Frazer's return highlights recruiting's challenges

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Zach Frazer will walk onto the field at Notre Dame Stadium Saturday and start at quarterback, fulfilling a dream he had when he became the first high profile recruiting commitment of the Charlie Weis era.

That the dream is coming true isn’t a testament to Frazer’s patience, but merely a coincidence that Notre Dame is playing Connecticut, where Frazer transferred after his freshman season. UConn will play Notre Dame for the first time in either schools’ history.

Frazier came to Notre Dame as the hand-picked quarterback of Weis and then quarterbacks coach David Cutcliffe, the man responsible for grooming the Manning brothers. When asked to look back on Zach’s recruitment yesterday, Weis still remembered plenty.

“Zach was interesting. You know, his junior year he was surrounded by a bunch of front line players and a lot
of weapons,” Weis said. “They were really, really
good his junior year. Then they lost a lot of players going
into his senior year, and he was kind of a one-man gang. He came here and was a good player for
us. We went through a spring where things didn’t
work out in the depth chart for him, and he decided it would be in his
best interest to try to find another opportunity. It was a very cordial way he handled it. I’m glad to see him playing. I just hope he doesn’t play very well this week.”

Frazier’s wayward road was a common theme Charlie Weis’ much heralded 2006 recruiting class. Twenty-eight players gave their commitment to Notre Dame, headlined by Sam Young, James Aldridge, Matt Carufel, Demetrius Jones, Konrad Rueland and Frazer. The fact that of those blue-chip recruits only Young has turned into a front-line player shows the difficulties that come with projecting a recruiting class.

Jones, Carufel, Reuland, Richard Jackson, Munir Prince, Luke Schmidt, Bartley Webb, Jashaad Gaines, Will Yeatman, every one of those recruits came to Notre Dame and left without their promise fulfilled. For Schmidt and Webb, injuries derailed them. For Yeatman, a much-publicized fall out with a rigid Student Affairs office got in the way of a promising two-sport career. For others attrition came from transfers for various reasons.

Of the vaunted 28-member class, let’s take a look at the contributions they’ve made, working down from one to twenty-eight.

1) Sam Young: Even if he has yet to become the player many hoped, he started every game he suited up for in his Notre Dame career. I don’t think many other offensive tackles can say that.

2) Eric Olsen: Heart and soul of offensive line. Would’ve been great to let him redshirt.

3) Robby Parris: Turned into the lone offensive weapon out of this recruiting class.

4) Chris Stewart: Transformed his body to be solid contributor on offensive line. Catalyst for recruiting class as high schooler.

5) Darrin Walls: Career hasn’t been what many hoped, but still has a year left to fulfill his promise.

6) Sergio Brown: Sometimes you notice him for the wrong reasons (tackling against Pitt), but he’s one of the only play-makers on the defense.

7) Dan Wenger: Took one for the team this year while providing depth along the line. Helped start the Aquinas pipeline with Young.

8) Raeshon McNeil: A forgotten man that still ranked 11th in school history in passes broken up heading into this season.

9) John Ryan: Looked lost early in his career, but has become a nice role player at defensive end.

10) James Aldridge: A high school knee injury never let us see the five-star recruit that signed with the Irish. A valuable contributor at fullback/halfback when not injured.

11) Toryan Smith: Notre Dame’s best run-stuffing linebacker lost his job with the emergence of Manti Te’o. (Would’ve been valuable against Navy…)

12) Paddy Mullen: Recruited as a tight end, has become nice presence as goal-line nose tackle.

13) Barry Gallup: Found his niche as special teams ace/kick returner.

14) George West: Never broke through as a offensive threat, but deserves kudos as one of the school’s first early enrollees.

15) Leonard Gordon: Hybrid corner/safety that also contributes on special teams.

16) Morrice Richardson: Promising edge rusher that loss reps with the emergence of Kapron Lewis-Moore.

17) Kallen Wade: Ditto.

18) Zach Frazer: Now the starting quarterback at UConn. Can’t blame him after coming out third in the 2007 quarterback derby behind Demetrius Jones and Jimmy Clausen.

19) Luke Schmidt: Promising H-back robbed of career from lingering concussion and injury issues.

20) Will Yeatman: Two-sport threat probably won’t be donating to university after getting mistreated by Student Affairs. Transferred to Maryland to play football and lacrosse.

21) Bartley Webb: Tackle prospect lost to a career ending shoulder injury.

22) Munir Prince: Running back/cornerback transferred to Missouri after getting passed in depth chart.

23) Richard Jackson: Seldom used receiver transferred to UCF. No longer on the roster.

24) Jashaad Gaines: Seldom used safety now plays linebacker for Texas Southern.

25) Konrad Reuland: Former blue-chip recruit struggled to break through at Notre Dame and transferred to Stanford. Has five catches this season for the Cardinal.

