Weekend Leftovers: Ragone, Kelly, Recruiting

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This afternoon, Mike Ragone will make his initial court appearance for his misdemeanor marijuana charge in LaGrange County court. The proceedings might take less than 10 minutes, but they’ll likely carry a weightier consequence for the tight end, especially if he plans to play football this fall for the Irish.

This will be Brian Kelly’s first true disciplinary test, and for the most part, Kelly is playing his cards close to his vest.

“”It’s one thing to have reports about him. I’ve worked with him over
the past three of four months.” Kelly said last Wednesday. “He’s a hard-working kid who
obviously wants to get his degree at Notre Dame and play college football.

“It’s one of those matters that I look at very seriously. We’re
responsible for our student-athletes, whether some people like to shy
away from that responsibility. We want to make sure they represent the
university in a positive way.”

Ragone will likely meet with the Office of Residence Life over the summer semester, where he’ll find out if he’s going to spend next season with the football team, or suspended from school. Not to underscore the seriousness of the charges, but at any other school, Ragone’s looking at a one-game suspension. We’ll find out what Notre Dame thinks about Ragone’s mistake soon enough.

* The Detroit News’ Lynn Henning had a fawning column on Irish coach Brian Kelly last week, pointing out that both Michigan and Michigan State had chances at hiring Kelly, who drew the eyes of many with his impressive work at Grand Valley State and Central Michigan.

Kelly always had the coaching know-how, the savvy, the voltage, to be
a remarkable Big Ten coach. Do you think his years at Grand Valley
State, winning Division II national championships, were the product of a
man leading a small-school team in ways that wouldn’t transfer to the
larger stage?

It was foolishness even a decade ago to believe
Kelly wasn’t on his way to becoming a major national coach. What he did
at Grand Valley was no illusion. He got the recruiting discards from
Division I schools, for the most part, and by way of a head coach’s
engineering, discipline and inspiration turned the Lakers, pound for
pound, into one of the slickest football powers in the country. (Grand
Valley was 41-2 in Kelly’s final three seasons there.)

In the
autumn of 1999, after Nick Saban had departed MSU for LSU, it was easy
to mention Kelly as a potential candidate, even if he was 38 years old
and had coached only in the NCAA’s second tier. That’s because all the
national gurus who understood coaching pedigrees knew Kelly was special.

Michigan State never interviewed him. He was an hour drive away.

He climbed the ladder, of course, taking over Central Michigan when
the Chippewas were lagging, and transforming them quickly into a power.
But the Spartans looked past him again in 2002 when they fired Bobby
Williams and hired John L. Smith.

Kelly got an even better handle
on the Midwest recruiting turf at CMU, which he polished as quickly as
he took the Cincinnati job when Mark Dantonio moved to MSU in 2006.

A
year later, after Kelly had spent a year further toughening a Bearcats
program Dantonio had nicely constructed, Michigan needed a football
coach. Lloyd Carr was retiring.

Kelly was now 46. He had won at
three different Michigan-Ohio stops. He had a sturdy resume, as well as
the snap, crackle and pop of a man with intellect and personality — the
kind of coach who can talk substantively with a university president
and turn around at that night’s banquet and fire-stoke the alumni.

But,
again, he wasn’t quite tall enough timber for Michigan, which instead
hired Rich Rodriguez — a hire, by the way, that in this view was at the
time as smart as Dantonio’s was in East Lansing a year earlier. And the
belief here is that Rodriguez will yet win at Michigan, as Dantonio has
been precisely what MSU needed.

The point is, Kelly never could
quite get two Big Ten schools, in his backyard, to take him seriously at
a point he was already emerging as a dynamic national coach.

It’s scary to think that both Kelly and defensive backs coach Chuck Martin spent most of their coaching careers in the back yards of Spartan and Wolverine fans, and now will be working tirelessly to defeat both teams in the first month of their Notre Dame career. After the start Rich Rodriguez has gotten off to, you’ve got to think there are quite a few Michigan administrators kicking themselves, especially with Kelly and Rodriguez running similar offenses, with Kelly spending his entire career in-state.

