Early enrollment brings mixed results for Irish

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We discussed it earlier in the week, but Frank over at UHND had a nice look back at the early entrants into Notre Dame, starting with the opening trio of James Aldridge, George West, and Chris Stewart in January of 2006.

It’s been six years of accepting freshman early and before there were Kyle Brindza, Brad Carrico, Everett Golson, Aaron Lynch and Ishaq Williams, there were these 16 guys.

With a nod to Frank’s article, we thought we’d breakdown the careers of the guys that have jump-started their freshman year at Notre Dame. Here’s a comprehensive look at five years worth of early enrollment.

2006

James Aldridge, RB — Former five-star recruit suffered a knee injury during high school and never showed the promise that recruiting websites forecasted.
George West, WR — Diminutive wide receiver came to campus billed as a special teams dynamo and explosive player in space. Scored only one touchdown in career, and Charlie Weis left him home during the final road trip of his career.
Chris Stewart, OL — Entered freshman season needing to transform body. Nearly switched positions and almost transferred home before finding a spot on the offensive line. Started 35 games and became a model student-athlete during his five years in South Bend.

Thoughts: While only Stewart fulfilled the promise that the 2006 recruiting class showed, this trio deserves a ton of credit for showing ND administration that early enrollment works. All three players graduated, and while Aldridge and West didn’t make the impact they wanted on the field, they walked out of South Bend with their diplomas.

2007

Armando Allen, RB — For the second year, Charlie Weis landed a blue-chip running back with injury problems. Allen was one of the top juniors in Florida before an injury sidelined him for most of his senior season. The same bug plagued Allen during his four seasons in South Bend, but he leaves the Irish football program one of the top-gainers in all-purpose yards.
Jimmy Clausen, QB — The consensus top quarterback in the class of 2007, Clausen spent three years at Notre Dame before leaving for the NFL. Behind an atrocious offensive line in 2007, Clausen started at quarterback, though injuries forced him to the sideline. After an improved sophomore year, Clausen’s junior season was one of the best statistical years in Notre Dame history.
Gary Gray, CB — Gray was one of the South’s best cornerback recruits and any hopes of getting onto the field early were ended when a preseason shoulder injury needed surgery. Gray left the team after nine games as a sophomore, briefly left school, and returned for 2009, when he started seven games. Primed for a fifth year after a breakout 2010 season.

Thoughts: If there’s a boilerplate for how to use early-enrollees, this one seems to be it. Even though Clausen was plagued with bone spurs in his elbow (an ailment Weis tried to hide in Belichickian fashion), the early enrollment gave Jimmy a chance to compete for a wide open starting quarterback job. (Of course, it could be said Weis rigged the competition, with Team Clausen getting plenty of reassurances that he’d be the one selected come the start of the ’07 season, even if it meant finding a new quarterbacks coach.) The injury to Gray was another stroke of bad luck but Allen managed to get on the field as a freshman, though he wasn’t physically able to handle the game yet. In retrospect, you’ve got to wonder if Allen’s lack of vision on the field was from the gap between a successful junior season in high school to running for his life behind a brutal offensive line in 2007.

2008

Sean Cwynar, DL — Cwynar was an elite recruit who chose the Irish over mostly Big Ten programs and participated in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl. He rightfully sat out to 2008 season, preserving a year of eligibility, a move that’ll pay off over the next two years. He was ranked the fourth-best player in Illinois, behind teammates Steve Filer and Darius Fleming.
Trevor Robinson, OL — The Irish out-dueled the home state Cornhuskers for Rivals’ No. 1 ranked guard, giving Weis and his staff an important victory at a huge position of need. He walked onto campus and became only the fifth freshman to start on the line, logging minutes in 11 of 13 games.

Thoughts: The 2008 recruiting class was a monster, with Dayne Crist, Kyle Rudolph and Michael Floyd all garnering five-star rankings and everybody but Hafis Williams, David Posluszny, Mike Golic and John Goodman rated as four-star prospects. The idea of a lineman enrolling early only makes sense if playing early is an option and for Robinson it obviously was. That said, Robinson hasn’t turned into the player many thought he’d be, and he’s been hampered by nagging injuries for much of his three seasons. You can’t help but wonder if slowing his development down would’ve paid off for him. On Cwynar, if you’re looking for a guy that might be primed to make a serious leap as an upperclassman, it’d be Cwynar, who has two years of eligibility left and played very well in place of Ian Williams.

