Kelly declares 2011 quarterback derby open

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Brian Kelly met with the media today as the Notre Dame student body finished up with their final exams and addressed one of the million dollar questions that’ll take over once the Irish play Miami in the Sun Bowl: Who will be the starting quarterback against USF to kickoff 2011?

“I think we have a lot of players that I believe we can develop into being front line quarterbacks,” Kelly said. “We clearly have a number of quarterbacks and it’ll be competitive. That’s exciting for me. I hope that it’s not murky. I hope it’s just a great competition, and whoever wins that slot is better because it’s a very competitive situation.”

In other words, Kelly was unwilling to name Dayne Crist, or any of the quarterbacks on the roster, the frontrunner for the starting job come spring practice.

While it’ll probably be an exercise we’ll repeat a half dozen times before the spring, let’s take a good look at the quarterback depth chart and lays some early odds on who’ll end up starting against Skip Holtz and the South Florida Bulls next September 3rd.

DAYNE CRIST
(Odds — 5:2)

A couple of weeks ago we crunched Crist’s numbers against three high profile quarterbacks that replaced Sam Bradford, Tim Tebow and Colt McCoy and Dayne more than held his own. But watching the season play out, it was obvious that Crist wasn’t fully comfortable running Kelly’s spread option yet, and the first year starter showed some growing pains that many hoped the junior quarterback wouldn’t experience.

With Crist battling his second major knee surgery in as many football seasons, his mental and physical ability to battle back from a torn patellar tendon will determine if he can return as the starting quarterback.

“If he comes back physically able to compete at the highest level, he’s got obviously a great deal of experience,” Kelly said about Crist. “There’s a lot of time that we spent together. A lot of information he’s been able to digest in his first year as a starter. As long as he’s physically able to come back, and I believe he will, he’s got a great amount of experience that’s going to serve him well.”

Kelly disclosed that Crist suffered an infection in his surgically repaired knee that set him back 7-10 days in his rehab, and the timeline on his recovery will largely determine whether or not Dayne will fully participate in spring practice.

Crist lacks the true mobility needed in a spread quarterback to do damage on the ground, but he possesses all the arm strength needed to pilot a Notre Dame offense that could have a ton of weapons back in 2011. Was his first year starting what optimistic Irish fans hoped for? Probably not. But Kelly and offensive coordinator Charley Molnar have far too good of a track record with quarterbacks to count Crist’s ability to develop into a great one out, especially if Dayne responds to another bump in the road.

“From everything I’ve seen from the way he’s rehabbed, he’s already past that mentally because he had to go through it the first time,” Kelly said. “I see in him a different look in his eye like, ‘Coach, I’m going to get through this and be stronger because of it.’ Once he’s healthy, he’ll have a chance to compete and be a starter.”

TOMMY REES
(Odds — 4:1)

If Rees didn’t struggle mightily against USC, I’d be inclined to put him in a dead heat with Crist. But the freshman showed his age in the Coliseum, and reminded those that forgot what a true freshman quarterback looks like playing on the road.

Even with his struggles against USC, it’s hard not to be impressed with what Rees has done in such a short time on campus. The freshman enrolled early at Notre Dame, walking away from a senior season of high school basketball because the Irish depth chart was so precarious. Described as drinking from a fire hydrant by Kelly in the preseason, Rees’ career began as inauspiciously as it could, misplaying a two-step read on a trick play against Michigan and throwing an interception on his opening series.

But Rees’ development was impressive, and Kelly and company prescient decision to put the freshman in against Navy in mop-up time could be one of the key coaching decisions made all year. Rees completed six of seven throws as he marched the Irish offensive down the field for a touchdown, a meaningless score in a lopsided game, but an incredibly important one in developing a backup quarterback that would take the reins as number one just a week later.

Rees has had a month to prepare for his next start, and his skillset will come in handy against a Hurricane pass-rush that is among the best the Irish have seen.

“Being in the shotgun allows us to get the ball out on time and quicker,” Kelly said. “Tommy is good about getting the ball out of his hands. We’re going to rely on some of his strengths, and that is, he’s pretty accurate and can get it out quickly.”

