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.

Notre Dame beats Michigan for three-star TE Tommy Tremble

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One of Notre Dame’s deepest positions got even stronger with the Thursday morning commitment of rivals.com three-star tight end Tommy Tremble (Wesleyan High School; Norcross, Ga.). The No. 18 tight end in the class, per rivals.com, Tremble’s decision essentially came down to the Irish or Michigan.

A Wednesday night visit from Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, offensive coordinator Chip Long and running backs coach Autry Denson may have played a part in tipping the scales, though Tremble told Blue & Gold Illustrated he had been leaning toward the Irish since his official visit in October.

“There’s not many tight ends in the country that can do the kind of things that I can do,” Tremble said, then referencing Long’s view of the position in his system. “[Long] said with that in this type of offensive scheme it could be explosive.

“I’m going to be the hardest working at the entire college at anything. At everything too, not just football. I’m just going to make it work.”

In his first season at Notre Dame, Long showed his predilection for using multiple tight ends at a time, often pairing fifth-year senior Durham Smythe with junior Alizé Mack. Smythe would act as an additional offensive lineman who could slip out for a route while Mack’s duties were more akin to a receiver’s as often as not. Smythe finished his best collegiate season with 13 catches for 234 yards and a touchdown while Mack added 19 catches for 166 yards and a score. Current senior and returning fifth-year Nic Weishar chipped in seven catches for 39 yards and two touchdowns.

With two tight ends in this class now — Tremble joins consensus four-star George Takacs (Gulf Coast H.S.; Naples, Fla.) — Long should be able to continue with such as often as he wants. In 2017 he showed no caution in deploying freshmen Brock Wright and Cole Kmet occasionally. Presumably, Tremble and Takacs could see similar workloads from the outset.

The No. 52 overall player in Georgia, Tremble also held offers from Georgia, Auburn and UCLA, among others. He is the 20th commitment in the class with the early signing period commencing Wednesday.

Last week, Weishar declared his intention to return for a fifth year.

Notre Dame lands four-star former FSU commit, Houston Griffith, at safety

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If its defensive backfield was a concern this recruiting cycle, Notre Dame is putting together a strong finish to the class of 2018 to eradicate those worries. Consensus four-star Houston Griffith (IMG Academy; Bradenton, Fla.) became the second defensive back to commit to the Irish this week with his Tuesday evening declaration and the fifth of Notre Dame’s 19 (and counting) expected signees.

Griffith immediately becomes the most highly-rated commit in the Irish class. Rivals.com considers him the No. 3 safety in the class, the No. 9 player in Florida and the No. 35 overall prospect in the country. He had long been a Notre Dame target but initially committed to Florida State, partly due to the Irish struggles a year ago.

After Notre Dame showed much improvement this season — more specifically, its defensive shift — Griffith reopened his recruitment in late November.

“The changes that [Irish coach Brian Kelly] made really helped,” Griffith told Blue & Gold Illustrated. “The guys I know up there tell me it’s a different program, it’s a different team up there. Last season was a learning year and this year shows that they are starting to get all the pieces.”

Griffith has certainly bought in on the direction trending from 2016 to 2017.

“I feel like the next few years all the pieces are there to compete for a national championship.”

In addition to the Seminoles, Griffith held scholarship offers from the vast majority of college football’s powers, including Alabama, Michigan, Ohio State and USC.

He presents as a safety and seems to have been targeted as one, but he could also see early time at cornerback. In theory, a freshman may have a better chance of grasping that latter position. Then again, Notre Dame has a few established playmakers at cornerback; it very much does not have that luxury at safety.

At either position, Griffith and his fellow defensive back commits should shore up a position grouping that the Irish essentially whiffed on in 2017, when only two safeties were signed (Isaiah Robertson and Jordan Genmark-Heath) with no cornerbacks in the mix. Griffith is the third safety in the class of 2018, joining consensus four-star Derrik Allen (Lassiter H.S.; Marietta, Ga.) and consensus three-star Paul Moala (Penn; Mishawaka, Ind.).

All three, as well as the two cornerback commits and the other 14 prospects, are intended to sign with Notre Dame during this year’s early signing period, Dec. 20-22.