2009

EJ Banks, DB — Banks had offers from Ohio State, Florida State and a few other big players, and enrolled early as a cornerback looking to see the field. But an ACL injury suffered during his final game of high school set him back behind a competitive cornerback depth chart, and personal reasons had him step away from the football program in August. While head coach Brian Kelly welcomed Banks back to the team as a walk-on for part of the season, Banks had gone home to Pittsburgh before the semester ended, mulling his future options.
Zeke Motta, DB — Motta came to South Bend the son of a coach and a hard-nosed, in-the-box safety ready to knock heads. He had offers from schools like Auburn, Florida and Florida State, but ultimately stuck with Notre Dame, playing every game as a freshman, mostly on special teams. With an already thin safety position decimated by injury, Motta stepped up and played major minutes opposite Harrison Smith this year, improving in coverage as the season went on. Motta and Slaughter will likely battle for a starting role this spring, with the loser still getting a ton of minutes in nickel.
Tyler Stockton, DT — Stockton went from the U.S. Army All-American game with Motta to South Bend. He came into Notre Dame ranked as the third-best defensive tackle by ESPN, but spend 2009 watching, preserving a valuable year of eligibility. He played in six games this year, making only one tackle, but adds more depth to the interior of the defensive line.

Thoughts: Banks was the first early-enrollee to leave Notre Dame. Whether he left because of academic difficulties or for on-the-field reasons, we’ll never really know. His departure left the secondary pretty thin, where the Irish now have a scarcity issue at both safety and corner. Stockton sitting his freshman season is what should happen with just about every interior player that a team can afford to sit, and shows that Weis did learn how important it was to develop lineman by letting them stay on the sidelines.

2010

Spencer Boyd, CB — The freshman cornerback transferred before he ever saw the field, heading home to be closer to some family obligations and playing on the opposite side of the ball for South Florida head coach Skip Holtz. He sat out this season and will return to South Bend wearing enemy colors next year.
Chris Badger, DB — Another preseason loss, Badger chose to take his two-year mission before the season, leaving the Irish dangerously thin in the secondary.
TJ Jones, WR — A surprise from arrival, Jones was the talk of Spring Practice when he ascended into the starting lineup. He did most of his work from the slot during spring ball, but after Theo Riddick returned, Jones stayed in the starting lineup, scoring a touchdown in each of his first two games before slowing down the stretch.
Tommy Rees, QB — The best use of early enrollment in ND history, Rees gave up his senior year of high school to provide depth at quarterback and jump-starting his development allowed the Irish to win after Dayne Crist went down. The least heralded of the QB recruits, Rees brought a moxie to the position and led the Irish to a 4-0 record as a starter.
Lo Wood, CB — Thrust into action with the secondary thin on numbers, Wood played in 11 games, mostly on special teams, and should step onto the field next season as one of three returning scholarship cornerbacks.

Thoughts: While they’d never say it, the Irish coaching staff was far from rattled after losing both Boyd and Badger during the preseason. Even though those freshman might have added some depth, the coaching staff moved on without missing a beat. Losing two players before they ever step on the field isn’t the proper use of early enrollment, and you’ve got to think that the coaching transition, and two pretty unique circumstances, led to their departure. That said, if there’s a perfect reason why Notre Dame needed to open up early acceptance, it’s Tommy Rees. Without Rees’ spring in Kelly’s spread offense, there’s no way he’d have been ready to play winning football for the Irish.

***

Five years of early enrollment have yielded some interesting results. With the exception of Clausen, none of the Irish early enrollees seem to be true NFL prospects. So while the original theory that Notre Dame needed to open up enrollment to compete for the five-star talents might have been a little misstated. That said, we’ve also seen where early enrollment helps. Guys like Clausen, Tommy Rees, and even TJ Jones are perfect examples of spring practice helping prepare a youngster for contributing early.

After five years and 16 players, Notre Dame has successfully implemented early enrollment, something thought to be an impossibility at Notre Dame. While it hasn’t been the smashing success many thought it’d be, combining it with the proper use of redshirts and developmental tools like training table, it’s one more thing that’s helping the Irish football program catch up to the pack.

 

Kraemer, Eichenberg compete for RT spot, moving Bars inside, and Bivin to…

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Forty percent of the offensive line is essentially set in stone: fifth-year senior Mike McGlinchey at left tackle and senior Quenton Nelson at right guard.

