Gimino: Arizona's Neal is right at home at cornerback

Gimino: Arizona's Neal is right at home at cornerback
Anthony Gimino
Anthony Gimino

TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - Arizona's DaVonte' Neal is one game into a career at cornerback that could have started three years ago. What he lacks in timing, he makes up for with promise.

OK, so Neal has taken a meandering path to get this point after graduating from Scottsdale Chaparral High School in 2012. Two colleges. Two positions. Lost time.

But, really, no regrets.

Like us all, Neal is the sum of the choices he has made and -- for better or worse along the way -- all of it has led him to being a good place: a starting defensive player at Arizona three years after he enrolled at Notre Dame with hopes of being the Next Big Thing at receiver for the Fighting Irish.

He was a huge recruit, a multi-purpose player who was a two-time Gatorade state Player of the Year. ESPNU ranked Neal as the eighth-best prospect in the nation.

And he wanted to be a star on offense.

"It was my preference and my family's preference," Neal said about playing receiver after Wednesday's practice. "I talked it over with my family and it was a decision that we came to. I was playing receiver more than corner my whole like, so we went with receiver. But, naturally, I think that DB is in me.

"People always told me they saw me as a cornerback in college, and I never understood it because I was so young and I was just playing football. But, now, as I get into my career in college, I see that corner was maybe the best decision out of me."

Maybe?

He's only played one game there, starting last week's opener against UTSA, but he did look like a for-sure natural, tying with safety Will Parks for the team lead with 11 tackles. Neal's athleticism was a given. The physicality -- wrapping up tackles, being strong against the run -- was something to prove after playing exclusively on offense for three seasons.

He called the "physical aspect" of his game what he liked best about his performance.

"I think I developed that at a young age, in Pop Warner, high school," Neal said of being physical. "It transferred over. That is something that I feel like is never going to leave me."

It was only one game, of course, and there shouldn't be too much gushing about anything that happened last week on defense, which gave up 525 yards in a 42-32 victory over the Roadrunners. But as Scooby Wright exited the stage for at least a few weeks with a knee injury, Neal stepped in as an intriguing good fit.

When Neal asked coaches after last season to move from wide receiver, where he caught a modest 27 passes for 214 yards, looking like nothing special, the decision had a whiff of desperation.

More like inspiration.

"He's comfortable there," coach Rich Rodriguez said.

In the opener, he played more than 100 snaps, including special teams. He also returned punts and came off the edge to make Arizona's first blocked field goal attempt since 2002.

"I was tired at the end of the game, went straight to sleep," Neal said.

"I definitely felt the 100-some plays that I played. But that's all part of the game. That's what I'm out here for, to play 115, 120 plays. I'm just trying to play football and contribute."

Neal says now he wishes he had chosen to play cornerback right out of high school, but who knows what doors he would have opened or closed had he chosen that path. He said playing receiver at this level helped him prepare for this moment, and UA history shows us that switching sides of the ball can yield huge success.

"I think it has been a good move for us," Rodriguez said. "I'm glad he's over there."

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Anthony Gimino has covered University of Arizona athletics for more than two decades, including as the football beat writer for the Arizona Daily Star and the columnist for the Tucson Citizen.