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Kelly pinpoints freshman that are ready to contribute

Aug 18, 2010, 4:35 PM EST

There’s an abundance of information from yesterday’s media day that I’m still digging through, but one of the interesting tidbits that Brian Kelly revealed during his entertaining 40 minute press conference had to do with the freshman that were ready to contribute this season.

When asked for a status update on his freshman after 13 practices, Kelly was incredibly candid on who he thought might contribute this season:

“Probably the topic of conversation for our staff meeting last night, number one for quite a long time, was about who were the freshman right now that have to be prepared to play. I’ll list them for you. Guys that have to be prepared to play. Now things could change obviously, we’re 13 practices into it.

“On the offensive side of the ball, T.J. Jones, Tommy Rees, Alex Welch, Tate Nichols, Christian Lombard. All five of those guys right now have got to be prepared to play. They’re playing in a two-deep role in some fashion.

“Collinsworth is somebody that is not in the two deep yet, but he’s on
every kick team, every special teams that we have. So there’s six guys
on offense that are freshmen. It’s the most I’ve ever had in 20 years
of coaching that will be eating breakfast with the team when we’re ready
to play.

“On the defensive side of the ball, Lo Wood is in our two deep, Prince Shembo is right there and most likely will be somebody that will be prepared to play, and Danny Spond has been really, really dynamic. I don’t know that we have many guys that play with their hands and can really shock you. He’s going to be on all of our special teams as well.

“Six on offense, three on defense, you got nine freshman right now that will be on the bus.”

One of the more interesting parts of following a freshman class from recruitment to their actual first season is finding out who’ll be ready to contribute on the field when the time comes to actually play football.

From a recruiting perspective, it’s interesting that three guys targeted only by the new regime have already found their way onto the field, something that philosophically Kelly tries not to do.

Here’s a quick breakdown of the nine freshman and a reminder of their recruiting “status.”

     Austin Collinsworth, WR — Kelly target. Three-star player with mid-level offers.
     T.J. Jones, WR — Four-star, national recruit. Committed after USC game.
     Christian Lombard, OL — National recruit, one of ND’s first commitments.
     Tate Nichols, OL — Kelly target. High school tight end transitioned to OL.
     Tommy Rees, QB —  Early enrollee. Three-star prospect with mid-level offers.
     Prince Shembo, LB — Four-star, early commitment to ND. Recommitted to Kelly and staff.
     Danny Spond, LB — Kelly target. Four-star athlete with average offers.
     Alex Welch, TE — National recruit, committed after BC victory. Pipeline school.
     Lo Wood, CB — Early target, early Irish commitment with good regional offers.

Many worried when offers went out to the seven prospects Kelly eventually signed after he came on board. But of those seven that decided to come to Notre Dame, three of them are already in contention for early playing time, and recruits like Kona Schwenke and Luke Massa have been singled out for doing great work in their short time on campus.

Guys like Spond and Lombard, two prospects that didn’t have any Irish fans jumping for joy when their names surfaced as targets because of average scholarship offers, have provided a blueprint for the type of below-the-radar recruits that Kelly likes to target, players that aren’t necessarily just developmental targets as they are outliers in the traditional structure of recruiting.

Not to go too Malcolm Gladwell on you, but players like Spond, Nichols, and Collinsworth are great examples of players routinely ignored by major college football programs. Spond was a jumbo-sized athlete that played quarterback and safety in high school, but lacked the true speed to grade out as a premiere dual-threat quarterback and was likely too big and slow to be well-regarded as a safety. Nichols was likely seen as a underwhelming athlete that played as a jumbo-sized tight end / wide receiver for a small town high school. Collinsworth, even with his family pedigree, likely had his athleticism challenged by major college programs unsure whether or not he had the speed needed to play wide receiver at the highest level. Being a white skill position player didn’t help any of them, either. After spending 20 years recruiting for schools that needed to look below every rock to unearth unheralded talent, Kelly had the confidence in his evaluation methods to pull the trigger on offers that looked questionable. 

As Kelly and his staff become more well known on the recruiting trail, it’ll be interesting to see if they’ll be able to unearth below-the-radar targets like these three. Similar to what the book Moneyball did to the Oakland A’s, a Notre Dame offer might be enough to have rival programs give undervalued prospects an additional look.

  1. Luke - Aug 18, 2010 at 6:46 PM

    I was at practice on Monday for Faculty/Staff day. I can tell you one thing, Kelly has these guys MOVING! After seeing practices under both Ty and Charlie- this looked completely different. There was no lollygagging around, no half-hearted running of routes, no cursing out the players (for a nice change). The coaching staff obviously has the kids best interest at heart. Every player and coach that I saw was fully devoted to succeeding at football. I saw Freshman running routes, or defending routes, with upperclassmen cheering them on. The whole mentality seems to have changed.
    My impression of last year was that the players were “going through the motions”, giving it about 75-80% of their full efforts. What I saw on Monday was 100%+ effort.
    I CANNOT wait until September 4th. This team may not win all their games this season, but they’re going to make it exciting.

  2. TLNDMA - Aug 18, 2010 at 7:15 PM

    Why was Kelly able to go out and find these under the radar players? He and his staff work at it. I’m sure it takes extra effort to find these kind of kids and not rely on recruiting gurus or old friends.
    How have they been able to seemingly change the culture of this football team so quickly? Again time and effort. Not leaving anything to chance. Why has the team responded? A good guess would be, they see their coaches busting their asses, to get this team ready.
    Damn, I’m getting excited for the season.

  3. jarious - Aug 19, 2010 at 1:35 AM

    I’ve been impressed how the entire staff is on message. Tempo, physicality, consistency. You can call it lip service, but I have to think the players benefit from consistently hearing the same message. Also surprising that BK was so candid with the state of the first-years.
    Going into fall, the surprises on the list are the omission of Nix and the intro of the two O-linemen into the fray. As it turns out, Nix’s reported conditioning and the relative depth at the nose make for a easy decision. Lombard and Nichols is more encouraging, as they appear physically ready to see the field.

  4. RWQ - Aug 19, 2010 at 11:34 AM

    “Guys like Spond and Lombard, two prospects that didn’t have any Irish fans jumping for joy when their names surfaced as targets because of average scholarship offers,”
    You mean Spond and Nichols? Lombard was a top 100 early commit under Weis.

  5. Canadian James - Aug 19, 2010 at 12:22 PM

    I think whats interesting to see is BK and his staff actually coach. I hate to admit this, but I used to appreciate how much coaching the USC staff exhibited, and it used to drive me nuts that I didn’t see the same kind of excitement and enthusiasm for developing players from the TY or Weis staff. It’s nice to see coaches actually coaching for a change.

  6. Joe Schulz - Aug 20, 2010 at 5:54 AM

    This is an excellent piece! It reflects on Kelly’s personal processes and why he is so good.
    Nice job!

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