Tulsa v Notre Dame

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


How we got here: Roster Attrition

Rees Golson Kiel

There is the team you recruit and then the team that you coach. And for Brian Kelly, the team he could be coaching certainly isn’t the one that’s taking the field.

Turnover on the Notre Dame roster is by no means exclusive to the Kelly era. For as long as you’ve likely been following Irish football, players have been coming and going–often times sooner than four or five years.

But as we look at the sources of this disappointing season, how this became Notre Dame’s youngest roster since 1972 is worth a look. Because as Brian Kelly struggles to win with a team that’s playing a stack of underclassmen while his fourth and fifth-year classes are all but gone, it’s amazing to see the attrition that’s struck this roster, especially considering this should be when the Irish are feeling the benefits of their national title game appearance.

From fifth-year candidates to sophomores, 20 signees have left the Irish program. That includes transfers, dismissals, withdrawals, injuries or walking away. (It doesn’t include leaving early for the NFL.)

The talent drain has taken big names and small, included five-star prospects like Gunner Kiel, Eddie Vanderdoes, Greg Bryant and most recently Max Redfield. It’s featured shortened career of projected 2016 starters Steve Elmer and Corey Robinson, and shown the bad luck the Irish staff has had bringing in pass rushers.

Let’s look at how this team got so young.


Gunner Kiel, QB — 5 star
Tee Shepard, CB — 4 star
Davonte Neal, WR — 4 star
Will Mahone, RB — 3 star
Justin Ferguson, WR — 3 star

Recap: The second phase of Brian Kelly’s star-crossed quarterback run came after Gunner Kiel transferred after a redshirt season, leaving before Everett Golson was declared academically ineligible. Had Kiel stuck around, who knows what would’ve happened. The departure of Tee Shepard was also costly, the highly-touted cornerback never dressing for the Irish after his early enrollment didn’t help clear up academic issues that seemed to plague him for the rest of his football playing career.

Neal reemerged at Arizona, moving to the defensive side of the ball. Mahone’s high-profile dismissal came after an ugly incident in his hometown of Youngstown, but resulted in a life-changing turnaround. Add in the early departures (though successful careers) of Ronnie Stanley and CJ Prosise and you begin to see how this group certainly accomplished plenty, but left a ton on the table.


Greg Bryant, RB — 5 star
Max Redfield, S — 5 star
Eddie Vanderdoes, DT — 5 star
Steve Elmer, OL — 4 star
Corey Robinson, WR — 4 star
Mike Heuerman, TE — 4 star
Doug Randolph, DL — 4 star
Rashad Kinlaw, DB — 3 star
Michael Deeb, LB — 3 star

Recap: This group could’ve redefined the roster. While Bryant and Redfield never played up to their potential before being cut loose from the university, a front-line defensive lineman like Vanderdoes would’ve changed the complexion of the Irish defense.

Below the radar, the losses of Steve Elmer and Corey Robinson certainly hurt more than we expected. Neither were breakaway talents, but both more than good enough to been veteran starters on a team that clearly needed a few more of them.

The bottom half of this list almost stands out just because they were big swings and misses. With the Heuerman, Kinlaw, and Deeb, the Irish took shots on a few less-than-elite names and came up empty, with Heuerman and Deeb never able to shake off injuries before eventually going on medical hardships. A big recruiting class coming off a historic season, this group had plenty of success, but could’ve been more.


Nile Sykes, LB — 3 stars
Grant Blankenship, DE — 3 stars
Kolin Hill, DE — 3 stars
Jhonathon Williams, DE — 3 stars

Recap: Four defenders, four front seven players, three pass rushers. When Irish fans wonder where the pass rush is, it’s misses like this that end up really hurting. Sykes, Hill and Williams were hardly national prospects. Blankenship was an early target with modest offers, though a strong senior season brought interest from Texas.