* Speaking of glowing columns about Kelly, the Chicago Tribune’s Brian Hamilton spent 24-hours with the man in charge of Notre Dame nation, as he barnstormed the country.  Hamilton goes into great detail about Kelly’s ability to meet-and-greet the masses. It’s not a skill that wins you football games, but it certainly is a skill that wins you the hearts and minds of a fanbase pretty hard-up for a winner.

“It’s not just about change,” Kelly says from his usual seat on the
Notre Dame jet, third back on the right side of the plane. “I think it
has to be met with an energy and excitement. You still have to get
people to buy in. Even after having some lean years. They gotta believe
in me.”

So he engages those people. He clutches their palms, absorbs the stories
about family patriarchs who graduated from Notre Dame before the World War II. He meets their expectant eyes with the assurance they long
for: We are part of this, you and I.

“This is really about, I think, making sure people know the head
football coach at Notre Dame — you can reach out and touch that person,”
Kelly says. “It doesn’t sit up on a tower and is separate from what
Notre Dame represents. It’s not this position that is guarded.”

Maybe he means to strike the note, maybe he doesn’t, but on this the
contrast with his predecessor is impossible to ignore. Charlie Weis was
not lovable, and the Guglielmino Athletics Complex was as welcoming as a
Supermax penitentiary under his watch.

“No one loved Notre Dame more than Charlie Weis,” Kelly says of his
predecessor, an alumnus. “He loved Notre Dame. He knew more about Notre
Dame than I do.

“But I also know that a head football coach, regardless of whether it’s
at Notre Dame or Central Michigan or Grand Valley is also an ambassador
and a very influential person when it comes to shaping sentiments about
how people feel about their program.”

I’m really impressed with the way Kelly handles the media’s questions about the previous coaching staff and Charlie Weis. There’s no way for Kelly to play the Notre Dame card the way Weis could, and to Kelly’s credit he doesn’t try to do that. He’s a head football coach, and Kelly plays that part of his resume up as well as anyone, which is something he should do, because he’s had as much success as any coach the Irish have had in years.

Will Wimbush, Elko and the early enrollees surprise in spring practice?

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 26: Fans congratulate Brandon Wimbush #12 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish after he ran for a 58 yard touchdown against the Massachusetts Minutemen at Notre Dame Stadium on September 26, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Umass 62-27.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Exactly 59 days from today, the Irish will take the field at Notre Dame Stadium. Sure, they will be playing against themselves, but nonetheless, it will be somewhat-competitive football played in gold helmets.

For timing context, exactly 59 days ago, you looked beneath the Christmas tree to learn if Santa Claus left you season tickets, socks or coal. I got socks. They had some of that extra cushioning, so I considered them a suitable treat.

Whether you care about my argyles or not (you don’t), for many the Blue-Gold Game and Christmas morning hold similar excitement. That fact is apparently why Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick does not concern himself when groups of alumni publicly lament his decisions, or lack thereof.

“I never worry about that,” Swarbirck told the Indianapolis Star in an exclusive interview you really should read. Go on, click the link, it will open in a new tab. You can come right back here when you are done.

“The hardest job in athletics is trying to generate passion in your program. If that sort of stuff bothers you, you can’t be the athletic director, head coach or the quarterback at Notre Dame.”

That very passion will undoubtedly lead to frame-by-frame discussions of video snippets from spring practice, parsing of each and every word Irish coach Brian Kelly says in quick interviews after those practices, and extreme pessimism and optimism about the 2017 season.

In the Christmas spirit, what toys could bring the must excitement during the spring unwrapping? Personally, the gift I was unsure of always brought the most joy. I would rather open an unexpected book than know about a charcoal-gray suit. In other words, at least for today, let’s look past the offensive line, the running backs and the inside linebackers. Instead, let’s look forward to learning about… (more…)

How did Mike Elko fare against past Irish opponents?

TALLAHASSEE, FL - OCTOBER 18:  Karlos Williams #9 of the Florida State Seminoles scores the touchdown that would win the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during their game at Doak Campbell Stadium on October 18, 2014 in Tallahassee, Florida.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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Former Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder took over at that position before the 2014 season. Former Wake Forest defensive coordinator, and now VanGorder’s successor at Notre Dame, Mike Elko took over in Winston-Salem at the same time. Since then, the two programs faced common opponents nine times.