Where Notre Dame was & is: Running Backs

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Notre Dame’s running game stood little chance of exceeding expectations this season, considering how ambitious they were to start. This space’s preseason predictions, intended as a conservative and realistic harbinger of the months then-ahead, projected junior running back Josh Adams to gain 1,174 to 1,274 rushing yards this season. That upper limit would have placed Adams fourth in Irish program history, just ahead of his position coach’s 1,268 yards gained in 1997.

With a game to go, Adams stands only 51 yards of breaking Vagas Ferguson’s single-season record of 1,437 rushing yards, set back in 1979.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
In addition to the anticipation regarding Adams’ third season as a contributor, the Notre Dame backfield had depth entering the season. Junior Dexter Williams could provide a speed threat while sophomore Tony Jones built on springtime buzz as a do-everything option, often described as the best receiver of the group.

Early-enrolled freshman C.J. Holmes’ shoulder injury in spring practice seemingly sidelined him for the season, opening the door for sophomore Deon McIntosh to move from receiver to the backfield as a rest-granting fourth-stringer.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
As good as the season was for the Irish on the ground, it will be marked by “What if” thoughts as much as anything else. What if Adams had not worn down as the season progressed? What if Williams had been healthy for more than a week or two in the season’s first two months?

Even with his figurative crawl to the season’s conclusion, Adams surpassed all preseason projections and expectations. It still must be noted he gained only 195 yards on 54 carries in the final three regular season games, a 3.61 average.

Williams, meanwhile, was limited throughout the year. At the beginning, specifically against Georgia, that appeared to be by coaching decisions, but for most of the season, ankle and quad ailments robbed the speedster of his primary quality.

Absolutely no one expected sophomore Deon McIntosh to be the second-leading rusher among Notre Dame’s running backs in 2017. Credit to McIntosh, though, for making the most of an opportunity granted by others’ injuries.(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Jones, when healthy, provided a schematic shift as much as any statistical production. Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long clearly preferred Jones to be half of any two-back formation, due to Jones’ overall aptness.

McIntosh capitalized on every chance granted him, providing fourth-quarter rest to those limping from sprained ankles whenever the Irish had a worthwhile lead.

STATISTICALLY SPEAKING
Some of a statistical influx in rushing production should be credited to junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush, but the ground game as a whole was more successful in 2017 than it was a year ago no matter how the numbers are dissected.

2016: 2,123 yards on 410 carries (sacks adjusted); 176.9 yards per game and 5.18 yards per rush.
2017: 3,462 yards on 501 carries (sacks adjusted); 288.5 yards per game and 6.91 yards per rush.

— Jr. Josh Adams: 1,386 yards on 191 carries; nine touchdowns; 7.3 yards per rush; 10 catches for 82 yards.
— So. Deon McIntosh: 368 yards on 65 carries; five touchdowns; 5.7 yards per rush; three catches for eight yards.
— Jr. Dexter Williams: 324 yards on 37 carries; four touchdowns; 8.8 yards per rush; two catches for 13 yards.
— So. Tony Jones: 232 yards on 43 carries; three touchdowns; 5.4 yards per rush; four catches for 13 yards.
— Fr. C.J. Holmes: 32 yards on eight carries; 4.0 yards per rush.

COMING QUESTIONS
Will Adams stay for his senior year and further his assault on the Notre Dame record books or will he head to the NFL Draft with a year of collegiate eligibility remaining? He very much should take the latter option. Running backs’ careers are not long due to the very nature of the position. For the second year in a row, that wear and tear proved itself on Adams. There is little chance he could put together an even better season in 2018.

Thus, this is his chance to go in the Draft’s first couple rounds. By every reasoning, Adams should take this opportunity.

When utilized, junior running back Dexter Williams has proven to be a viable threat for Notre Dame. He has not always been incorporated into the game plan, though, partly due to classmate Josh Adams’ rampant success. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

At that point, will Long be able to incorporate Williams into the two-back set? Those multiple running back formations were some of the most productive looks for the Irish offense, and they almost entirely came with Jones joining Adams. Between pass-catching and pass-blocking, Williams lagged behind those two significantly. For the threats presented in a two-back alignment to be real, though, he will need to broaden his skillset appropriately.

If Williams doesn’t, could a healthy Holmes plug into the system? As much praise as McIntosh received, and earned, this season, he will never be the answer in the Notre Dame backfield. Holmes may be.

