Fantasy Camp: The golden rules

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They say a football game isn’t won on Saturday, but in the work put in Monday through Friday. Well, it’s tough to make that translate when game day is Thursday afternoon, but I’ll do my best to try.

The Blue-Gold game was most likely won Tuesday night. That’s when defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, the head coach of the Gold team and an eater that could put Kobayashi on notice, maneuvered to put together a team that offensive coordinator Charley Molnar could not counter. With Friday’s coaching staff lunch on the line, and having personally witnessed Diaco polish off two Filet Mignons and two full plates of pasta at dinner, I’m guessing Diaco’s epic appetite was an imposing figure in the draft room, especially for the Blue head coach that has nine other mouths to feed at home.

At Tuesday night’s dinner in the Monogram Room, Brian Kelly announced the game rosters, alternating between Gold and Blue teams. Here’s one talent evaluator’s breakdown of the rosters:

GOLD TEAM:

Keith Arnold: QB/CB — Schmuck blogger. One of youngest guys in camp, always a plus.
Frank Bagatta: TE/LB — Old school player with great instincts and better hair.
Country Balitsos: RB/FS — Second cousin to waterboy Bobby Boucher. A little crazy.
Tom Britz: WR/FS — Silky smooth athlete who looks 30 years younger than his real age.
Jonathan Brooks: RB/LB — Bulldozer that battled hamstring injuries throughout camp.
Joe Colgan: TE/LB — Locker room leader who has a penchant for hoarding socks.
Patrick Dolphin: WR/DB — Deep threat and shut down corner. Definite RKG.
John Harris: OL/DE — Jersey’s finest brings an attitude to the trenches.
Bob Johnson: OL/DL — Tough interior player anchors offensive line.
Larry Leamy: WR/DB — Elder statesman of the camp just makes big plays in space.
Dave Libs: OL/LB — Veteran presence brings great intangibles to team.
Scott Litwiller: OL/DL — Physical force inside, key to line as shotgun snapper.
Bart McGloin: QB/LB — Veteran QB and Mike backer brings ice-water veins to huddle.
Hubert Oates: RB/LB — Hard-charging ball carrier and great locker room presence.
Dennis Rios: OL/LB — Battled through injuries to contribute with solid defensive play.
Bill Robinson: NT/OL: Undersized battler brings smiles to teammates and frowns to enemies.
Tom Tague: OL/DL — Windy City rookie brings rare blend of youth and power to interior.

BLUE TEAM:

Gene Bicego: WR/DB — Pint-sized receiver with great shake.
Mike Brennen: WR/DB — Another little guy with wheels. Joey Getherall type player.
PT Brent: WR/DB — Former Marine who brings leadership to the huddle.
John Paul Condon: TE/LB — Half of the Canadian contingency for the Blue squad.
Keith Cross: WR/DB — Boston-based starter that battled injuries and criminal charges.
Gene Faut, Jr.: WR/DB — Speedster looked to play the role of #1 wide receiver.
Gene Faut, Sr.: WR/DB — Veteran presence that can make a defense pay.
Rob Gothier: QB/DB — Hotshot new QB with rocket-arm and a balky hamstring.
Michael Haveard: QB/DB — Veteran signal caller that brings presence to the field.
Joe Hession: TE/LB — Veteran player brings old-school attitude to the field.
Tim Kopp: WR/DL: Injuries kept him from contributing on-field, but brings plenty off the field.
Ned Lesnick: RB/LB: Veteran running back dangerous inside the tackles.
Rich Maynhart: OL/DL: Anchor in the middle of line also in charge of shotgun snaps. 
Michael O’Donnell: WR/DB — Veteran from California brings savvy to Blue team attack.
John O’Neill: WR/DB — Lanky Canadian battled foot injuries to make highlight reel catch.
Rick Peltz: OL/DB — Longtime player brings size to the trenches.
Terry Philbin: OL/DL — Monster along the interior, premiere lineman on either roster.
Mark Smith: RB/DL — Fifth-year camper didn’t let balky knees stop him.

What made game day so special was just how close to script we played things compared to the actual Irish football team. Both teams met for a training table meal at The Gug, where breakfast options were waiting as well as an omelet chef to prepare one of your choice. After that, we broke into team meetings, where Diaco, Chuck Martin, Ed Warinner, Tim Hinton, Jon Carpenter and Scott Booker gave quick pregame talks, as well as going over our keys to success. We knew our offensive line gave us a great chance to get our running game going, and our two corners let us roll a safety down into the box and challenge the Blue team to try and beat us through the air, because they weren’t going to be able to run on us.

After meetings, it was off to the Basilica, where Father Doyle, the team Chaplin for the football team, said mass for us before leaving every team member with a small pendant, just like he does with the football team. From there, we took the same walk from the chapel to the stadium, minus a few thousand screaming fans and a marching band. Even preparing for a game played in front of maybe only a hundred fans, it was pretty hard not to get fired up for the game we were about to play.