Again, Rees isn’t one of those quarterbacks that’ll wow you with his physical attributes and will pilot a two-dimensional spread attack. But if we’ve learned anything since he took over against Tulsa, he’s got the ability to win football games, a skill that this coaching staff truly values.

ANDREW HENDRIX
(Odds — 6:1)

Even with Crist going down with a season-ending injury, Kelly has been careful to save the eligibility of Hendrix, who became the emergency third-string quarterback for the game against Army. But it’s hard not to be intrigued by the raw freshman’s skillset, which Kelly described when comparing him to Rees.

“You can see the athleticism of Hendrix, strength of arm, and then you can see the strengths that Tommy has in picking up a game plan, where it comes natural to him,” Kelly said. “You go into a practice and he understands what you’re trying to accomplish. He’s got to be able to accomplish those things, but his recognition is really good for a true freshmen, and you can see the athleticism of an Andrew Hendrix, but it’s hard to put it all together right now because he has a very, very shallow base of what we want to accomplish.”

Having watched Hendrix from the sideline throwing the ball with the other quarterbacks, he’s got every bit the arm and athleticism of anyone else on the roster. But there’s no question that he’s the rawest prospect on the Irish roster, even if you include soon to be incoming freshman…

EVERETT GOLSON
(Odds — 8:1)

If you’re a betting man, you’d be wise to throw a little money on this darkhorse candidate. While he’s undersized to play D-I quarterback in a system that requires the quarterback to take some hits, Golson is probably the ideal fit for Kelly’s offense and has all the tools necessary to walk in and compete for a starting job.

I’m not one to wax on about a quarterback that I’ve never seen in person and whose only game footage I’ve seen comes via highlight tape, but Golson’s offer to play North Carolina basketball, his leadership and ability to overcome an injury plagued season and lead his team to a South Carolina state championship (and a very good head on his shoulders) has me about as excited for a incoming freshman quarterback since a spiky haired Southern California kid flashed some state championship rings at the College Football Hall of Fame.

LUKE MASSA
(Odds — 15:1)

He’s been a bit of a forgotten man behind fellow freshman Rees and Golson, but Luke Massa has plenty of the tools that are needed to be a starting college quarterback, and you’d be silly to count out anyone when you’re dealing with Brian Kelly and quarterbacks.

Kelly singled out Massa early in preseason camp for doing some great work, and had this to say about the freshman quarterback when he signed his letter-of-intent.

“Very smart, very disciplined,” Kelly said of Massa. “He’s 6-5, 205-pounds. He’s going to be really big. He’s going to be a strong player. He’s got great feet, he’s an outstanding basketball player.”

Massa winning the job out of camp next year would be an incredible upset. But who thought that Tommy Rees would lead the Irish to an undefeated November? If anything has become apparent this season, it’s that have the head to run Kelly’s offense is far more important than having the body. Kelly had a long time to evaluate the Ohio native, had recruited him as a quarterback when he was coaching at Cincinnati, and obviously saw enough in him to bring him to South Bend. What that means for his future, we’ll find out.

NATE MONTANA
(Odds — 25:1)

While it’d be the best story to cover, I just don’t see how Nate Montana battles his way up the depth chart with the stack of recruited quarterbacks in front of him. That said, watching Montana in the tail end of the season, I was impressed with how fluid he threw the football, and I get the feeling that Kelly could figure out how to win a football game with Nate behind center, something the Irish obviously couldn’t do earlier in the year.

The fact that Nate’s in the two-deep and able to play serviceable minutes is an accomplishment in and of itself, especially considering he struggled to play even mediocre football when he transferred to Pasadena City College for playing time instead of being buried on the bench under Charlie Weis, and didn’t play much football at even the high school level.

So while we won’t get much time to write about how the Son of Joe woke up the echoes and lead the Irish to victory, Nate’s done everything asked of him, even with a lot thrust on his shoulders.