The center position seems to be senior Sam Mustipher’s to lose.

That leaves the two starting spots on the right side of the line for a number of players—both young and experienced—to fight over.

Sophomores Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg have emerged as the frontrunners for the right tackle spot, moving senior Alex Bars inside to right guard. Bars started all 12 games last season at right tackle.

“Those two [Kraemer and Eichenberg] are the guys we have mapped out at right tackle, and they’re going to battle,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “Today Kraemer was there. Last two practices Eichenberg got a lot of the work. Eichenberg will go back there on Friday. They’re going to keep battling and splitting the action out there.”

Part of the reasoning in giving the two sophomores extended looks this spring is Notre Dame knows what it has in Bars when at right tackle.

“We would prefer to get him in at the guard position, but we know he can play the [tackle] position,” Kelly said.

A starting five of McGlinchey, the three seniors and either sophomore may seem to leave fifth-year lineman Hunter Bivin out in the cold. Not often is a player asked to return for a fifth year only to spend it on the bench. That is even more rare when considering the current Irish scholarship crunch.

Kelly compared Bivin’s role to that of Mark Harrell’s last year. Harrell appeared in all 12 games, starting two, and provided much needed depth and flexibility along the offensive line. Rather than have five backup offensive linemen, position coach Harry Hiestand relied on Harrell to provide support at multiple spots.

“It’s reasonable to assume that Hunter Bivin’s going to be involved in this as well,” Kelly said. “We’ve just asked Hunter to take a seat right now. He’s done that for the team.

“We think Hunter is going to be a Mark Harrell for us. A guy that’s extremely valuable, can play a number of positions. We trust him, but we want to see these two young players [Kraemer and Eichenberg]. Hunter is a guy that can play right or left tackle for us. He’s going to be a valuable player for us as a swing guy.”

On that note, this space will refer to Bivin as a fifth-year lineman, as was done above, rather than as a guard or as a tackle, until further notice. In his case, the broader description may be the most accurate.

Spring break out west is fine, but Wimbush better be ready to run

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It will undoubtedly become a habit, at least for the next five-plus months. If Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush sneezes in front of a camera, it just might lead to an uptick in webmd.com traffic. His every football move will certainly be analyzed, nitpicked and discussed at length. Thus, Irish coach Brian Kelly being asked about Wimbush’s spring break should surprise no one.

Rather than find a Florida beach, Wimbush spent his spring break working with private quarterbacks coach George Whitfield in San Diego alongside a handful of other college passers. Kelly said there is value to such a spring break but stopped short of setting any lofty expectations of the effects.

“I have no problem with [Wimbush] working out with George Whitfield,” Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice, the first following spring break and the third of 14 leading into the Blue-Gold Game on April 22. “George doesn’t work on the specifics to the offense. George is really working on the quarterback and throwing the football, moving in the pocket. George is really good at keeping those quarterbacks active and moving.”

Whitfield is best-known around Notre Dame and among Irish fans for working with former Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson during Golson’s academic suspension in 2013. Whitfield and Golson spent 10 weeks together, thus granting time for extensive off-field activities such as film study. Far shorter, Wimbush’s time out west appears to have been spent primarily doing drills.

“In those situations, it’s a bullpen session,” Kelly said. “They’re keeping their arms loose, they’re keeping their feet loose. He’s just keeping them active.”

It is hard to construe that activity as a negative, but it obviously lacks certain aspects crucial to Wimbush’s 2017 season. With only five career pass attempts and seven career rushes, Wimbush’s inexperience looms large. Developing the necessary intangibles to account for that may be just as, if not more, important as fitting his throws into tight windows.

“When it comes to the playbook, to his teammates, to his coaches here, Brandon understands that when the rubber hits the road, those are the guys that matter the most,” Kelly said. “He knows when it’s time for Notre Dame football, where the focus is.”

Included in that playbook will be an expectation for Wimbush to carry the ball. To date, Wimbush’s biggest play and possibly only imprint on most Notre Dame fans’ memories is a 58-yard touchdown scamper against Massachusetts in 2015.

Link to 17-second YouTube video which has unfortunately disabled embedding

Note, the play is not exclusively-designed for Wimbush to run. Now a rising junior, then a fellow freshman, running back Josh Adams comes across Wimbush’s front for a possible handoff. Instead, Wimbush makes the correct read and keeps the ball. Why state so clearly it was the proper read? Adams has to evade a Texas defender even though he never had the ball.