With Wimbush again the presumed starter in 2018, the ground game will be featured for another fall. The offensive line is (almost certainly) losing two first-round Draft picks, but it has enough experience to hold its own moving forward. Which back emerges as the workhorse if Adams turns pro could be the biggest offensive question all spring and summer. Williams may present the most big-play potential, but Jones has already shown greater consistency overall.

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame was & is: Special Teams
Where Notre Dame was & is: Tight Ends

Monday’s Leftovers: Notre Dame lands second cornerback commitment

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Hardly a week shy of the early signing period, Notre Dame doubled its cornerback haul in the class of 2018 with Tariq Bracy’s commitment Sunday night.

A rivals.com three-star recruit, Bracy (Milpitas High School, Calif.) had long said the Irish led in his recruitment, having visited campus for Notre Dame’s 49-14 victory over USC on Oct. 21. Rivals rates Bracy as the No. 65 overall prospect in California.

“The coaches, they made me feel welcome,” Bracy said to Blue & Gold Illustrated. “They really wanted me to go down there. They like my skillset. The players, they were welcoming, too. It’s really the whole atmosphere about Notre Dame, and the academics, too.”

Bracy opted for the Irish over a number of schools on the west coast, including Utah, Cal and Washington State.

Notre Dame now has 18 commitments in the class, including consensus-three star cornerback Joseph Wilkins (North Fort Myers H.S., Fla.). All 18 are expected to sign National Letters of Intent during the inaugural early signing period Dec. 20-22. For that matter, it remains possible an additional commitment or two could join those ranks either before the three-day stretch or in the midst of it.

Irish coach Brian Kelly has said he would evaluate any commitment not signing during the December dates as not being genuinely committed to Notre Dame, still needing further recruitment.

— Bracy’s, and Wilkins’, commitment holds more value for the Irish than many of the other 16 in the class thus far. In the last recruiting cycle, Notre Dame failed to sign so much as one cornerback.

Neither Bracy nor Wilkins may start in 2018. They, in fact, almost certainly will not, but they will provide both depth and a possibility of a future at the position.

— Just as another reminder — it is listed twice on the legal pad providing today’s outline, after all — the early signing period runs from Dec. 20 to Dec. 22. There will still be a nationwide focus on National Signing Day, Feb. 7, as any recruits not yet signed will have even more of a share of the spotlight.

— Bowl games have little long-term evaluatory value. They do, however, provide a delightful stretch of mid-day and/or mid-week December distractions. As an example, consider the game-a-day outlook on the horizon …

Sat., Dec. 16: Middle Tennessee St. v. Arkansas State; 8 p.m. ET; a high-scoring affair, if nothing else.
Tues., Dec. 19: Akron vs. FAU; 7 p.m. ET; Lane Kiffin with a nation’s lonely eyes turned to him.
Wed., Dec. 20: Louisiana Tech vs. Southern Methodist; 8 p.m. ET.
Thurs., Dec. 21: Temple vs. Florida International; 8 p.m. ET; Notre Dame’s season-opening opponent is favored by seven.
Fri., Dec. 22: Central Michigan vs. Wyoming; 4 p.m. ET; Josh Allen’s farewell to college football.
Sat., Dec. 23: Texas Tech vs. South Florida; 12 p.m. ET; This very well may end up being the most-dramatic bowl game.
Sun., Dec. 24: Houston vs. Fresno St.; 8:30 p.m. ET.
Tues., Dec. 26: Kansas State vs. UCLA; 9 p.m. ET.
Wed., Dec. 27: Boston College vs. Iowa; 5:15 p.m. ET; Of the 10 Irish foes in bowl games, six are like the Eagles, underdogs.
Thurs., Dec. 28: Stanford vs. TCU; 9 p.m. ET; A healthy Bryce Love could erase the 2.5-point spread in the Horned Frogs favor.
Fri., Dec. 29: USC vs. Ohio State; 8:30 p.m. ET; As strongly as the Trojans finished the season, they are still touchdown underdogs in the Cotton Bowl.
Sat., Dec. 30: Wisconsin vs. Miami, 8 p.m. ET; Despite playing at home, literally so, the Hurricanes are nearly touchdown underdogs.
Mon., Jan. 1: Georgia vs. Oklahoma; 5 p.m. ET; Frankly, Notre Dame vs. LSU in the Citrus Bowl will be but an appetizer for an evening of outstanding college football.