26) Ryan Burkhart: Hometown product still on scholarship, one of four kickers on the Irish roster.

27) Matt Carufel: Promising offensive guard that transferred home to Minnesota after losing his starting job to Eric Olsen.

28) Demetrius Jones: Former team leader walked out on team after losing his starting job after one game in 2007 to Jimmy Clausen. Nearly enrolled at Northern Illinois before heading to Cincinatti, where he now plays linebacker.

It’s pretty easy to see why this Fighting Irish squad is still struggling with veteran productivity, because this class was almost a complete punt. Even it’s best player failed to live up to his potential, and guys like Robby Parris — good glue guys — shouldn’t be the top skill contributor of the group.

You can’t blame Weis for some of the injuries and attrition that took place, but if you actually go back and look at other top recruiting classes (scroll through USC’s one day), you’ll see that this kind of thing is pretty normal.

Looking at this class today, there isn’t a great defensive player on the list. Walls has the potential to be a good cornerback, but there isn’t a starting caliber front-seven player in the group, which is as good of evidence as you’d want to why this defense is struggling.

Restocking the roster: Offensive Line

Notre Dame offensive line
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When Notre Dame takes the field this spring, there’ll be two very large holes in the offensive line that need filling. All-American left tackle Ronnie Stanley is gone. As is captain Nick Martin at center. Both three-year starters leave Harry Hiestand with some big decisions to make in the coming months as the Irish look to fill those key positions and still field a unit with the ability to dominate in the trenches.

The Irish have had incredible stability at left tackle, with Stanley sliding in seamlessly after four seasons of Zack Martin. Perhaps the best six-year run in the program’s storied history at the position, Stanley will likely join Martin as a first-rounder, back-to-back starters at a key spot that often dictates the play of one of the most important units on the field.

Replacing Nick Martin could prove equally tricky. Rising junior Sam Mustipher served as Martin’s backup in 2015, filing in capably for Martin after an ankle sprain took him off the field briefly against UMass. But Mustipher will face a challenge this spring from rising sophomore Tristen Hoge, the first true center recruited by Hiestand and Brian Kelly since they arrived in South Bend.

Kelly talked about 2017 being a big cycle on the recruiting trail for restocking the offensive line. You can see why when you look at the depth, particularly at tackle. Let’s look at the work that’s been done the previous two classes as Notre Dame continues to be one of the premier programs recruiting in the trenches.

 

DEPARTURES
Ronnie Stanley
, Sr. (39 starts)
Nick Martin, Grad Student (37 starts)
Mark Harrell, Sr* (No Starts, fifth-year available)

*Harrell’s departure is not confirmed, though expected.  

2015-16 ADDITIONS
Tristen Hoge
, C
Trevor Ruhland
, G
Jerry Tillery
, T
Parker Boudreaux
, G
Tommy Kraemer
, T
Liam Eichenberg
, T

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Hunter Bivin, T
Quenton Nelson, LG
Sam Mustipher, C
Steve Elmer, RG
Mike McGlinchey, RT

Alex Bars, T
Colin McGovern,* G/T
Tristen Hoge*, C
John Montelus*, G
Jimmy Byrne*, G
Trevor Ruhland*, G

*Has an additional year of eligibility remaining. 

ANALYSIS:
It’ll be a fascinating spring up front for the offensive line. We’ll get our first look at potential replacements and see if the Irish staff values a veteran presence (as it has done in the past) or puts former blue-chip recruits in position to become multi-year starters.

For now, I’m putting last season’s backups in line to ascend to starting spots. That’s not to say I think that’s what’ll happen. Hunter Bivin may have been Stanley’s backup last season, but as long as Alex Bars is fully recovered from his broken ankle, I think he’s the best bet to step into that job. Sharing reps at guard—not a natural spot for Bars to begin with—was more about getting him some experience, with the aim to move him into the lineup in 2016. That allows Bivin to be a key swing reserve, capable of playing on either the right or left side.

At center, the decision is less clear cut—especially since we’ve yet to see Tristen Hoge play a snap of football. Size and strength is a genuine concern at the point of attack for Hoge, not necessarily the biggest guy hitting campus. But it sounds like he’s had a nice first season from a developmental standpoint, and if he’s a true technician at the position, he could be a rare four-year starter at center if he’s able to pull ahead of Mustipher this spring.

On paper, the other three starting jobs don’t seem to be in question. Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey are ready to step to the forefront. Concerns about Steve Elmer’s buy-in will certainly be answered by spring, there’s little chance he’ll be on the field in March if he’s not going to be around in August. I’m of the mind that Elmer’s too good of a character guy to leave the program, even if his life doesn’t revolve around football 24/7. Now it’s time for him to clean up some of the flaws in his game, the only starter from last season who held back the Irish from being a truly elite group.

