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.

Jurkovec’s commitment as solid as it can get

Phil Jurkovec 247
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In a sport like college football, not much is certain. Coaching changes, recruiting battles, it is a week to week sport in nearly every sense of the word.

So when coveted 2018 quarterback Phil Jurkovec chose Notre Dame last week, many kept their enthusiasm tempered. Especially with memories of prospects like Blake Barnett fresh in their minds.

But Jurkovec seems to have his priorities aligned. And a recent comment to Matt Freeman of IrishSportsDaily.com should have Irish fans feeling very good about their young QB-in-waiting.

For as long as Notre Dame has recruited, teams have recruited against Notre Dame. And in recent years, the sales pitch has changed—not from worries of a head coach or assistants being fired, but rather the chance that they may leave for greener pastures.

In this case, you have to feel good that Jurkovec seems to understand the realities of the situation. Because even if Brian Kelly is in the NFL or Mike Sanford is running his own program, the Golden Dome will still be standing.

Of course, it doesn’t do anything to guarantee Jurkovec will be in South Bend come 2018, but it certainly points to a kid and family having done their due diligence before making such an important decision.

Irish A-to-Z: Hunter Bivin

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One of many heralded offensive line recruits to follow Harry Hiestand to South Bend, Hunter Bivin has bounced inside and out on Notre Dame’s offensive line, looking for a home. After serving as a back-up to talents like Zack Martin, Ronnie Stanley and Mike McGlinchey at tackle, Bivin might have the inside track to earn his first starting experience at right guard.

After three years of hard work—and Steve Elmer deciding to cut short his college career after three seasons—Bivin looks like a true contender for a starting role. Now he needs to continue the work he put in this spring over the summer months, holding off a group of young talent to finalize the fifth starting job on a rebuilt offensive line.

 

HUNTER BIVIN
6’5.5″, 308 lbs.
Senior, No. 70, OL

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Bivin was an elite prospect. 247 ranked him as one of the top offensive linemen—and overall prospects—in the country. He was an All-State performer in Kentucky, an Under Armour All-American, and played for the USA Team.

Bivin chose Notre Dame over offers from Florida, LSU, Oklahoma, Ohio State and Michigan. He was a starter on a Kentucky state championship basketball team and also the state’s best shot putter.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2013): Did not see action.

Sophomore Season (2014): Made his Irish debut in the second half of a lopsided victory over Rice. Played in five games, including on special teams against Florida State.

Junior Season (2015): Played in five games, serving as a backup at left tackle for Ronnie Stanley. Notched a season-high 25 snaps against UMass. Played 14 snaps in a convincing season-opening win over Texas.

 

WHAT WE PROJECTED LAST YEAR

The crystal ball appeared to be working last year when it came to Bivin’s playing time.

Bivin’s got everything you’d want—on paper—when it comes to an offensive line recruit. That said, it’s time for those qualities to translate to the field, something we haven’t seen yet.

It’s not necessarily fair to call Bivin an underachiever, especially when you want to have the type of depth Notre Dame has developed up front. It’s also worth noting that the two positions the Irish have worked Bivin have required some difficult playing time battles: Matt Hegarty just moved to Oregon and was inserted as the team’s starting center after he couldn’t beat out Nick Martin. And Ronnie Stanley will follow Zack Martin into the first round of the NFL Draft.

So let’s hold our breath a little bit longer.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

It’s clear that Bivin has some ability, with the staff entrusting a second-string tackle job to the Kentucky native the past two seasons. But it’s also clear that he’s not the caliber of tackle prospect that Alex Bars is, with Bivin making the slide inside, hopefully solidifying the starting lineup with the team’s five best offensive linemen.

Right now—especially after Colin McGovern struggled through injuries this spring—Bivin has a grasp on that job. But after another summer competing with Tristen Hoge and incoming freshman Tommy Kraemer, that might not be as clear.