Strapped up in the new Irish uniforms and heading down the stairs out of the locker room, we slapped the same Play Like A Champion Today sign that Irish football players have been slapping for years. Introduced on the public address system, running out of that tunnel to your waiting teammates, this was the closest thing to playing for the Irish I’ll ever experience.

As for the game, many of the Gold team’s suspicions came true. With an offensive line that helped game MVP Country Balitsos break two long touchdown runs, and a suffocating pass-rush that kept the Gold Team from getting any type of rhythm going, our offense and defense had dominating performances. Trading off series with Bart at quarterback, I only had the chance to throw the ball once, a quick bubble screen that was a missed tackle away from going the distance, but I ran the option a couple times and moved the team for a touchdown drive capped by a run by tugboat Jonathan Brooks.

On defense, we pitched a shutout, and I nearly took an interception to the house but chose the far sideline instead of the near one, before I was tracked down inside the red zone. Coach Carp’s defense, where we rolled safety Larry Leamy into the flat, worked perfectly with fellow freshman Patrick Dolphin playing a perfect shutdown corner opposite me with our linebackers stuffing the run nearly every carry.

While the lopsided scoreboard made for an anticlimactic finish, the game was a success because nobody got hurt and everybody had fun. Touchdowns by Country, Brooks, and Leamy, plus a couple extra points made by Joe Colgan, put an exclamation point on a perfect draft and game plan by Diaco and company. The defense also held strong after a long catch and throw between Rob Gothier and Jon O’Neill that brought the Blue down to inside the ten, only to be held scoreless.

The scoreboard didn’t matter (26-0! 26-0!), the experience did. That experience was punctuated by an incredible dinner with family and friends at the top of the press box, where Brian Kelly handed out the postgame awards to every player. As a first year camper, I was given a game worn helmet that’ll go next to the rest of the Notre Dame memorabilia on my bookshelf. Sophomores received a monogram jacket with a special Fantasy Camp logo in place of the interlocking ND. Juniors received class rings, which seemed to be the talk of the camp. Seniors, fifth-year players and graduates all received watches and framed photos, an impressive keep sake, especially when you consider that the photos were all taken in the three previous days.

While I’ll continue to call it as I see it, it’s hard for me to do anything but drink the Kool-Aid after spending four days with the coaching staff. To a man, every single guy on staff was great, and they honestly enjoyed every mome
nt they spent with us, just
as we loved spending it with them. While I never had an experience like this with the previous coaching staff, it’s clear that this group has a great working relationship, is completely on the same page, and that Brian Kelly is a dynamic leader. Whether it was the offensive coaches, the defensive guys, or the dynamic strength and conditioning staff that will be a twelfth man on the field come this fall, I heard from people high and low that this was the group that was going to return Notre Dame to prominence.

We’ll ultimately find out come this September, but for four days in June, Brian Kelly and his staff certainly were perfect. 

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.

Notre Dame adds two top defensive back commits; Elliott officially a ‘Husker

allen
rivals.com
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It’s early. It’s really, really early. Not in the day, though this post is scheduled for an a.m. hour. No, it is early in the 2018 recruiting cycle. Any piece of news, each commitment, everything should be taken with two grains of salt.

Nonetheless, Notre Dame—and more specifically, new Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko and defensive backs coach Todd Lyght—enjoyed Tuesday’s recruiting news when two consensus four-star coverage men committed to the Irish.

Safety Derrik Allen (Lassiter High School; Marietta, Ga.) and cornerback Kalon Gervin (Cass Tech; Detroit, Mich.) joined a class of now eight commitments, six of which play on the defensive side of the ball.

Gervin, the No. 11 cornerback in the class according to rivals.com, waited mere days after attending Notre Dame’s Junior Day over the weekend. Irish coach Brian Kelly and staff’s failure to land a recruit at Gervin’s position in the 2017 haul actually helped reel in the recruit with offers from Florida, LSU, Michigan and dozens others.

“The opportunity to play right away, they didn’t sign a cornerback this last class,” Gervin told Blue & Gold Illustrated helped sway him. “Also, the education is second-to-none. It speaks for itself.”

Allen, pictured at top, has leaned toward Notre Dame for months. The No. 3 safety in the country per Rivals, he chose the Irish over the likes of Alabama, Clemson and Florida State.

Elliott officially to Nebraska

The two highly-touted defensive backs will not have the chance to learn under the tutelage of Bob Elliott. Nebraska officially announced the hiring of the former Notre Dame safeties (2012-13) and linebackers (2014) coach. Elliott spent the last two seasons serving as a special assistant to Kelly, focusing largely on defending the triple-option attacks of Army, Navy and Georgia Tech.

Elliott rejoins former Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco in Lincoln. Diaco was hired as the Cornhuskers’ defensive coordinator in January.

The Lincoln Journal Star’s Brian Cristopherson reports Elliott will make a nice wage in eastern Nebraska.

