The three star conundrum

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(I hope everyone had a merry Christmas and enjoyed some time away from the internet. I did. I’ll keep everybody posted with breaking news and some (hopefully) interesting articles, before getting things cranked back up to full-speed next week.)

As usual, the Wall Street Journal came up with something interesting. Their blog, The Count, tackled the world of college football recruiting, and after analyzing the 1,496 bowl-game starters found that having a highly-rated recruiting class didn’t always correlate to success on the field.

From The Count:

When USC signed every prized football recruit west of the Mississippi
over the past five years, most fans expected national titles every
season. Instead, the Trojans are playing in something called the
Emerald Bowl on Saturday.

If bowl season teaches fans anything, it’s that getting top recruits
doesn’t guarantee success. In this year’s 34 bowls, half of the
participating teams didn’t have a single starter in their final
regular-season game that was considered a top-100 prospect in high
school, according to recruiting Web site Rivals.com. The Count analyzed
1,496 bowl-game starters and found that just 8.4% of them were top-100
recruits.

USC starts 13 top prospects–most among all bowl teams. By contrast,
its opponent Saturday, Boston College, didn’t start a single top-100
prospect in its final regular-season game. In the title game, Texas
starts nine top prospects and Alabama only has three, yet Alabama is a
4-point favorite. Both teams are led by players (Colt McCoy and Heisman
winner Mark Ingram) who weren’t top-100 prospects in high school. This
trend continues in the Rose Bowl, where underdog Ohio State has eight
top prospects compared to Oregon’s zero. Then there’s the Fiesta Bowl,
featuring undefeated TCU and Boise State. Neither team starts a top
recruit.

Notre Dame fans of all people know that winning recruiting titles doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to win big on the football field. But the Journal’s statistical breakdown is certainly lacking in the kind of depth you’d want if you — well, you know — want to make a good point.

Andy Staples over at SI.com beat me to the punch with an intelligent counterpoint to the Journal article.

I’ll let him take it from here:

Author David Biderman analyzed this year’s 1,496 bowl
starters and their teams’ bowl destinations and concluded that
recruiting highly ranked players doesn’t necessarily help teams reach
BCS bowls. Unfortunately, the fact Biderman pegged the story on — that
USC, with a multitude of starters who were ranked in the Rivals.com top
100, is playing in the Emerald Bowl against a Boston College team that
has no starters who were ranked in the Rivals100 — turned a blind eye
to some critical data. Biderman never mentioned that USC, with players
who are still on this year’s roster, won the Pac-10 and played in a BCS
bowl each of the past three years. Biderman didn’t do anything wrong other than use too small a sample size.

Staples enhanced Biderman’s work and drew some pretty interesting conclusions of his own. Working with the raw data and cataloging it to accurately account for a recruit’s contributions, Staples found a pretty strong correlation between Top 100 signees and BCS Bowls.

“Over the last four seasons, the top four stockpilers of Rivals100 talent have combined to earn nine BCS bowl berths,” Staples concluded.

Those four teams? USC, Texas, Florida, and… Notre Dame.

For those that were clamoring for Charlie Weis’ ouster, that fact might have been your most effective when making the argument to dispose of the former coach.

Staples himself states the case pretty well:

The most curious case is Notre Dame (24 signees), which played in a BCS
bowl in 2006 but has fallen off in recent years. If there ever was a
program ripe to have its recruits overrated, it’s Notre Dame. The
Fighting Irish have a huge, passionate fan bases with plenty of members
more than happy to fork over $9.95 a month to read a treasure trove of
recruiting news. So it’s good for business to keep the rankings high.

That still doesn’t explain one fact. The main reason why Notre Dame
recruits are ranked so high is that they also were pursued by other
elite programs. So either the other schools’ coaches evaluated the
players incorrectly, or the players aren’t reaching their maximum
potential.

For the past two seasons, a chicken-egg argument raged as to whether Charlie Weis
was coaching overhyped, poorly evaluated recruits or whether Weis had
failed to develop accurately rated recruits. Notre Dame’s 2009 team
featured 11 starters ranked in the top 100 as recruits. With the
exception of receiver Golden Tate — ranked No. 101 in the class
of 2007 — the group included Notre Dame’s best players. The players
came in ranked higher than their teammates, and they turned out to be
more talented than their teammates. They just couldn’t beat other teams
outside the closed system that was the Notre Dame practice field. That
speaks to player development.

In other words, the data suggest athletic director Jack Swarbrick made the correct choice when he fired Weis.

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.

***

Kelly and Swarbrick turn attention to science of injury prevention

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Amidst the chaos of their live Signing Day show, UND.com ran had a far-reaching interview with head coach Brian Kelly. It was conducted by his boss, athletic director Jack Swarbrick, and his former team captain, Joe Schmidt.

So while there was a little bit of talk about the 23 recruits who signed their national letters-of-intent, there was also a very illuminating exchange on an issue that’s really plagued the Irish the past few seasons: Injuries.

Football is a dangerous game. And for as long as people play it, there’ll be impactful injuries that take players off the field. But as Notre Dame settles into what looks like their longest run of stability since the Holtz era, the focus of Kelly and Swarbrick has moved past modernizing the team’s medical services, strength program and nutrition and onto the science of injury prevention.

Here’s what Kelly said about the efforts currently taking shape:

“I think the science piece is very important, because no longer is it just about strength and conditioning,  it’s about durability. It’s the ability to continue to play at an optimal level but also with the rigors of a college schedule, and particularly here at Notre Dame, how do we maximize the time but maximizing getting the most out of our student-athletes and not lose them?

“As you know, we’ve had a couple years here in a rough stretch of injuries. And how do we have an injury prevention protocol that brings in the very best science? You’ve done a great job of reaching out in getting us those kind of resources. so I think tapping into that is probably the next piece. As well as providing the resources for our student-athletes. Continuing to look at facilities. Continuing to give our student-athletes maybe that little edge. Because everybody’s got 85 scholarships.”

It’s clear that the issue is one that’s on the radar for not just Kelly, but the athletic administration. So it’ll be interesting to see some of the steps taken as the program begins investing time and additional resources to an issue that’s really hit the Irish hard the past few seasons.

There’s plenty of other good stuff in the 13-minute interview, so give it a watch.