Hiestand and Brian Kelly both prefer playing veterans—especially along the offensive line. We’ve seen guys like Mike Golic, Christian Lombard and Matt Hegarty keep talented young players on the sideline as trusted veterans. Bivin likely can do the same as a senior with a fifth-year available, though he’ll need to be the best player for the job.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I have Bivin penciled in at right guard for the start against Texas. Whether he stays in the lineup will likely be dictated by how quickly this offensive line gels. Remember, it wasn’t too long ago that Kelly and Hiestand reshuffled their starting lineup, 2014’s offensive line swapped out mid-season after a disappointing start to the year. That’s a real scenario that could take place if this line doesn’t come together.

Being the fifth-best starter on an offensive line that features guys like Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson is no shame, especially when we’ve seen and heard such good things about first-time projected starters like Bars and Sam Mustipher. Bivin is a big body—he’s got prototype tackle size—and that’ll make the transition inside easier.

But I’m still waiting to see how he does as a mauler. There’s not much room for finesse at right guard, especially with the Irish wanting to establish a ground game early and often in 2016.

If Bivin brings that type of aggressiveness to the job and takes to guard over the summer, he’s a potential two-year starter. If not, he goes back to being a sixth man, capable of backing up essentially every spot on the offensive line.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal

Irish A-to-Z: Asmar Bilal

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It is freshman year all over again for linebacker Asmar Bilal. The rising sophomore, who wore a redshirt in 2015, likely spent more time working with Brian VanGorder’s defense in 15 spring practices than he did all of last season.

That’s what happens when Jaylon Smith departs for the NFL and Te’von Coney and Greer Martini spend the offseason recovering from injuries. Those circumstances cleared the way for Bilal to take center stage at Will linebacker this spring, a position that’ll look quite different than it did the past two seasons when America’s most talented linebacker roamed the field.

No slouch himself, Bilal has more than just long dreads in common with Smith. With a body that also looks chiseled from granite and the speed of a safety, there are great expectations for the Indianapolis native.

 

ASMAR BILAL
6’2″, 230 lbs.
Sophomore, No. 27, LB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A four-star recruit, Bilal picked Notre Dame over Michigan after a competitive recruitment. He had offers from Michigan State, Missouri, Nebraska, Tennessee and a dozen other programs, too.

Bilal was an Army All-American, second-team on the MaxPreps All-American team and was Indiana’s defensive player of the year on the American Family Insurance All-USA team. He was a four-star prospect and a 247 composite Top 200 player.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2015): Did not see action.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

The year of eligibility was saved, keeping Bilal off of special teams. But all else held true:

At the very least, I see Bilal wreaking some havoc on special teams. But if there’s an opening on the field with this defense, it’s at safety. Perhaps Bilal could serve as a situational defensive back, the type of in-the-box plugger that Drue Tranquill excelled at in 2014.

The reality of the situation is a year of learning and gaining weight for Bilal. With Joe Schmidt and Jarrett Grace departing after this season, and Jaylon Smith having quite a choice on his hands as well, the depth chart could turn over after this season—turning next spring into maybe an even more critical time than this fall in Bilal’s development.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

Bilal’s primary competition at Will linebacker is classmate Te’von Coney, who had worked his way into the two-deep behind Jaylon Smith, playing briefly in the Fiesta Bowl before suffering his own major injury. While Coney had to watch spring ball as his shoulder healed, Bilal took reps for the two of them.

While it’s far from decided, Coney looks like the first choice in the starting lineup for VanGorder and Mike Elston. That’s not to say that the rotation will be as limited as it was last season—this group of linebackers might very well be patched together by scheme and circumstance.

None of that changes Bilal’s potential. A football player who came to Notre Dame needing to add mass to his frame and learn the intricacies of playing linebacker, Bilal’s high school exploits included a lot of time at safety, a tackling machine that looked more search-and-destroy than fully understanding the nuances of gap control and positional responsibilities.

Bilal put on the weight, up to 230 pounds this spring, looking like a linebacker not a DB. Now the mental aspect of the game will likely dictate how quickly Bilal’s able to deploy his physical skills and use them for good. We’ll get a nice progress report on where the coaches think he is come Texas.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Bilal looks like a four-unit coverage contributor on special teams from game one. He also has the type of speed and skill that he could find a role in a sub-package (remember those?) for VanGorder, if the defense is able to keep enough guys healthy to play multiple schemes.

