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Notre Dame football: Irish frosh receivers are growing up fast

By ERIC HANSEN - Follow me @hansensouthbend

South Bend Tribune Staff Writer

6:07 PM PDT, August 13, 2012

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SOUTH BEND -- After football practice, sometimes before games and in seemingly every other free moment, Justin Ferguson wasn't eating $5 footlongs.

He was making them.

And running the register at a Subway restaurant near his home in Pembroke Pines, Fla., and cleaning and even working security detail.

"Yeah, there was one time these guys came in and I thought I was going to get robbed," the Notre Dame freshman wide receiver said. "But they turned out to be cool. They just wanted something to eat.

"Most of the time I was in there by myself. I was almost running the store. I was doing my thing in there."

That included instituting a tip jar, which once netted him $30 in one shift.

He admits his newest venture is significantly more difficult -- getting into the wide receiver rotation for the Irish, though ND coach Brian Kelly has certainly opened that door wide for Ferguson and fellow frosh receivers Davonte' Neal and Chris Brown.

"We think they all have a chance to contribute as true freshmen," Kelly said. "It's kind of early to say for sure, but we're not afraid to put them out there. They certainly are not afraid to play."

Eleven practices into the 29 that predate ND's Sept. 1 season opener against Navy in Ireland, the 6-foot-2, 196-pound Ferguson is the most physical of the three, the 6-2, 184-pound Brown the biggest surprise from the outside looking in, the 5-9, 175-pound Neal the owner of the most impressive high school/recruiting résumé.

That includes a 26.6-yard average on punt returns last season at Chaparral High in Scottsdale, Ariz., 39.9 on kickoff returns -- two of the jobs at ND for which he is also auditioning.

He also led his team to three consecutive Arizona state titles and was the most impressive player nationally in terms of measurables (40-yard dash time, etc.) at the U.S. Army Combine in San Antonio, Texas, back in 2011.

"I know that coach Kelly had a plan for me the whole time." said Neal, who initially wasn't sure whether he'd end up as a cornerback or wide receiver at ND. "Wherever you put me, I'm going to go make plays."

Neal's own plan includes picking the brain of Notre Dame's all-time leading receiver, recently graduated Michael Floyd. Neal reached out to the Arizona Cardinals rookie shortly after Floyd was drafted in April, and the two continue to stay in touch.

"He basically gave me tips on transitioning to the next level," Neal said. "Things that are going to be different, things that are going to change and things that need to be worked on. And I just thank Michael Floyd for helping me out."

That included the impending culture shock beyond X's and O's.

"You have questions of how is Notre Dame, how is the academics. how are the people there?" Neal said. "He told me I should have no problem handling it, because he can handle it. He just let me know it's fun."

Neal certainly casts a divergent impression from the one he did in February, when he joined the Irish recruiting class three weeks after national signing day and stood up a gym full of elementary school kids on the day of his announcement.

"It was just we had a family issue happen that morning," he said. "Obviously, family comes first in my book. I had to handle my family business at first, because that was what was most important to me at the time. I did let a lot of kids down, which I apologize for, but my family comes first before anything.

"I've done a lot of things with kids. I've talked to Pop Warner teams before, give them some tips and things like that. I love kids. I absolutely love working with kids."

Neal's clearest path to early playing time could come on special teams, though Kelly is exhausting every possibility at the return positions -- actually calling it "a Gong Show" -- before he starts narrowing the field.

"Just being coachable, that's the main thing," Neal said when asked how he planned to try to translate his PlayStation-esque high school return numbers to the collegiate level. "And listening to your teammates as well. They know best. They were in the game before. They've done it before. Just keep my mind open to any coaching that I can take."

Brown, meanwhile, is not only taking to coaching, he's put his burgeoning track and field career in escrow for the time being.

The reigning South Carolina state champ in the triple jump, long jump and 400 relay (and second in the 200-meter dash) recorded a personal best in the high jump at Hanahan (S.C.) High of 51-feet-21/2. That got ND track coach Joe Piane's attention.

That distance would rank as the third-best ever in outdoor track at Notre Dame and just 81/2 inches off the school record.

"Triple jump was fun, but my No. 1 love is football," Brown said. "My No. 1 focus right now is helping the team and trying to get better at football."

It seems to be working. Brown was ranked as only the No. 81 wide receiver prospect at his position by Rivals.com and didn't crack the top 250 overall in the last recruiting cycle.

But the least celebrated signee in a wide receiver class that included University of Houston freshman Deontay Greenberry until hours before signing day, is giving Kelly reason to celebrate.

He has put on 14 pounds after arriving at 170 and is looking far more like a legitimate option in the passing game than a track and field guy trying to play football.

"Of course, I watched the triple jump in the Olympics," Brown said. "Davonte' is very close with (silver medalist) Will Claye, so we were watching it together.

"But football is where my head is. I want to eventually play at 200 pounds, but I have plenty of time. I'm in shape. I still have my speed and I'm working hard every day."

Staff writer Eric Hansen:
ehansen@sbtinfo.com
574-235-6112