Hill’s pass rush skills were evident from his situational use as a freshman. His departure left a hole, and he’s now the second-leading tackler behind the line of scrimmage for Texas Tech. Sykes never made it onto the Irish roster, and is now the sack leader for Indiana. Williams is now in the mix at Toledo, a reach by the Irish staff who saw him as a developmental prospect.


Mykelti Williams, DB — 4 star
Jalen Guyton, WR — 3 star
Bo Wallace, DE — 3 star

Recap: Three wash outs that seemed like promising prospects when they committed. Williams was especially important, a key piece at a position of need who is now reviving his career at Iowa Western CC. Guyton is also taking the Juco route, the leading receiver at Trinity Valley CC in Texas. Wallace is an edge rusher now at Arizona State, never making it to campus after Brian Kelly spoke highly of the New Orleans prospect on Signing Day.


Swarbrick: Kelly will be back in 2017

SOUTH BEND, IN - AUGUST 30:  Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish watches as his team takes on the Rice Owls at Notre Dame Stadium on August 30, 2014 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Brian Kelly will be coaching Notre Dame in 2017. That’s according to his boss, athletic director Jack Swarbrick.

So even with a 2-5 record and a difficult slate still to come, there will be no change atop the Irish football program.

“Brian will lead this team out of the tunnel opening day next year,” Swarbrick told ESPN.com.

Swarbrick’s vote of confidence is nothing new—he’s taken a similar stance in his weekly appearances the past few weeks. But it likely became necessary as the season continues to frustrate, and Notre Dame’s head coaching position becomes part of the hot seat discussion.

But even with plenty to accomplish during this week off, both on the field and in the classroom, Kelly was out front and on the ESPN airwaves, openly shouldering the blame of this season’s failures, while also mentioning this is the youngest team at Notre Dame since 1972.

See the entire segment here:


Bye Week Mailbag: Now Open

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 15: DeShone Kizer #14 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish runs the ball during the game against the Stanford Cardinal at Notre Dame Stadium on October 15, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. Stanford defeated Notre Dame 17-10. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

It’s been too long. Or maybe it hasn’t.

Against my better judgment, I’m opening up the mailbag. Drop your questions below or at Twitter @KeithArnold.

How we got here: The Defense

05 September 2015:  Notre Dame Fighting Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder stands with his players in action during a game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Texas Longhorns at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, IN. (Icon Sportswire via AP Images)

The first of a multi-part series as we look at the 2-5 Irish at the bye week. 


Notre Dame’s season was sunk by Brian VanGorder’s defense. That sentence is much easier to write after seeing the unit without its former coordinator. But it was just as clear after watching the Irish play their first four games of 2016 that Brian Kelly needed to make a change. The Irish gave up a combined 124 points in their three September defeats, a season-high for either yards or points (against FBS competition) for Texas, Michigan State and Duke.

For many VanGorder detractors, the move came four games too late. The Irish were plagued by big plays and schematic breakdowns throughout 2015 (and before), a fatal flaw of a defense filled with talented personnel that too often underperformed.

How did the Irish get here? Any why did Kelly make the decision to hire VanGorder—a decision that has already impacted his legacy in South Bend?

Let’s look back.



When Brian Kelly tapped VanGorder to replace Bob Diaco, he was hiring a coach who seemed like an evolutionary next step. While Diaco’s 3-4 base and point prevention philosophies were the perfect tonic for improving a team that was wrecked by the Tenuta era, Alabama undressed the Irish at the end of the 2012 season, a simplicity in Notre Dame’s scheme that received a few comments from Alabama players in the postgame glow that likely had Kelly wondering if they’d hit their ceiling.

That’s an important factor to remember when Kelly was hiring Diaco’s replacement. Because the foundation of the defense was well established. Kelly needed someone to build on top of it.

That likely made VanGorder’s pitch music to Kelly’s ears. Because while Diaco relied heavily on his base set, VanGorder’s DNA included sub-packages, complementary parts, Rex Ryan-inspired blitzes, and a philosophy that no throw would be conceded— underneath or otherwise.