Could Kelly move a receiver to cornerback?

PALO ALTO, CA - NOVEMBER 30:  Bennett Jackson #2 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish intercepts this pass intended for Michael Rector #3 of the Stanford Cardinal during the fourth quarter at Stanford Stadium on November 30, 2013 in Palo Alto, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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Before the weekend, Notre Dame already had 10 receivers on its depth chart, all with at least two seasons of eligibility remaining. Cornerback, meanwhile, is a position where the roster seems to be lacking, with only seven currently on scholarship. The only fact staving off panic is that all seven also have two years of eligibility in hand. Nonetheless, an additional body in the defensive backfield at practice would seem to be a reasonable want, if not quite a necessity.

Thus, the addition of graduate transfer receiver Freddy Canteen—himself having two seasons of potential college football to go—brought the return of wonderings: Should one of the plethora of Irish receivers switch to breaking up passes?

Aside from balancing the roster and easing some concerns should an injury strike, such a move could also present the player a chance at increased playing time. By no means would the maneuver need to be a selfless one.

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly has had success with such positional flipping. Specifically, Kelly and his coaching staff have overseen the successful switches of receiver-turned-cornerback Bennett Jackson and receiver-turned-safety-and-then-linebacker James Onwualu. Furthermore, defensive backs Matthias Farley and KeiVarae Russell both arrived at Notre Dame expecting to be on the offensive side of the ball before changes early in their careers.

BENNETT JACKSON
A three-star receiver recruit, Jackson stuck with Notre Dame during the transition from Charlie Weis to Brian Kelly, signing with the Irish only weeks after Kelly took the lead of the program. In his freshman season, Jackson carried the ball plenty, as the kick returner. Aside from fielding kickoffs, he had only one carry for 20 yards. That was it for his offensive playmaking.

On special teams, however, he excelled without the ball, too. Jackson finished with 10 tackles, including four against Purdue to start the season. That nose for the ballcarrier prompted the coaching staff to switch Jackson’s positional group. In the following three seasons, he amassed 147 tackles, 11 pass break-ups and two interceptions.

Before Notre Dame faced Alabama in the 2012 BCS National Championship Game, Jackson looked back on his career change.

“I liked receiver. Obviously, I wanted to be a guy with the ball in my hands,” he said. “At first, I wasn’t mad about it, but I wasn’t fond of it.

“As time went on, I actually liked the position a lot more. I had a lot more fun and I got to compete a lot more.”

JAMES ONWUALU
A four-star recruit with the ambiguous “athlete” designation in 2013, Onwualu—like Jackson—spent his freshman season as a receiver. Unlike Jackson, he actually caught some passes. Two, to be exact, for a total of 34 yards. Continuing on a parallel to Jackson, Onwualu totaled six tackles on special teams.

Years later, it is easy to see the receiving depth in Notre Dame’s class of 2013. Onwualu aside, the Irish brought in Corey Robinson, Torii Hunter, Jr., and Will Fuller. It was going to be a tough road to featured playing time for Onwualu. Realizing this, he set to finding a different path.

“I honestly wasn’t sure receiver was the spot for me anyway, so I walked right up to coach Kelly’s office and we had a talk about where I wanted to go and what my thoughts were for my career,” Onwualu told und.com early in his senior season. “We ended up agreeing that the defensive side, we might as well give it a shot, and it worked out.”

Initially, that conversation landed Onwualu at safety. At 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds, he found himself at linebacker pretty quickly thereafter.

“That was a tough one for me because he’s so valuable offensively in a number of ways,” Kelly said before 2014 spring practice. “He’s such a consistent player and he loves to compete. But he’s got great contact skills.”

Onwualu ended his Notre Dame career with 143 total tackles, including those pivotal six his freshman season, along with six sacks.

MATTHIAS FARLEY & KEIVARAE RUSSELL
Both Farley and Russell entered Notre Dame as “athletes”, the former a three-star recruit and the latter a four-star prospect. While Farley was expected to line up at receiver and Russell at running back, each switched to safety and cornerback, respectively, before ever joining the Irish offense. Safe to say it worked out rather well for each.

WHO NOW?
Far be it for the internet to speculate, but that seems to be one of its three primary purposes in the 21st century.

None of the current 11 receivers entered college deemed “athletes” by recruitniks. One does mirror Jackson and Onwualu in that he excelled on special teams last year. Rising sophomore Chase Claypool recorded 11 tackles in his debut season to go along with his five catches for 81 yards. Claypool notched multiple tackles against Nevada, Syracuse and Virginia Tech.

Kelly and new defensive coordinator Mike Elko very well may choose to test fate in 2017 and rely on only seven cornerbacks. After all, how often would the Irish ever have more than four on the field, anyways?

But if Kelly and Elko err on the side of caution, whoever makes the positional switch should not cringe in doing so. It has worked out pretty well both for his predecessors and for Notre Dame.