Depth isn’t necessarily a concern, but there isn’t a ton of it at tackle. That happens when you move a guy like Jerry Tillery to defensive line and lose a player like Stanley with a year of eligibility remaining. That could force the Irish to cross-train someone like Colin McGovern, a veteran who can swing inside or out if needed. McGovern seems to be a guy who would start in a lot of other programs, but has struggled to crack a two-deep that’s now filled with former blue-chip recruits, all of them essentially handpicked by Hiestand and Kelly.

Restocking the roster: Wide Receivers

Notre Dame v Florida State
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Some believe that the best way to look at recruiting is in two-year increments. As programs rebuild and rosters turn over, covering the needs of a football team over two recruiting cycles  allows a coaching staff to balance its roster.

That balance is critical to the health of a program. And it’s not just the work of a rebuilding coach. As we saw in Brian Kelly’s sixth season, injuries, attrition and scheme change impacted the defense, especially in the secondary.

Another position set to deal with major change is wide receiver. Gone is All-American Will Fuller, departing South Bend after three years, scoring 29 touchdowns over the past two seasons. He’ll look to run his way into the first round of the NFL Draft. Also gone are veterans Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle, putting the Irish in an unenviable position, needing to replace the team’s three leading receivers.

Reinforcements aren’t just on the way, they’re already on campus. While there’s not a ton of production to see, the recruiting stockpile has created a chance to reload for Mike Denbrock’s troop. So let’s take a look at the additions and subtractions on the roster, analyzing the two-year recruiting run as we restock the receiving corps.

DEPARTURES
Will Fuller
, Jr. (62 catches, 1,258 yards, 14 TDs)
Chris Brown, Sr. (48 catches, 597 yards, 4 TDs)
Amir Carlisle, GS (32 catches, 355 yards, 1 TD)
Jalen Guyton, Fr. (transfer)

 

2015-16 ADDITIONS
Equanimeous St. Brown

Miles Boykin*
CJ Sanders
Jalen Guyton
Chase Claypool*
Javon McKinley*
Kevin Stepherson*

 

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Corey Robinson, Sr.
Torii Hunter, Sr.*
Justin Brent, Jr.*
Corey Holmes, Jr.*
CJ Sanders, Soph.
Miles Boykin, Soph.*
Equanimeous St. Brown, Soph.
Kevin Stepherson, Fr.*

 

ANALYSIS
Brian Kelly expects St. Brown to step into Will Fuller’s shoes. If the Irish are able to pluck another sophomore from obscurity to the national spotlight, it’ll say quite a bit about the depth and productivity the Irish staff has built at the position. At 6-foot-5, St. Brown has a more tantalizing skill-set than Fuller—and he was a national recruit out of a Southern California powerhouse. But until we see St. Brown burn past defenders and make big plays, assuming the Irish won’t miss Fuller is a big leap of faith.

The next objective of the spring is getting Corey Robinson back on track. The rising senior had a forgettable junior season, ruined by injuries and some bruised confidence. A player who has shown flashes of brilliance during his three seasons in South Bend, the time is now for Robinson, not just as a performer but as an on-field leader.

Torii Hunter Jr. is also poised for a big season. After finding reps at slot receiver and possessing the versatility to see the field from multiple spots, Hunter needs to prove in 2016 that he’s not just a utility man but an everyday starter. His hands, smooth athleticism and speed should have him primed for a breakout. But Hunter might not want to stay in the slot if CJ Sanders is ready to take over. After a big freshman season on special teams, Sanders looks ready to make his move into the lineup, perhaps the purest slot receiver Brian Kelly has had since he arrived in South Bend.

The rest of the spring depth chart should have modest goals, though all face rather critical offseasons. Justin Brent is three years into his college career and the biggest headlines he’s made have been off the field. Whether he sticks at receiver or continues to work as a reserve running back remains to be seen. Corey Holmes is another upperclassman who we still can’t figure out. Will he ascend into the rotation with the top three veterans gone, or will he give way to some talented youngsters?

Miles Boykin earned praise last August, but it didn’t get him time on the field. He’ll enter spring with four years of eligibility, same as early-enrollee Kevin Stepherson. The Irish staff thinks Stepherson has the type of deep speed that they covet, capable of running past cornerbacks and stretching a defense. Boykin has size and physicality that could present intriguing options for an offense that’ll be less reliant on one man now that Fuller is gone.

Live Video Mailbag: 40-year decision, more BVG, freshmen and more

BVG
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We’ve done plenty of mailbags, but this is our first shot at a Live Video Mailbag. This should be a better way to answer more questions and hopefully interact with a few of you as we try to work off some of yesterday’s Super Bowl snacks.

Topics on the list: The 40-year decision, more Brian VanGorder talk, the incoming (and redshirt) freshmen and a whole lot more.

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