Add to that Kelly’s personal relationship with VanGorder. Kelly had watched his former Grand Valley State colleague from the beginning of his career. He had seen him work with young players and believed in him as a teacher (something he referenced multiple times when he introduced VanGorder to the local media) before blazing his own trail, earning a head coaching opportunity at Wayne State, a high-profile coordinator position at Georgia and eventually making his way to the NFL—for a long time, farther up the food chain than Kelly.

Perhaps that was enough to dismiss his chaotic year at Auburn, when the Tigers season—and defense—went up in smoke as Gene Chizik was fired and VanGorder’s defense gave up 63 to No. 20 Texas A&M, 38 to No. 5 Georgia, and were blown out 49-0 to Alabama—after after mid-October.

But for a variety of reasons, likely his success turning to coaches with a personal connection, Kelly once again did so, hiring an NFL position coach who was a few years removed from being an elite-level coaching target for a vacancy that was a high-profile national opening.



The challenge with VanGorder’s struggles always seemed to be the caveats. Injuries decimated his first defense, a group that shutout Michigan and stymied Stanford, but crumbled by the end of the season, with USC naming a number and the Irish tumbling after giving up big, ugly scores to Arizona State, Northwestern, Louisville and USC.

The 2015 defense had strong moments—dominating Texas, holding Clemson to 24 points and nice wins over option opponents Georgia Tech and Navy—but obviously imploded late against Stanford and never stood a chance against Ohio State, with injuries once again leveling the depth chart.

But there were improvements. Between 2014 and 2015 VanGorder’s unit got a better handle on up-tempo attacks. An offseason committed to stopping the option saw those goals achieved with successful defensive performances against Georgia Tech and Navy. And even if VanGorder’s veteran-heavy 2015 unit was mostly moving on (the talent exodus is staggering now that you look at it), most had talked themselves into believing that Year Three would have better institutional knowledge for all, a depth chart ready to step in and perform.

[A necessary footnote: Luck certainly wasn’t on VanGorder’s side. Injuries, transfers and suspensions certainly didn’t do him any favors, either. Whether it was the disappearance of edge rushers—Kolin Hill, Jhonny Williams, Bo Wallace—or the loss of KeiVarae Russell and Max Redfield, injuries to Jarron Jones, Shaun Crawford, Nick Watkins and Drue Tranquill, there was always the defense VanGorder hoped to put on the field… and then the one that he actually did.]



Austin, Texas. Opening night, 2016.

The Irish defense was exposed against the Longhorns, shredded by both the power running attack and freshman Shane Buechele’s passing. It was an all-systems failure: Scheme, blown assignments, questionable personnel decisions—all pointing back to a game plan that required a bunch of assumptions (new offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert was difficult to scout), but nonetheless was a disastrous start.



Even if Kelly gave the staff’s performance a passing grade, by noon after the loss to Duke, the decision was made to relieve VanGorder of his duties.

“This is a difficult decision,” Kelly said in a statement. “I have the utmost respect for Brian as both a person and football coach, but our defense simply isn’t it where it should be and I believe this change is necessary for the best interest of our program and our student-athletes.”



While Kelly won’t likely go any deeper into the decision to make the change than he’s done in a few media sessions, it’s telling just how different the defense is organized with VanGorder out the door.

Full-unit meetings have been turned into position group teaching sessions. Depth chart’s have been reshuffled, resulting in major personnel changes. A base three-man front has taken over as the status quo. And the defense has stopped giving up points and big plays, especially after they found their footing against Syracuse.

Where Kelly goes from here is anyone’s guess—especially considering he’s still trying his best to get this season under control. But after tapping into his personal coaching network to fill a premium vacancy, don’t expect Kelly to settle on the familiar—or for Swarbrick to allow it—when his roster is loaded with young talent and in need of a fundamentally sound plan.