Stadium on Aug. 29, 2014. Neal is in his final season at the UA and has since switched to defensive back.

Playing against Arizona cornerback DaVonte’ Neal in the 2011 Arizona football state championship was one of the most chilling games I have ever been a part of. It wasn’t the fact that he was one of the most talented players in the country, but the mystique of having that “five-star athlete” next to his name was significant.

I played center for arguably the best Cienega High School football team in program history, but we were viewed as the underdog in the David vs. Goliath matchup with Neal’s former high school, Chaparral.

And rightfully so, because Chaparral had four players who ended up playing for Rich Rodriguez at Arizona and even Chaparral’s head coach, Charlie Ragle, took his talents to Tucson to be an assistant coach. Even with all of the different levels of talent on that team, nobody held a candle to Neal. It wasn’t even close.

Neal had 327 yards of total offense, three touchdowns and left an impression that I’ve never experienced before. We lost the game and Neal was the sole reason. I shook hands with him and told him to “come down to Tucson for college—you won’t regret it. Help put the Wildcats on the map.”

Neal turned at me with his cheesy, broken smile—because he had one of his front teeth missing—and told me he’d “think about it,” and continued to shake more hands.

I left that game believing Neal was the next Deion Sanders and that he might have been the most talented two-way player I’ve played against. I’ve matched-up with Green Bay Packers linebacker Blake Martinez and All-American and Chicago Bears running back Ka’Deem Carey, so that speaks volumes about a player.

Mind you, I wasn’t a sports journalist at the time—I was just a 5-foot-8 offensive lineman playing the best game in the world. Boy how the tables have turned, because it’s 2016 and Neal isn’t the player he was once known to be. (I’m still short by the way.).

Considering his expectations, DaVonte’ Neal hasn’t met expectations—his own or otherwise.

“I’m not about going back into the past and reflecting what I’ve done—it’s about what I want to do now and that’s all that matters,” Neal said.

Even though he hasn’t showcased what he was recruited for, Neal does bring a different value to the team, according to defensive backs coach Jahmile Addae.

“DaVonte’ is a competitor and he’s going to compete his behind off and he’s always brought that to our defense,” Addae said. “He plays with high energy and just as a person on the field, I can see him mature and start to really take hold of his craft. He’s also still a work in progress, but he’s working his butt off.”

How can anyone be a former five-star prospect, a third-year starter, a senior and still be a “work in progress”?

Going back to UCLA week, the Wildcats’ first official road game was supposed to be the chance for veterans like Neal to shine and save Arizona from falling under .500. The defensive back had four tackles, but also gave up a 62-yard touchdown and apparently put extra butter on his popcorn before the game because he struggled to wrap up ball carriers.

“I missed a lot of tackles—too many tackles to count—and I just have to get better on the perimeter at making tackles and just making plays on the ball,” Neal said after the Wildcats fell to 2-3.

He said everything before last week was irrelevant, and to his credit, football players have to contain a short-term memory to stop dwelling on the past, especially defensive backs.

“I got to get better as a player—simple as that,” Neal said. “Judging off of last week, because that’s the only thing that matters as of right now, I played pretty bad. So I got to get better.”

RELATED: Neal once ready for transition to defense

This is concerning for Rodriguez, because this was supposed to be the player that took his platform as a veteran and led by example for the young batch of cornerbacks waiting in line. The Wildcats’ head coach said Neal’s senior season hasn’t gone according to plan, and that’s also due to a wrist injury.

“Not as good as we would like or he would like,” Rodriguez said. “He’s a competitive guy and he didn’t play much in the last game and he’s been battling a little bit of a wrist injury too, so he hasn’t been able to do all of the things he wanted to do.”

Regardless of health, look at the example Will Parks set last season, leading the team in tackles. When Parks signed with Arizona as a two-star prospect in 2012, he was the No. 114 safety in the nation. He was irrelevant out of high school and is now playing for the Denver Broncos while a superstar in Neal can’t even shine at a program like Arizona.

There’s only two explanations: Either Neal was over-hyped coming out high school and should’ve been ranked lower—even below his own teammate Cody Ippolito—or he’s a bust. Either way, his time at Arizona hasn’t been ideal and not anything short of disappointing.

Follow Justin Spears on Twitter.

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