Closing time brings a few surprises

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Nothing good usually happens right before closing time, especially for Notre Dame fans. The past few years, with the great exception of Manti Te’o, the Irish always seem to be on the wrong side of a signing day surprise.

While initial returns had Irish fans worried about Brian Kelly’s recruiting philosophies, it seems like the Irish might be building some momentum going into Wednesday, with last weekend’s big recruiting weekend already landing four new commitments.

Here are a few of the undecided recruits that might still be Irish:

MATT JAMES: He seems like priority one (and probably two and three) for the Irish coaching staff. James has known Brian Kelly for two years, respected him enough to have Cincinnati in his three final schools, and has a bunch of reasons why Notre Dame would be a great fit. The 6-foot-8 prospect would do a lot to shore up any potential worries at offensive line in this class, and seems to be the top guy that the staff need to receive a fax from this Wednesday morning.

JEREMY IOANE: A safety that would suddenly fill a position that’s become a need, Ioane is one-half of a Hawaiian contingency that arrived in South Bend last weekend apparently wearing shorts. The Irish targeted Ioane after Kelly arrived, but the Punaho standout has obvious ties to the program with Manti Te’o and Robby Toma. Ioane is a safety that jumps out on film for being a heavy hitter. Tough to argue with that offer, especially after watching the tackling ability from the secondary this season.

KONA SCHWENKE: Part two of the Hawaiian contingency, Schwenke’s verbal commitment to BYU fizzled in the last week. Now it looks like its down to the Irish and Washington for the lanky defensive end. Schwenke projects as one of the top five players in Hawaii, and landing Ioane and/or Schwenke could get some great momentum going for the Irish in Hawaii, a pretty talent-rich state.

EGO FERGUSON
: Ferguson is a  tough guy to read, but he’s a mountain of a prospect and would be a great get by the Irish. The wild-card in all of this is Texas Tech, who recently hired Ferguson’s high school coach at Hargrave Military Academy, Robert Prunty, to coach the defensive line. (Surprise! Ferguson’s position…) It’s a cagey move by Tommy Tuberville, as Hargrave is one of the elite prep-school/post-graduate programs, and always produces a handful of elite college prospects.

DIETRICH RILEY: A few weeks ago I targeted Riley as one of the guys that Brian Kelly had to get, but the scholarship offer to Jeremy Ioane likely means that the Irish staff don’t think they have a legit shot to land the Southern California native. This battle likely comes down to two Los Angeles programs, with Rick Neuheisel most likely beating Lane Kiffin and company for Riley’s services. Riley’s certainly been complimentary about Kelly and the Irish, I just don’t think he’ll leave home.

CHRISTIAN JONES: This blue-chip outside linebacker is still considering the Irish, which says a lot about the recruiting work done by Brian Kelly and Tony Alford. Jones is one of the biggest fish left undecided, and while most people believe it’s a foregone conclusion that he’ll be a Seminole, I’m still really impressed by the word done by the Irish staff. Landing Jones would be almost the equal of last year’s coup on Manti Te’o, and probably a bit more surprising, given the amount of time Kelly had to build a relationship. Second place never feels good, but it’s impressive that the Irish still have a chance at landing Jones.

SEANTREL HENDERSON: Speaking of blue-chippers, Henderson may be the biggest of them all. While the family is playing things close to the vest, I don’t think the Irish are in this race anymore. Henderson spent the weekend visiting Miami, and was in awe of former Hurricanes Ed Reed and Bryant McKinnie, who he spent time with. USC has also done a great job getting back into the race, and the hometown Gophers have done everything possible to try and keep Minnesota’s biggest recruit from fleeing the state. Henderson isn’t the same kind of fit that guys like Ryan Harris and Michael Floyd were at Notre Dame, but he’d certainly step onto campus and compete for the starting left tackle job. I expect Henderson to end up at Ohio State or USC, with the Gophers and Miami as wildcards. 

 

Restocking the roster: Wide Receivers

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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.