The redshirt was the best thing to happen to Bilal in that he’s essentially starting his college career now. We’ve seen too often the difficulties that come with using talented young defenders in bit roles, robbing years of eligibility from guys like Kona Schwenke and Romeo Okwara, removing a fifth-year opportunity that could have really helped all parties involved.

Positional depth helped save Bilal in 2015. Now he’s going to need to be part of the solution in 2016, when a new cast of characters needs to step forward and lead with captains Joe Schmidt and Smith long gone.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars

Irish A-to-Z: Alex Bars

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Even as he recovered from a broken ankle suffered late in the 2015 season, Alex Bars made the move everybody expected from him this spring. The rising junior rose to the top of the depth chart at right tackle, filling the hole Mike McGlinchey left behind and potentially solidifying the rebuilt core of Notre Dame’s front five.

It was a move that felt preordained, especially if you’d been paying attention to the coaching staff’s belief in Bars. A high-level recruit, an impressive redshirt and capable in spot duty in 2015, assuming all goes according to plan, the move to the starting lineup gives Bars the chance to spend three seasons in the starting lineup of one of the country’s most competitive position groups.

Now he’s got to perform.

 

ALEX BARS
6’6″, 320 lbs.
Junior, No. 71, RT

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A top-100 recruit who chose Notre Dame over Florida State, Michigan, Ohio State, Stanford—and a host of other schools. Bars was an Under Armour All-American, a USA Today All-American, and the Rotary Lombardi Chip Off the Old Block Award winner, given to the South’s best lineman.

His father Joe played linebacker for Notre Dame in the early-80s, while two of his brothers played major college football. Bars is a blue-chipper by every measure.

 

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Saved a year of eligibility and did not participate.

Sophomore Season (2015): Played in six games, starting against Navy and USC at guard before breaking his ankle. Served as primary backup at both tackle positions and guard until his injury.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

Spot on here, both about the time-share being difficult and injuries. Unfortunately, Bars was the lineman who suffered—not finding as much time behind Nelson and then ending his year with a broken ankle.

Sharing time isn’t easy, especially on the offensive line. But Kelly was adamant this spring that he’ll need to find snaps for Bars to make sure his development continues, and sharing time with Quenton Nelson makes the most sense.

Of course, injuries also happen. And right now, it looks like Bars is the No. 1 replacement at every spot but center. So while a clean bill of health will likely be best for the best Irish offensive line of the Kelly era, an injury will likely just mean more time for the talented second-year player to make his mark, a nice benefit of the impressive depth chart the Irish have assembled.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

Bars looks like another potential NFL offensive lineman, something Harry Hiestand is churning out at an impressive rate. While we won’t know just how good he is until we see him on the edge against Texas, Bars is the type of lineman who’d have started too early in his career at left tackle in previous eras, forced to learn on the fly like Ryan Harris or Sam Young.

The staff was careful with Bars this spring, not rushing the 320-pounder back until his surgically repaired ankle could handle it. And while they explored the idea of keeping him inside at the vacant right guard position, it’s only to obvious that Bars’ skill-set—not to mention the remaining personnel—needed him to play on the edge.

With three years left there’s plenty of time to grow at the position, while also building from a position of strength. That’s the sign of great positional depth.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I assume a healthy, strong season from Bars. I think the time working inside could help him in the running game, while his athleticism should make pass blocking feel natural, especially with great length and feet.

Of course, he’s still a first-year starter. Expecting a year like Quenton Nelson or Mike McGlinchey had might be too much, but there’s no reason not to set a similar bar. From the moment Bars stepped foot on campus, Kelly knew he had a special player.

Hunter Bivin can play tackle in a pinch. Freshman Tommy Kraemer might be able to as well. But for the Irish to have their best offensive line, they need Bars to anchor the right side. I expect him to do so in 2016.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas