Final recruiting weekend proves pivotal

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As the final weekend on the recruiting calendar approaches, the Irish coaching staff pulled out all the stops to make this weekend the biggest in the Brian Kelly era.

With less than a week left before letters-of-intent begin to get faxed into the Notre Dame football office, Kelly and his staff have put together an impressive group of players that will trip to South Bend for official visits.

Here’s a quick look at the recruits who’ll be visiting:

Matt James (OL): Every list should start with this hulking offensive lineman from Cincinnati. James, who will decide between the Irish, Ohio State, and Cincinnati, is the most likely candidate of the true blue-chippers to commit to the Irish, and he’ll be all ears to Kelly and his staff this weekend.

Luke Massa (QB): Massa is one of the trio of quarterbacks to be recently offered by the Irish. Even though he’s a verbal to the Bearcats, he’ll join his high school teammate James in South Bend for the official visit. Some suspect that the Massa offer was an attempt at a package deal. If it works as well as the Roby Toma offer, Irish fans should be pinching themselves.

Jeremy Ioane (S): Speaking of Toma and Manti Te’o, Ioane was a prep teammate of the duo from Punaho. He represents a need for the Irish, and a more than capable replacement for Dietrich Riley, who looks to be extending his decision for a few days.

Kona Schwenke (DE): Another eleventh hour offer from Kelly and another Hawaii native. (Talk about the Pineapple Express…) Schwenke is committed to BYU, but projects to be a long-bodied defensive end prospect that has shown some real athleticism. This would be a great steal for Notre Dame, especially after the loss of Blake Lueders.

Brandon Bourbon (RB): Now this would be a great vengeance recruit. Bourbon, committed to Stanford since August, hopped at the offer by Kelly, and will take his trip to Notre Dame this weekend all ears. If the Irish manage to reel in Bourbon, that’ll be a four-for-one trade with Stanford, losing Lueders, but gaining Chris Badger, Tai-ler Jones, and Tate Nichols.

Danny Spond (QB/ATH): Spond was the first of the “big skill” offers from Kelly, who just happened to play quarterback. The Colorado native grades out impressively as an athlete and would be a great recruiting victory for Kelly, who deserves credit for targeting the one-time Colorado commitment.

Derek Roback (QB/ATH): Another recent offer, Roback doesn’t necessarily profile out as the best quarterback visiting, but he’s got a lot of great attributes as an athlete. He looks like a perfect example of a developmental player that Kelly and staff successfully targeted at Cincy.

Also joining the crew on campus will be commitments Christian Lombard (OL), Andrew Hendrix (QB), Austin Collinsworth (WR/S), Daniel Smith (WR), and Tate Nichols (OT) who will all be taking their official visits. Each of these committed recruits will be critical building positive momentum as the undecided prospects take their final visits before locking into a college choice.

South Bend expects chilly temperatures and a decent chance of snow before clearing up and warming slightly over the weekend. Kelly and company could use a picturesque campus to go along with his proven track record when making his sales pitch.

This is Brian Kelly’s biggest weekend as the head coach of Notre Dame. We’ll tell if he won or loss Saturday by the number of faxes that come in on Wednesday.  

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)

 

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

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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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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.