 

 

 

 

Avery Davis’ move bumps Notre Dame’s RB depth from dire to versatile

Associated Press
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It may not be what Avery Davis always imagined, but his move to running back at least gets him on the field in a Notre Dame jersey. From a practical standpoint, Davis offers more than just running back depth amid a depleted Irish backfield. His move from quarterback to running back/receiver creates a new possibility of playmaking. That concept was the primary reason the sophomore welcomes the position switch rather than dreads it.

Davis’ motivations are that pure and simple. After spending the 2017 season preserving a year of eligibility and watching quarterbacks Brandon Wimbush and Ian Book both prove more than capable, Davis could see his chances at quarterbacking for Notre Dame dwindling. The prospect of another year with a similar view was not one to which he looked forward.

“I love the quarterback position, I’ve played it my whole life,” Davis said following the Blue-Gold Game. “But that redshirt season, to be standing on the sidelines knowing you could make an impact, knowing you could make plays, that pushed me into this.

“… What I’m really trying to do is help the team however I can.”

The Irish coaching staff’s motivations are undoubtedly as pure, regarding helping the team however Davis can, but one may wonder if the move would have happened if not for the dismissal of half the running back depth chart following the Citrus Bowl victory over LSU. Regardless, Notre Dame had a need, and Davis’ natural skills can now help fill it.

“It was a mutual understanding,” Davis said. “… I knew they were serious, because I was serious, too. Week two [of spring practices] I got my chance and that’s when it started clicking.”

By the end of spring practice, Davis had pushed his way firmly into the running back rotation, with a few cameos at receiver, as well. He finished the Blue-Gold Game with 30 rushing yards on 11 carries and 24 receiving yards on two catches, to go along with 2-for-2 passing for 26 yards in the closing moments.

The presence of a viable rushing and receiving threat plays right into the hands of Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long’s preferences. The mere presence of Davis on the field will put defenses into compromising positions. At least, that will be the theory.

It will likely not be long into the season when Davis first lines up in the backfield before motioning into the slot position, thus exposing more of the defense’s blitz and coverage intentions, if not outright forcing adjustments to them. Not long after that, Davis will at some point line up wide only to take a jet sweep a la Cam Smith in 2017’s first month and Kevin Stepherson in the latter half of the year.

These are the dilemmas created by a multi-dimensional threat such as Davis appears to be. Sure, it was just the spring game, but it showed the wrinkles he can create. No one else currently among Notre Dame’s running backs or receivers offers such a variety. Sophomore receiver Michael Young may come the closest, but his frame is not designed for the beating of a running back’s workload.

Nor is Davis’ at this point, necessarily, but he knows as much.

“It’s just more of a physical toll on your body,” he said when asked of the greatest difference from the quarterback position. “You take more hits. That’s something that comes with being in the weight room.”

Atop Davis’ offseason to-do list is add more muscle across the chest and in the shoulders. Next will be to work on his routes and pass-catching skills. As far as reading the defense’s approach, quarterback prepared him for that. His focus is now slightly different, looking for gaps at the line rather than gauging coverage holes, but the underlying skills are the same.

Along with the potential poised by Davis’ position switch and the inherent disclaimers attached to any spring successes, two more aspects of the sophomore’s future should be explicitly noted. First of all, he does not let slip even the slightest misgiving about the move from football’s glamor position. Davis knew what the Irish depth chart looked like when he arrived at Notre Dame, and he knew who had already committed in the following class in consensus four-star Phil Jurkovec.

“When it comes down to it, I love playing the game,” Davis said. “Wasn’t too hard for me. It was a personal decision.

“It was a decision to come here, and I’m living with it. I’m really happy with it, to be honest.”

Secondly, this is a move the Irish coaching staff is committed to, but it retains the right to work Davis in at quarterback. Even Jurkovec’s arrival is unlikely to knock Davis from the spot of No. 3 quarterback to be deployed in emergency situations, lest Jurkovec burn a year of eligibility to offer a quarter’s worth of work.

“The conversation we had with Avery is, what do you want to do?” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “If you want to stay [at quarterback], right now it looks like it’s 1A, 1B, and you’re 3. You can stay in that position, or we think you’ve got some talents to help our offense. He wanted to do this.

