The Junior Rank Camp in Arizona this past weekend, just outside of Phoenix, promised to have some of the more high-profile players from the Grand Canyon State in attendance. True to form, the turnout exceeded most expectations and the action on the field lived up to the advanced hype as competition between the prospects was intense throughout.
Interestingly enough, with seemingly all eyes on the gridiron goings on, things very nearly came to a standstill once Scottsdale (Ariz.) Chaparral's Davonte Neal arrived.
The highly-touted 2012 recruit, an ESPNU 150 Watch List member, was approached beforehand about participating at the three-day camp. Due to prior commitments however, Neal was unavailable. Still, his appearance off the field, as a spectator, created an undeniable buzz.
Suppose that simply comes along with territory when you're one of the more sought-after players in the nation. Make no mistake, Neal is one of the best around which likely explains the added attention directed towards him not only at the Junior Rank Camp, but the constant interest the 5-foot-10 and 170-plus pound athlete receives from colleges all over the country.
"The Junior Rank Camp people reached out to me and my dad about coming out to play, but I have a lot of things going on right now, it was bad timing," said Neal, a talented defensive back who is equally effective when he lines up out wide, or in the slot, at receiver.
Nevertheless, he did make an appearance, presumably to catch a glimpse of some of the region's home-grown talent, even if it was as a bystander this time around.
Cody Ippolito (Scottsdale, Ariz./Chaparral), Daiim Brown (Scottsdale, Ariz./Desert Mountain), Austin Hillman (Glendale, Ariz./Deer Valley), Denzell Dotson (Glendale, Ariz./Cactus) and Elijah White (Chandler, Ariz./Hamilton) were the more well-known 2012 prospects working with former NFL veterans Mark McMillian and Byron Evans at the Junior Rank Camp.
Come to think of it, perhaps Neal had ulterior motives as well.
It was, no doubt, important for him to make his presence felt close to home given the fact that Junior Rank is teaming up with United States Marine Corps to host the Semper Fidelis All-American Bowl on Jan. 3 in Phoenix, in accordance with Fiesta Bowl Week and the BCS bowl game in Arizona.
"Every month, every week, every day, our thing gets bigger and bigger, it's great to be a part of," said McMillian, a coach and operations manager for Junior Rank. "We might not be as well known as some of the camps like Under Armour and Nike. We might not have as many newspaper articles. We might not have as many star players out here. What we do have is the Marines on our side and former NFL players helping out. We're trying to give back to the community. We're not some mom-and-pop camp either. We're no chopped liver, I can tell you that much.
"With Junior Rank, our vision, our goal, is to become an elite level organization and run an elite level camp. We're taking steps in the right direction. We focus on discipline, respect, integrity. We don't settle for mediocrity. We want the kids that come through our camp to learn something about football and life. We're the youngsters biggest fans. I want to sit back and watch these prospects play football on Saturdays and Sundays in the future. Our partnership with the Marines and the Semper Fidelis All-American Bowl is big. This thing is taking on a life of its own."
Neal is being considered for the inaugural event in which 100 of the nation's top seniors will go head-to-head in what figures to be a particularly star-studded East vs. West game. ESPNU 150 Watch List member Tee Shepard (Fresno, Calif./Central) and rising prospect Deontay Greenberry (Fresno, Calif./Washington Union) have already committed to play.
It's also worth mentioning that fellow ESPNU 150 Watch list players such as Kenny Lawler (Upland, Calif./Upland), Matt Morin (Temecula, Calif./Temecula) and Germain Ifedi (Houston, Tex./Westside) have attended a Junior Rank Camp at some point over the course of the past couple of months. Given their participation, each individual figures to garner some level of interest for selection to the Semper Fidelis All-American Bowl.
Given his body of work, Neal could end up adding his name to the list.
In the meantime, it's business as usual for him which essentially means going about his day-to-day life as one of the country's hottest commodities in the never-ending recruiting game. Those searching for proof need not look any further than the 30-plus offers Neal possesses.
"I have a lot of coaches and scouts asking me what position I want to play in college, I'm blessed, I'm in a good situation," Neal said. "I'm not sure where I'll end up on the field. My focus is developing into one of the best all-around players in the country, that's my only goal.
"I feel like I can adapt to any situation. I want to play master both sides of the ball. If it were up to me, I'd play on offense, defense and special teams. I love football so much, I'd be the water boy. I want to prove to everyone out there that they haven't seen the best of Davonte Neal."
Strengthening his claim to be being recognized as one of the country's premier players, regardless of position, was his recent success at the Nike Football Training Camp at Stanford. Neal, after all, did put forth a rather impressive effort against a loaded field of his peers.
For the first time this year at such a gathering, Neal did not focus his efforts in the secondary. Instead, he lined up and took reps at receiver at the NFTC two weeks ago. When all was said and done, Neal opened plenty of eyes and was awarded the position's most valuable player honors.
Keep in mind, plenty of top-notch pass-catchers were at Stanford, among them being fellow ESPNU 150 Watch List members Jaydon Mickens (Los Angeles, Calif./Dorsey), Robert Lewis (South Gate, Calif./South East) and Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick (Rocklin, Calif./Whitney).
"We've been hearing some things lately, like Davonte isn't capable of doing this or that, those things fuel his fire and make him work harder," said Luke Neal, his father. "I think he wanted come out and show people at the Nike Camp how versatile a player he can be. He didn't have much practice at receiver beforehand, just two weeks. Still, he proved the doubters wrong. Challenging him is a mistake, he'll make you pay each and every time.
"Colleges know Davonte can play on both sides of the ball, that's why so many schools are recruiting him. We're talking to schools on a weekly basis. He loves football, he loves the game, he wants to exhaust all his options when he's on the field. He's like Charles Woodson in some ways, like Deion Sanders was when he played. In the end, with being able to play on offense and defense, he's going to be mentally prepared for the next level and ready to embark on his future."
In terms of the next level, the options are many for Neal. He's been contacted by most everyone in the Pac-10 Conference. Schools in the SEC, along with the Big Ten and Big 12 Conferences, have made sure to keep the lines of communication open at all times.
Auburn, Notre Dame and USC are among the powerhouse programs that have put a scholarship offer on the table for Neal. Go ahead and count Arkansas, LSU, Miami (FL) and Penn State as the others extremely interested in his multifaceted services.
"I've been talking with USC for a while, so it didn't surprise me when they offered. With the other schools, it's different. I was shocked when Auburn offered because they usually don't come out West. I spoke with Oklahoma State and North Carolina last week too.
"As of now, I don't plan on narrowing down my list until later, probably next year. I won't take any recruiting trips until some time in November. When the time comes, I'm going to sit down with my dad, with my family, and figure out what's best for me."
If the past is any indication for what's in store for the future, it's reasonable to expect heads to turn when Neal shows up at Junior Rank Camp or at an NFTC such as the one at Stanford. Regardless, his ascent to elite status continues and shows no signs of slowing down.
Sean Ceglinsky covers preps for ESPNLosAngeles.com.