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How we got here: Redshirts

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Redshirt.

It’s an ugly word amongst Irish fans, as Notre Dame doesn’t officially redshirt anyone, but merely allows seniors to apply for a fifth year of eligibility and enroll in a graduate program.

But for the life blood of a competitive college football program, Notre Dame’s inability to utilize a fifth-year of eligibility among its offensive line and defensive front seven may be the number one reason why the Irish have struggled in recent history, and a major factor as to why the 2010 Irish football team has gone 4-5 in the first nine games of the Brian Kelly era.

If there’s one defining characteristic of the post-Lou Holtz era Notre Dame teams, it’s been a puzzling lack of physicality. While recruiting rankings always kept the Irish in the upper-echelon of college football (except for a few Davie and Willingham squads), Notre Dame never seems to develop the impact players on their roster that many Top 25 programs rode to major bowl games. Under Charlie Weis specifically, the Irish enjoyed some high-level recruits, but never produced top-flight offensive or defensive linemen.

To crystallize this point, let’s take a look at some of the best offensive line and front seven recruits that Notre Dame has brought to campus in the last seven years, who also turned into some of Notre Dame’s highest draft picks. Victor Abiamiri, Trevor Laws, and Ryan Harris were three of the most highly touted recruits in the celebrated 2003 class. Both Abiamiri and Harris played immediately for the Irish, with Laws only staying off the field because he missed the year with an injury. Harris became only the third true freshman in Notre Dame history to start along the offensive line, playing as an extremely undersized left tackle, getting by on his athleticism, quickness, and smarts. Abiamiri flashed talent, but played wasted much of his first year, contributing only 16 tackles and one sack during his freshman year. All three left Notre Dame after four seasons, with only Laws retaining the option of returning for a fifth year.

Under Charlie Weis, the trend was even worse. Starting with the heralded class of 2006, Weis played just about every freshman with a chance to get on the field. Offensive linemen like Sam Young saw the field immediately, potentially stunting his development by being thrown immediately into the fire. Guys like Eric Olsen and Matt Carufel saw the field in only mop-up time, wasting a season of eligibility for Olsen with just 20 minutes of playing time and more egregiously, Carufel spent a year of eligibility in just three minutes. Dan Wenger and Bartley Webb didn’t play, but mostly because they were hampered with injuries, while Chris Stewart was in the midst of a body transformation, having arrived on campus at nearly 400 pounds of poorly proportioned weight.

Weis’ disregard for redshirts was hardly lost on just offensive linemen. Undersized and overwhelmed defensive end John Ryan saw the field as a true freshman, as did highly touted pass-rushing prospect Morrice Richardson, logging only eleven minutes of playing time, mostly on special teams. Tight ends Will Yeatman and Konrad Reuland both played reserve roles, spending a year of eligibility while combining for zero catches as they backed up John Carlson and Marcus Freeman. In the secondary, Weis played cornerbacks Raeshon McNeil and Darrin Walls immediately, as well as safeties Sergio Brown and Jashaad Gaines, with Brown and Gaines logging solely special teams play. On a veteran 2006 team that had national title aspirations, Weis wasted the eligibility of nearly a dozen freshman that could be contributing on the roster in 2010.

How important are fourth and fifth year seniors to a team’s success? Let’s take a look at the BCS Top 25 and see how well they utilize veterans along the offensive line and in the front-seven of the defense.

Of the 12 “power positions,” look at how thin Notre Dame is compared to the rest of the top programs in college football. Only four players are fourth or fifth year players in the key positions along the line and in the front seven.

Digging even deeper, Notre Dame’s best seasons since 2002 have come when the Irish had age-appropriate depth in their power positions.

2002 (10-3): Nine of Twelve players in power positions were fourth of fifth year seniors.
2005 (9-3): Seven of Twelve players in power positions. Junior quarterback starting.
2006 (10-3): Ten of Twelve players in power positions. True senior quarterback.

While the easy answer to Notre Dame’s struggles is the early departure of Jimmy Clausen and Golden Tate, when you look deeper, the 2010 Irish are struggling not just because they lost two of their best offensive weapons, but because the Irish have failed systemically to build veteran depth over much of the last decade.

For the Irish to get back into the upper-echelon of college football, Brian Kelly will need to do something his predecessors showed no aptitude for: building a roster properly. The good news? Kelly already seems to understand that the best thing for young, talented players at non-skill positions — guys like Louis Nix, Christian Lombard, Kendall Moore and Justin Utupo — is the least logical thing for them to do.

Sit them on the bench and let them watch.

(Special thanks to the legendary FunkDoctorSpock and Brian Fremeau for their help in this column.)

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.

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.