“He doesn’t want to give up his ability to play quarterback down the road, but in the meantime, you need to play this year. This gives him that opportunity.”

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS/IS AT RUNNING BACK:
Without Davis and the move of sophomore Jafar Armstrong from receiver, the Irish had two upperclassmen and an early-enrolled freshman at running back this spring. Each of senior Dexter Williams (pictured above) and junior Tony Jones have shown the physical ability to be a loadbearing ballcarrier in the past, but neither has stayed healthy enough to grant peace of mind if in that role. Depth was needed.

Specifically in reference to Williams, Kelly acknowledged past restrictions due to Williams’ durability, or lack thereof.

“How long can you stay on the field?” Kelly said Saturday. “He seemed to be a guy that we couldn’t keep on the field very long. He had a really good spring. He wasn’t a guy that we had to pull out or wasn’t conditioned well enough.”

Much like Davis, Armstrong’s emergence this spring soothes some of those concerns. In the Blue-Gold Game, he finished with 48 yards on five carries along with one catch for 21 yards, showing decent quickness with a burst that will become only more decisive with more experience.

Armstrong should be more than capable of replacing Deon McIntosh as the No. 3 or 4 running back who can offer some modicum of production. In time, he could certainly become more than that.

Early-enrollee Jahmir Smith did about what one would expect from a high school senior taking part in collegiate practices, and that is meant as a compliment, but by no means did he lay the groundwork to force his way into the rotation by September.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WILL BE:
The Irish will welcome C’Bo Flemister as a sixth running back in the fall. Presuming health of the top four (Williams, Jones, Davis and Armstrong), Flemister should join Smith in spending a year in strength and conditioning, perhaps adding some special teams work. More likely, though, at least one of that initial quartet will suffer a plaguing injury, if not something worse, and the freshmen duo could be a sprained ankle away from being activated, just as C.J. Holmes was halfway through 2017.

ONE MORE NOTE, NFL DRAFT-WISE:
The NFL draft begins tonight (Thursday). Former Notre Dame running back Josh Adams will not hear his name called in the first round, but it is likely his name comes up Saturday, somewhere between late in the fourth round and the end of the sixth round.

Notre Dame adds another 2019 commitment out of Georgia

rivals.com
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Eight months from now, Notre Dame may be forced to sign a smaller recruiting class than usual thanks to the larger class this past recruiting cycle. If that expectation does indeed hold, this past week’s five commitments, including consensus three-star safety Kyle Hamilton’s (Marist High School; Atlanta) on Tuesday evening, will be a hefty portion of the class.

Hamilton becomes the second safety in the class, and in the week, following the Saturday pledge of rivals.com four-star Litchfield Ajavon (Episcopal H.S.; Alexandria, Va.). Hamilton’s list of finalists included Michigan, Georgia, Ohio State and Clemson, a grouping more telling than perhaps his recruiting ranking is.

Some of that expected potential may derive from Hamilton’s 6-foot-3 frame. Such length at safety would be a change for the Irish, currently without a safety taller than six-feet in the rotation. Even heralded incoming-freshman Derrik Allen, also out of Georgia, is listed at only 6-foot-1.

It is a coincidence those two Georgia recruits, one signed and one now verbally-committed, are both safeties. Add in the January commitment of rivals.com three-star cornerback K.J. Wallace (Lovett; Atlanta), and a third defensive back comes from the state, along with class of 2018 signees tight end Tommy Tremble and running back C’Bo Flemister. Five prospects from Georgia, presuming both Hamilton and Wallace do indeed sign with Notre Dame, is not a coincidence.

“My point being is that it’s such a fertile ground in recruiting, you just need to be in [Georgia], and there’s great football players in there,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said in December 2017, during the inaugural early signing period. “We’ve got so many players that we can talk about that came of there. It’s just having a presence and getting back into a very, very good recruiting area for us. We need to have a great presence there.”