Future option plays should present Wimbush with the possibility of throwing the ball, too.

“He’ll be a runner in the offense,” Kelly said. “Do we want him to carry the ball 20 times? No.”

“I don’t think you’ll have a situation where we’re calling quarterback power or singular runs. He’s going to have options: hand it off, throw the ball out on the perimeter. You’ll see more of that than you will prescribed quarterback runs. We had a little bit more of that last year with Kizer, but I think you’ll see that he has an option to get the ball out of his hands more so than just prescribed runs.”

Those option plays, in particular, will require Wimbush to have a thorough familiarity both with the Notre Dame playbook and with his teammates’ tendencies.

RITA LEE OR 52-53?
Staying consistent with his comments over the last two months, Kelly once again reiterated the biggest changes new offensive coordinator Chip Long will bring to the Irish playbook will be in its wording. Perhaps going to an extreme example to illustrate his thinking, Kelly pointed to the future.

“We’re going to win next year and Chip is going to be the greatest offensive coordinator in the country and he’s going to get a head job, right?” Kelly asked rhetorically. “Then I’m not going to introduce the Chip Long offense to the next offensive coordinator.”

“It has to have my culture in it … The culture of the offense is still the base offense that I have always run because I have to be able to carry that with me from year to year.”

Within that ellipsis, Kelly gave two examples of possible verbiage changes. Without knowing much more behind them, they do not mean too much out here in the cobwebs of the internet, but they do provide a quick glimpse at what Kelly has been referring to when discussing lexicon since hiring Long.

“If he wants to change Ringo Lucky protection to Ram and Lion protection, go right ahead. If he wants to change certain calls, for example, 52-53 protection is now Rita Lee.”

RELATED READING:
4 Days Until Spring Practice: A Look at QBs (Brandon Wimbush)
Pace of Play: More Snaps Equal More Scoring Chances, Right?

Back from break, Irish commence hitting; DT Elijah Taylor out with LisFranc injury

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Notre Dame last wore pads in its 45-27 defeat at USC back on Nov. 26, a full 117 days ago. Suffice it to say, the Irish enjoyed the chance to don their shoulder pads and hit each other in Wednesday’s third spring practice, the first one since returning from spring break.

“What I liked about it more than anything else is there wasn’t a big drop off today,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “Usually you go two days and then you take a week off, and then you come back and put your pads on—it took us only a couple of periods to get back up to form. That was nice to see.”

Contrary to previous years in spring practice, and perhaps practice in general, Kelly emphasized tackling, especially tackling in the open-field, in Wednesday’s drills.

“[I] felt like we needed to make up for a little lost ground,” he said. “We got in tackling today for the first time. That’ll be an emphasis. We’ll tackle a lot this spring to make up for lost ground.”

The early and often physical nature of practice didn’t bother any of the players, per Kelly, but also per presumed common sense. While Notre Dame’s coaching staff changes and public questioning played out in broad view, the players spent 117 days in private waiting to unleash some of the frustrations of 2016’s disappointing season.

“Everybody to a man has been looking forward to this day,” Kelly said. “It was a pretty difficult offseason for them. They were looking forward to putting the pads on and getting out there. I think they exhibited that today.”

TAYLOR OUT FOR SPRING, AT LEAST
Junior defensive tackle Elijah Taylor was not in pads Wednesday. In the final practice before spring break, another player stepped on Taylor’s foot, Kelly said. The resulting LisFranc fracture will keep Taylor out of the remaining dozen spring practices and limit him until at least July. Taylor saw action in four games last season, finishing with three tackles, including one for a loss.

Notre Dame team surgeon Dr. Brian Ratigan already performed Taylor’s surgery.

“Typical LisFranc fractures, we’ve had good success with their repairs,” Kelly said. “…We’ll be able to train around the injury. Full range of motion moving around and doing things in June, probably full clearance sometime in July.”

Without Taylor, the interior of Notre Dame’s defensive line becomes even shallower, though that may have been hard to previously comprehend. Junior Jerry Tillery looks to be ready to start, and senior Jonathan Bonner has moved to the inside, rather than at end as he has been for most of his career. Behind them, the Irish present only question marks.

Kelly said he will look to junior Micah Dew-Treadway to step forward in Taylor’s absence.