With the lone exception of Army, all these games featured ACC opponents. When it comes to talent, Wake Forest tends to be outmatched in the ACC. Recruits from 2011 to 2016 suited up for the Deacons in the 2014-16 seasons. During those six recruiting cycles, Wake Forest never finished higher than No. 10 in the conference according to rivals.com’s rankings. In 2012 and 2014, the Deacons finished at the bottom of the conference in recruiting.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, finished behind an ACC team a total of 10 times over those six years. Florida State outpaced the Irish five times, the exception being Notre Dame’s No. 3-ranked class in 2013 following its national championship game appearance. Clemson finished ahead of the Irish four times (2014 joining 2013 as the outliers), and Miami rounds the listing off with its No. 9-finish in 2012, compared to Notre Dame’s No. 20.

The point being, VanGorder and the Irish could anticipate having a stronger and deeper roster in at least six of the games discussed below. Elko and Wake Forest may have been able to make that argument—and it would be a debatable one—just once, when they faced Duke this past September.

Before comparing the two units’ successes and failures in those nine—actually, 18—contests, let’s establish two points of clarification. Notre Dame and North Carolina State played in a literal hurricane this past October. Comparing that game to any other will accomplish nothing. Furthermore, before anyone starts griping about that afternoon’s play-calling, this is an exercise discussing defensive performances, not offensive. The run:pass distribution of Oct. 1, 2016, bears no significance here.

Secondly, the other two games the Irish played fitting this criteria but after VanGorder’s dismissal—Syracuse and Army—are included below. Only so much of the scheme changed mid-season, and the personnel did not.

If you are busy catching up from a long weekend and do not have the time to look at the numbers below, a quick summary for you: In five of the eight instances, Elko’s unit fared distinctly better than VanGorder’s in multiple notable statistical categories. However, the Deacons struggled with Army’s triple-option attack, and both 2014 Florida State and 2015 Clemson blew right through the aggressive defense far easier than they did against Notre Dame.

Presented in something resembling reverse chronological order: (more…)

Four-star WR Micah Jones chooses Irish; Rees may need to wait; Other late-week reading

jones
rivals.com
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A day may come when Notre Dame suffers a recruiting disappointment in the 2018 cycle, when a high school star spurns the Irish coaching staff for a foe, but it is not this day.

Rivals.com four-star receiver Micah Jones (Warren Township High School; Gurnee, Ill.) committed to Notre Dame on Friday, joining a class of now 10 recruits, including four who committed just this week.

Jones chose the Irish over offers from the likes of Iowa, Michigan State and Ole Miss, among others.

He is the first receiver among the 10 commitments and the seventh considered a four-star prospect. At 6-foot-5, 196 pounds, Jones should present a large target for whomever the Notre Dame quarterback is in the fall of 2018, most likely then-senior Brandon Wimbush.

Tom, Tommy or Thomas; Assistant Coach or Graduate Assistant?
Thomas Rees may need to wait a season before officially being a coach at Notre Dame. The legislation to approve a 10th assistant coach was expected to be voted on, passed and effective in April. A newly-added amendment may push the effective date to following the 2017 season. The amendment will be voted on immediately before the legislation itself is.

The delay makes sense. Most coaching hirings and firings occur in December and January. In theory, creating a one-timing hiring frenzy following spring football could leave many programs in the lurch. In practice, however, this is not anticipated.

“The majority of the FBS guys that I’ve talked with currently believe that 10th coach is going to come from within their own organization,” Todd Berry told the Associated Press. Berry is the executive director of the American Football Coaches Association and former coach at Army and Louisiana-Monroe. “Quality control, graduate assistants, analysts, or they’re planning on hiring somebody that’s out of work.”

A majority is not a unanimity, though, and that carousel will innately work to the disadvantage of the Group of 5 schools.

