Kelly pinpoints freshman that are ready to contribute


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.

Irish prepared to take on the best Navy team in years


Brian Kelly opens every Tuesday press conference with compliments for an opponent. But this week, it was easy to see that his kind words for Navy were hardly lip service.

Ken Niumatalolo will bring his most veteran—and probably his most talented—group of Midshipmen into Notre Dame Stadium, looking to hand the Irish their first loss in the series since Kelly’s debut season in South Bend.

“Ken Niumatalolo has done an incredible job in developing his program and currently carrying an eight-game winning streak,” Kelly said. “I voted for them in USA Today Top 25 as a top-25 team. I think they’ve earned that. But their defense as well has developed. It’s played the kind of defense that I think a top 25 team plays.”

With nine months of option preparation, Notre Dame needs to feel confident about their efforts against Georgia Tech. Then again, the Midshipmen saw that game plan and likely have a few tricks in store.

As much as the Irish have focused their efforts on stopping Keenan Reynolds and the triple-option, Navy’s much-improved defense is still looking for a way to slow down a team that’s averaged a shade over 48 points a game against them the last four seasons.

Niumatalolo talked about that when asked about slowing down Will Fuller and Notre Dame’s skill players, an offense that’s averaged over 48 points a game during this four-game win streak.

“We’ve got to try our best to keep [Fuller] in front of us, that’s easier said than done,” Niumatalolo said. “We’ve got to play as close as we can without their guys running past us. I’ve been here a long time and we’re still trying to figure out how to do that.”


Navy heads to South Bend unbeaten, defeating former Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco‘s team just two Saturdays ago. And while Diaco raised a few eyebrows when he said Navy would be the team’s toughest test of the year (they already played a ranked Missouri team), the head of the UConn program couldn’t have been more effusive in his praise.

“I have been competing against Navy for some time and this is the best Navy team I have seen for, let’s say the last half-dozen years,” UConn coach Bob Diaco told the New Haven Register. “I could click on footage from three years ago and see a lion’s share of players who are playing right now in the game as freshmen and sophomores. They have a veteran group, a strong group, a talented group and they look like the stiffest competition among our first four opponents.”

As usual, there will be those who look at this game as the breather between Clemson and USC. That won’t be anybody inside The Gug. So as the Irish try to get back to their winning ways in front of a home crowd, a complete team effort is needed.

“I’ll take a win by one,” Kelly said Tuesday. “That would be fine with me.”


Kelly confident Robinson will rebound

Notre Dame v Florida State

Corey Robinson‘s season was already off to a slow start. And that was before a difficult night at Clemson. The junior receiver came into last weekend with only four catches, held out against UMass after a pregame tweak of his knee put a scare into the Irish.

Robinson’s knee checked out fine. But mentally, it appears that the sure-handed junior is struggling.

Just before halftime against the Tigers, Robinson failed to reel in a long catch that would’ve given the Irish a much-needed touchdown heading into half. Early in the fourth quarter, a high throw from DeShone Kizer on the Irish’s first failed two-point conversion play slid through Robinson’s hands. Made worse was a mental mistake by Robinson, the Irish needing to use one of their second half timeouts when the junior wasn’t on the field.

Coached hard on the sideline by Brian Kelly and coached up by his position coach Mike Denbrock (as we saw on both Showtime and Fighting Irish Media’s ICON), the staff is doing it’s best to get Robinson’s confidence back.

With some wondering if Robinson’s struggles should open the door for talented freshman Equanimeous St. Brown, Kelly talked about their belief that the junior will return to form.

“Corey Robinson is going to get the job done. I had a very lengthy conversation with him yesterday,” Kelly said Tuesday. “I believe in Corey. Corey’s got to believe in himself, and he will. He’s got to go attack the football. He’s letting the football come to him. He’s letting it eat him up a little bit, but I believe in Corey.”

There’s no better place to showcase that belief than against Navy. The Midshipmen don’t have a defender physically capable of matching up with the 6-foot-5 Robinson, who will likely face his share of single coverage with Will Fuller likely demanding safety help.

Then it’s just a matter of Robinson showing the hands and confidence that made him one of last year’s most consistent performers.

“Once he starts attacking the football, I think we’re going to see somebody that can make the plays that we expect him to make,” Kelly said. “So I’m optimistic that we’re going to see the guy that we need to see on Saturday.”