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Neal ready for transition to defense

Arizona+cornerback+DaVonte+Neal+tries+for+a+block+during+a+game+against+Cal+on+Saturday%2C+September+20%2C+2014.+The+Wildcats+beat+Cal+with+a+final+score+of+49-45.+
Tyler Baker
Arizona cornerback DaVonte’ Neal tries for a block during a game against Cal on Saturday, September 20, 2014. The Wildcats beat Cal with a final score of 49-45.

When Arizona’s offense takes the field for the first time next week, one of the contingent’s biggest names will be watching from the sideline.

Davonte’ Neal’s days of catching passes from quarterback Anu Solomon are over. The former Notre Dame transfer is now firmly a cornerback.

Neal, who started 10 games at wide receiver for the Wildcats last season, made the switch to cornerback in February after expressing interest to head coach Rich Rodriguez of flipping from offense to defense.

Neal was underwhelming for most of his lone season at wide receiver (he redshirted the 2013 season after leaving Notre Dame for Arizona). He finished the season with just 217 yards and two touchdowns, despite starting in 10 of the Wildcats’ games.

The move to cornerback adds a different type of pressure on Neal; instead of being asked to complete breakout plays, his goal is to prevent them.

After six months of training, including the past two weeks of fall camp, Neal says he is ready for the new challenge.

“I feel a lot more comfortable,” Neal said. “Coming off spring ball, I got a lot more knowledge for the game and for defense. It was just getting back into the football aspect of it. There’s still a lot for me to learn but I think I’m learning it at a good pace.”

That is welcome news for the Wildcats, considering that the secondary must replace four defensive backs who combined for eight interceptions.

On top of Neal, Arizona adds a handful of newcomers, both freshmen and JUCOs.

“They’re young,” Neal said. “It’s their first year in the system so they’re going to be a little nervous when they step in the game. There’s going a lot of jitters, but I think they’re doing a pretty good job right now picking up the material and going on from there.”

The addition of Neal should ensure Arizona not only greater depth at the position group but also experience.

Neal frequently played cornerback at Chaparral High School, where he was twice named Arizona Gatorade Player of the Year. The previous time at the position allowed Neal to make an “easy transition” from standing on one line of scrimmage to the other. 

“I’m having to flip my hips a lot more,” Neal said. “It’s not an adjustment I couldn’t make.”

By deciding to switch positions way back in February, Neal had extra time to regain the idiosyncrasies of the newer position: especially the change from running forwards to backwards.

Neal spent most of the summer training in Tucson, working with teammates like Cam Denson and Jamar Allah as well as the strength coaches.

“We basically get our whole defensive back group together and go through drills,” Neal said. “We’d make sure everybody is flipping their hips, getting their eyes back to the ball, things like that.”

The chemistry that the group bonded in the hot summer months will soon be tested on the field.

If one thing’s for certain about Neal’s shift to cornerback, it’s that he’s ready to get going for good.

“First game is in two weeks and we haven’t played football in I don’t know how many days,” Neal said. “It’s been too long, especially for us.”


Follow Ezra Amacher on Twitter.


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