No matter what state Hamilton comes from, he could find himself quickly in the mix at safety upon his arrival. Presuming health for the current safety depth chart, juniors Jalen Elliott and Devin Studstill will have one year of eligibility remaining apiece upon Hamilton’s enrollment. Junior Alohi Gilman will have two, thanks to spending the 2017 season sidelined following his transfer from Navy. Early-enrolled freshman Griffith and Allen will both have three more years, presuming both play in 2018.

Thus, Hamilton and Ajavon could find themselves backing up that last duo as soon as 2020.

Blue-Gold Game Leftovers: Notre Dame’s offensive ceiling is tantalizing, though also unlikely

Associated Press
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Immediately following the 2017 spring game, I walked by two much smarter, savvier and more veteran Notre Dame reporters on our way to post-game interviews. Our two minutes of exchange included them riffing on various hypothetical position changes that were eventually not seen come fall, including how much better of a guard than a tackle Tommy Kraemer could be. It should be noted, the junior began lining up at guard this spring.

My contribution to the conversation hinged entirely on repeating, “That offense just isn’t ready. It’s not close to ready.”

Of course, that assessment figured the spring game struggles were against a porous Irish defense, something freshly-arrived and since-departed defensive coordinator Mike Elko had already taken tangible steps toward fixing, far quicker than expected.

That evaluation also failed to recognize the potential of a running attack led by Josh Adams. Notre Dame knew it had a stalwart running back, and did not need to see more than eight carries for 39 yards and a touchdown from the lead back.

The point stood, though. The offense was not ready then or in November.

Driving away from this past Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game, the thought bouncing around my pickup’s two-seat cab was simple: This offense is unlikely to reach its ceiling, but if it did, it would be really, absurdly high-powered.

This time, that assessment offers some deference to first-year defensive coordinator Clark Lea’s ability to turn nine returning starters into another strong defense, perhaps superior to last year’s.

The praise of the offense must be hedged thanks to IF after IF after IF after IF. If senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush displays those mechanics and that accuracy against opposing defenses …
If senior running back Dexter Williams (pictured above) decides it is worthwhile to play, and play well, through pain …
If junior receiver Chase Claypool maintains the necessary emotional equilibrium …
If senior tight end Alizé Mack offers a consistent performance, even if not stellar, but stable …

In those four upperclassmen alone, the Irish have unique talents whom opposing defensive coordinators should lose sleep thinking about. They will determine how high this offense’s ceiling is, while the likes of senior receiver Miles Boykin, junior running back Tony Jones and sophomore tight end Cole Kmet will set the floor, along with what looks to be yet another overpowering offensive line (with Kraemer at right guard).

Obviously, the most-promising players always set the height of a vaulted the ceiling. As they perform against Michigan, Stanford and Virginia Tech will determine how the season ends. However, to pinpoint four like this is an extreme end of the spectrum.

Exiting last year’s Blue-Gold Game, it was clear Wimbush needed to learn much more of offensive coordinator Chip Long’s scheme. Aside from that, the only possible ways to increase the offense’s potency was to teach receiver Kevin Stepherson self-discipline and figure out why Mack could not make a gameday impact. The rest was essentially known, even if the running game’s potential was overlooked after the spring exhibition.

Entering this summer, the gap between the offense’s floor and its ceiling is a vast one. To have four question marks of this magnitude speaks to the possible volatility awaiting in the fall. Logically speaking, it is most likely two of the four above IFs become realities. In that case, it will be a good offense, but not the utterly threatening one conceivable. The odds are slim all four come to fruition, but crazier things have happened, especially when discussing the rapid development of 18- to 21-year-olds.

Without Adams following two All-American offensive linemen, this rendition of the Notre Dame offense may take a step backward, but the talent is there for it to actually improve, to carry the day if/when an experienced quarterback picks apart the defense (see: the Seminoles’ Deondre Francois).

That could not be said in 2017.

