SOUTH BEND – Notre Dame freshman receivers Davonte’ Neal, Chris Brown and Justin Ferguson have become fast friends.
Justin Ferguson and I clicked right away from the first day we met. It was like love at first sight, as they say, Neal said Monday. Chris Brown was his roommate (during summer classes), so I was around Chris a lot during the summer. Those guys are great athletes. They are great receivers on the outside, and they know how to play football.
Now coach Brian Kelly hopes that the three receivers can contribute as quickly as they formed a bond with each other.
The Irish are looking to replace the productivity of Michael Floyd, who was selected by the Arizona Cardinals in the first round of the NFL draft after he graduated.
Notre Dame will likely lean more heavily on seniors John Goodman, a Bishop Dwenger graduate, and Robby Toma, juniors TJ Jones and Daniel Smith and sophomore DaVaris Daniels as well as running back Theo Riddick as receivers to start the season.
But Kelly said he will not hesitate to play any of the freshmen this year.
It’s kind of early to really say for sure, but we’re not afraid to put them out there. And they’re certainly not afraid to play, Kelly said. I think when you really look at the young guys that compete, those are the guys that really have confidence in their ability to go out there. All three of them are very confident in themselves. We’re going to keep putting them out there with the first group and keep them in our rotation and let them get some action.
Neal has been at slot receiver and also has trained with the running backs during the fall practices that have been open to the media. The 5-foot-9, 171-pound Scottsdale, Ariz., native was his state’s Gatorade player of the year the past two years and scored 35 touchdowns – 16 receiving, 14 rushing and five on kickoff or punt returns – in his senior season.
Brown and Ferguson have been used at both outside receiver spots during the first week of camp.
The 6-2, 172-pound Brown, who is from Hanahan, S.C., caught 33 passes for 532 yards and 12 touchdowns, playing in only 4 1/2 games last year because of a collarbone injury.
The 6-2, 196-pound Ferguson, who is from Pembroke Pines, Fla., caught 29 passes for 527 yards and nine touchdowns in his senior year.
All of us collectively, we just want to make the team better, Ferguson said. It is not just going to be one person to be that standout player. We are all just going to do it as a team.
The freshmen could help the most on punt returns.
Brown and Neal have fielded punts during practices as the Irish try to fix a return game that gained only 3.7 yards per return last season.
They have me back there, Brown said. They put me wherever they want, and I go and try and make plays with it. They said the position is open, and we are trying to make plays.
All three receivers said they are not worrying about whether they will play in the first game or even their first season at Notre Dame. Instead, they are trying to master the playbook, so they are ready if they get a chance to enter a game.
The playbook is the biggest part for all of us freshmen, Neal said. Just trying to get to know the playbook, getting it down, and make sure we know exactly what we are doing, so if they do throw us in there, we know exactly what we are doing.