As for Rees, a graduate assistant can still work extensively with players. The most-pertinent difference between a graduate assistant and an assistant coach is the former cannot recruit. Given Notre Dame’s recent success on the recruiting trail—and the early commitment of class of 2018 consensus four-star quarterback Phil Jurkovec (Pine-Richland H.S.; Gibsonia, Pa.)—Rees may not be an absolute necessity in that regard this cycle.

A Kizer Appraisal
Former NFL scout Greg Gabriel took a look at former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer this week, largely paying the draft prospect compliments.

In calling Kizer “the most talented quarterback in this draft class,” Gabriel set a high ceiling for Kizer’s spring. Part of Gabriel’s positive assessment comes from acknowledging Kizer’s responsibilities as the Irish signal-caller.

“The spread offense that Kizer played in at Notre Dame is more sophisticated than many of the spread offenses we see elsewhere at the collegiate level. The Notre Dame offense is a whole-field read scheme in which the quarterback has to go through a progression that encompasses both sides of the field. He also can change the play and/or protections at the line of scrimmage. Given all that, Kizer was asked to do more than many spread quarterbacks are asked to do.”

Gabriel also reflected on the dynamic differences for Kizer in 2015 and 2016 and what may have elicited some of his seeming stagnation.

“There was the unnecessary quarterback controversy at Notre Dame, and the offensive line wasn’t as experienced or as talented and the receivers were mostly first-year starters.”

As much as Gabriel raves about Kizer, he would be the first to tell you anything beyond individual player evaluation is a waste of air this early in the draft process. Mock drafts may be fun, but they are not much beyond that.

Take the fates of Tony Romo and Jimmy Garoppolo, for example. Few, if any, in the NFL expect them to dress for the Cowboys and Patriots, respectively, again. Where they end up could directly impact Kizer’s draft placement.

Jaylon Smith May Be Back to Form
Former Notre Dame and current Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith posted yet another encouraging video to Twitter. This one shows Smith really might be game-ready right now and, if not, almost certainly will be by the fall. Should there be any difficulty with the embedded video below, here is a link straight to it.

OL Mabry makes third commitment this week; WR Jones may follow Friday

mabry
rivals.com
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Two weeks ago, Irish coach Brian Kelly gave a non-answer of an answer to a question about a likely early signing period this coming December. Avoiding specifics, he indicated he thinks the effects of such a change will be seen on a case-by-case basis entirely dependent on the recruits.

“Some will, some won’t,” Kelly said. “…Each kid is going to have to react to it based upon also how their school is going to be dealing with it. Some will come off the board at the time.

“We’re expecting some to sign early, but I think our mindset is we’re going into it business as usual. We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

After this week, Notre Dame is going to have more year-long fights than anticipated. Consensus three-star offensive lineman recruit Cole Mabry (Brentwood High School; Brentwood, Tenn.) became the third prospect to offer a verbal commitment to the Irish coaching staff in less than 36 hours with his Wednesday decision. Mabry received the offer over the weekend, but waited a few days before making his decision public, lest emotions be dictating his thought process.

At 6-foot-6 and 255 pounds, Mabry will have time to add muscle to his frame, with four or five offensive tackles greeting him on the Notre Dame roster in the summer of 2018. That ability to mold his style and growth may have played a part in the Irish interest.

“They love my height and athleticism and how I play,” Mabry told rivals.com. “We got to break down film and go through things that they do that pair up with how I play now. They think I’ll be a great fit in their offense.”

Mabry is the ninth Notre Dame commitment in the class of 2018, though the first offensive lineman.

Judging by new Notre Dame director of football performance Matt Balis’s agenda for the Irish roster’s Valentine’s Day morning, Mabry will have much to look forward to in terms of strength and conditioning.

Rivals.com four-star receiver Micah Jones (Warren Township H.S.; Gurnee, Ill.) is scheduled to announce his verbal commitment this Friday at 4 p.m. ET. Along with Notre Dame, Jones is considering Iowa, Michigan State, Nebraska, Ole Miss, Illinois and Northwestern. He would be the first receiver in Notre Dame’s 2018 class. Naturally, whomever Jones commits to, the recruiting fight will last until at least December, and perhaps all the way to February.