OTHER QUICK TAKEAWAYS FROM THE BLUE-GOLD GAME:
Much of this will be discussed in greater length in the coming two weeks, but …
— The interior of the offensive line — fifth-year left guard Alex Bars, fifth-year center Sam Mustipher and Kraemer at right guard — is quite a physically-imposing trio. Some defensive ends may find success against first-year starter and junior left tackle Liam Eichenberg, especially early in the season, but the inside trio should at least create massive holes for the Irish running game.

— Ideally Long can deploy Mack and Kmet together, but the spring performance of the latter certainly eases the concerns about the maturation and consistency of the former.

Notre Dame may need an unexpected influx of production from senior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery if the fifth-year tackle he is intended to line up alongside, Jonathan Bonner, does not recover fully from a wrist injury suffered in the beginning of 2017. (Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune via AP)

— Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly insists fifth-year defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner’s fitness will not be overly-effected by the wrist injury that kept him out of most of spring practice and all of the Blue-Gold Game.

“He’s been doing everything (in weight-lifting) but at lighter weight, and now he’s only a couple of weeks away from being full-go,” Kelly said Saturday. “He was already physically really gifted, so we don’t think that’s going to be a big curve for him, and he’ll be able to start training aggressively when we get back here in June.”

Consider this scribe skeptical. Not only is Kelly often overly-optimistic about injury effects and timetables, but to think missing six months of strength and conditioning will not be noticeable along the defensive interior is idealistic at best. Bonner’s 2017 emergence was a direct result of the arrival of strength and conditioning coordinator Matt Balis.

Without more of that work, the Irish will need to turn to sophomore Kurt Hinish for an increase in snaps, perhaps pushing toward 50 per game with Bonner offering 20-30 and senior Micah Dew-Treadway filling in the balance. Hinish appears to be up to the task, which is necessary, because classmate Darnell Ewell is not.

Notre Dame gains commitments of four-star defensive end and three-star offensive tackle

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At this rate, Notre Dame might fill its 2019 recruiting class by the time the school year ends. With a Sunday morning commitment of a consensus four-star defensive end followed by a Monday evening pledge from a consensus three-star offensive tackle, the Irish class has grown from three recruits to seven in just four days.

The No. 238 prospect in the country and No. 28 at defensive end, per rivals.com, Howard Cross III (St. Joseph High School; Montvale, N.J.) announced his commitment via Twitter shortly after leaving campus from a visit for the Blue-Gold Game, choosing the Irish over offers from Michigan, North Carolina State and Virginia Tech, among others.

“I could tell [current Notre Dame players] really loved the school,” Cross said to Blue & Gold Illustrated. “It was really, really big to talk to them. When I was going to all the colleges, that was the main thing I wanted to do. I wanted to get the perspective of the players.”

Cross joins consensus four-star defensive end Hunter Spears (Sachse H.S.; Texas) as half of the four defensive linemen already in the Irish recruiting class. As always, no collegiate defensive line can be deep enough. Considering the previous two recruiting classes have yielded a total of two defensive ends — Kofi Wardlow and Justin Ademilola — opportunity should be aplenty for Cross and Spears early in their careers.

The defensive end duo will likely spend a not-insignificant portion of their collegiate career practices butting heads with Andrew Kristofic (Pine-Richland; Gibsonia, Pa.). If the high school of Pine-Richland jumps off the figurative page to Notre Dame recruitniks, that is because Kristofic has much experience protecting high school teammate and incoming Irish freshman quarterback Phil Jurkovec.

He chose Notre Dame, and new offensive line coach Jeff Quinn, rather than offers from a lengthy list including Clemson, Georgia and Ohio State.

“The combination that their school is able to provide being one of the very best schools in the entire country academically and one of the very athletically stands out,” Kristofic said to Blue & Gold Illustrated. “I think they have the best combination of those two things on top of being a school that is known for being able to produce such great offensive linemen is something that no other schools really have the combination of all those.

“When you can put together all the things that they can there, it’s certainly not something you can overlook or take for granted.”

The beginning of this influx of commitments came with the Friday decision of consensus four-star offensive tackle John Olmstead (St. Joseph; Metuchen, N.J.), the only other offensive lineman in the class to this point. Of the seven recruits committed to the Irish, five are four-star talents.