“Micah Dew-Treadway has had a really good offseason for us,” Kelly said. “Changed his body, has been doing a really good job in all facets, in the class room and weight room. He’s somebody that had been ascending anyway prior to the injury.

Kelly indicated junior Brandon Tiassum also could be expected to see more work with Taylor sidelined.

Seniors Daniel Cage and Pete Mokwuah are in the mix, as well. Cage struggled with concussion issues last season after a promising 2015.

Notre Dame will need to wait until the freshmen arrive—perhaps also joined by Clemson graduate student transfer Scott Pagano, reportedly still taking official visits as he ponders his 2017 destination—for further reinforcements. Consensus four-star recruit Darnell Ewell would be the most likely candidate of the three expected arrivals to move up the depth chart right away.

In layman’s terms, a Lisfranc fracture occurs when a mid-foot bone connecting to a toe separates from the cluster of bones toward the heel. Note: This is stated here only to provide some context, nothing more. This particular scribe avoided most biology classes.

CLAYPOOL A RECEIVER AND THAT HE WILL STAY
Asked if he considered moving sophomore receiver Chase Claypool to defense, Kelly answered succinctly.

“We feel like we need his play on offense,” Kelly said. “He’ll continue to contribute on the special teams end of things, but we need his play on offense.”

KELLY ON KIZER’S NFL POTENTIAL
“I’ve had a number of conversations with GMs and coaches about [former Notre Dame quarterback] DeShone [Kizer], and my personal feeling is he has the biggest upside of all the quarterbacks. I don’t know that he’s prepared to come in and win a Super Bowl for you [this year]. Some may feel as though maybe one of the other quarterbacks are. I don’t know that firsthand. But I think, in time, he has the biggest upside of all the quarterbacks.

“I get it. It’s the NFL. Everybody’s under the same pressure of performing and needing somebody to come in right away, but I think he’s a guy that just needs some time. If he gets in the right situation, I think he’d be the guy to take.”

Kizer and eight other former Irish players will take part in a pro day tomorrow (Thursday) in front of some of those GMs and coaches.

Te’o to New Orleans; Booker to Nebraska

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Former Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o has signed a two-year contract with the New Orleans Saints, per reports.

Once recovered from a torn Achilles, Te’o will join a crowded Saints linebacker corps. The Saints signed A.J. Klein—formerly of the Carolina Panthers—to a three-year, $15 million contract earlier in March and return Craig Robertson, who finished 2016 with 115 tackles.

All three have experience at the middle linebacker position in a 4-3 defense, though Klein and Robertson are both capable of playing at the strong side position, as well.

Before his week three injury, Te’o had started 34 of 38 games for the San Diego Chargers and notched 221 career tackles. With the Saints, he rejoins linebackers coach Mike Nolan, who held the same position with the Chargers in 2015 when Te’o finished with a career-high 83 tackles.

BOOKER REJOINS DIACO
It appears former Notre Dame tight ends coach and special teams coordinator Scott Booker will join the Nebraska coaching staff. Two former Irish coaches—defensive coordinator Bob Diaco and safeties coach Bob Elliott—already have seats in the Lincoln coaching room, which is quickly becoming something of a Notre Dame West.

Booker will reportedly join the Cornhuskers staff as a special teams analyst. He served as Notre Dame’s special teams coordinator from 2012 to 2016 before this past offseason’s extensive staff changes.

PRO DAY THURSDAY
A reminder: Notre Dame will hold its Pro Day this Thursday. Nine players will partake, obviously highlighted by quarterback DeShone Kizer.

The others: long snapper Scott Daly, running back Tarean Folson, tight end Chase Hounshell, defensive linemen Jarron Jones and Isaac Rochell, cornerback Cole Luke, safety Avery Sebastian and linebacker James Onwualu.

Kizer hopes to prove himself worthy of a first-round draft pick, while Jones and Rochell may be in the mix for a second-day pick, meaning in the second or third rounds.

As it is draft season, this discussion of why mock drafts exist even though most prognosticators cannot stand them is worth the few minutes needed to read.

MARCH MADNESS UPDATE
The majority of the “Inside the Irish” bracket pool’s leaders escaped the weekend’s chaos, though frontrunner andy44teg will not hold onto that top spot for long after his titlist pick, Duke, exited late the tournament late Sunday.

That will leave some character named Dennis and his North Carolina prediction as the presumptive favorite to win, well, to win absolutely nothing.

Five of the top 10 expect North Carolina to win the championship.