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.

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.

 

Irish A-to-Z: Grant Blankenship

Notre Dame v Syracuse
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Notre Dame’s junior defensive end has an unclear status entering his third season in the program. Suspended by Brian Kelly this spring after playing minimal snaps as a sophomore, the Texas native already had an unclear path to the field even before you consider his status as a member of the team and student at the university.

After playing in 11 games as a true freshman, Blankenship struggled to make progress after adding the mass needed to play on the strong side. With the depth chart at defensive end already in question, Blankenship is a true unknown entering 2016.

 

GRANT BLANKENSHIP
6’5″, 278
Junior, No. 92, DE

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A late-riser on the recruiting scene, Blankenship turned down an offer from Charlie Strong to stick with his commitment to Notre Dame, his favorite program as a child. An early target by former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, and he stuck with Notre Dame even after Diaco departed for UConn.

Not highly rated, Blankenship fell outside the 250 recruits on 247’s composite.

 

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Played in 11 games, making 12 tackles including one TFL. Didn’t play against Navy or LSU. Made three tackles against Syracuse.

Sophomore Season (2015): Appeared in three games, making one assisted tackle. Played a season-high 10 snaps against UMass.

 

WHAT WE PROJECTED LAST YEAR

Blankenship’s participation took a step backwards. He looked like a potential redshirt until he played in garbage time. Partial credit, at best. Nobody gave Rochell and Day a break.

It’s too hard to project Blankenship as a 30-snap-a-game contributor. But if he’s forced into action, the experience he got last season will come in handy. More likely, Blankenship will be part of an expanded front seven depth chart, and will make it easier to keep guys like Isaac Rochell and Sheldon Day fresh.

As a second-year player, he and Andrew Trumbetti have a chance to both make big steps forward this season. If either can help a pass rush that needs to win more from base packages, it’ll be huge for the defense. Expect new defensive line coach Keith Gilmore to get this through to Blankenship, who likely derives fuel from being overlooked, something he certainly was last season.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

We’ll know a lot more about Blankenship’s future when the Irish enroll in summer school. If he’s there, it’ll signal that there’s a road back onto the team. If not, it’ll be another washout at defensive end, a position that’s been very difficult to keep together.

At this point, barring some remarkable change to his production or the depth chart, there doesn’t look like much of a road to playing time for Blankenship, at least not with Isaac Rochell on the roster in front of him.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Very unclear.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Blankenship was a part of a different program come next fall or buried on the depth chart at Notre Dame. The one reason for optimism is the position he plays. There’s opportunity at defensive end, especially if you can rush the passer.

Blankenship hasn’t show that ability yet. Part of that came from gaining a ton of weight between his freshman and sophomore seasons. The other part of it was scheme—he was recruited by Bob Diaco to play a different type of end.

Let’s get Blankenship out of the doghouse and back onto the field before we look for optimism.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin

 

This week’s episode of Blown Coverage features me pitching John Walters on the perfect three-year solution for Notre Dame’s QB conundrum. And a bunch of other stuff. Enjoy. 

Even with talent drain, Irish can be CFB Playoff contender

LANDOVER, MD - NOVEMBER 01: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks on from the sidelines during the first half against the Navy Midshipmen at FedExField on November 1, 2014 in Landover, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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Brian Kelly’s next football team might have less talent than the group that produced seven of the first 103 picks in the NFL Draft. But it might have a better chance to make it to the College Football Playoff.

It’s a trendy thought lately. The kind of thing you do when it’s May and we’re still a long way away from any football this fall.

But there’s good reason to be bullish on the Irish. And SBNation’s Bill Connelly providing the thinking man’s rationale for the optimism last week when he unveiled his preview of the 2016 Fighting Irish.

The entire preview is very much worth your time, but here’s the synopsis:

  • Brian Kelly is an excellent coach. (Sorry complainers.)
  • Whoever wins the quarterback job is going to be really good.
  • An offensive line that’ll reload.
  • Tons of skill talent.
  • A defense trending in the right direction.
  • A good close game team.
  • A schedule that’s more conducive to winning.

Again, go read the article. (You’ll be smarter for it.) But after crunching many of the variables, here’s Connelly’s mighty optimistic conclusion:

There isn’t a sure loss on the schedule. In fact, there’s only one game in which Notre Dame has a worse than 59 percent chance of winning. But operating in close games will be critical. That means finding go-to receivers for the quarterback in times of need, continued quality from Yoon, and a defense that improves up front despite turnover and holds steady in the back despite freshmen on the two-deep.

All of the “ifs” are realistic, and while the defense still has plenty to prove, I’m not going to doubt Kelly after last year. If I had a poll vote — and thank goodness I don’t — I would seriously consider Notre Dame in the preseason top five.

With Notre Dame’s two regular-season losses coming in the final moments of road games to top-five teams, this isn’t the type of “Here Come the Irish” headline that invaded our psyche and ruined the enjoyment of seasons under Bob Davie, Ty Willingham or Charlie Weis, the later still finding his way into the schlock headlines thanks to Notre Dame’s latest tax return release.

But Brian Kelly’s consistency has turned proclamations like Connelly’s into a decidedly uninteresting one. And at the same time that we go inch-by-inch through the roster, it’s helpful to see what the Irish look like from a 30,000-foot view—a better vantage point to evaluate progress than the perch most of us inhabit.

So while all previews in May expire by the time the calendar hits August, let’s go through the bullet points (as appropriated by me, not Connelly) just to add to the discussion.

 

Brian Kelly: elite coach. (No question mark) 

Right now, that’s a fairly undeniable assertion. And for those of you who’ll haggle about the definition of elite or harken back to a two-point conversion chart or the selection of the team’s defensive coordinator, this might be the best question to ask yourself: “After Nick Saban and Urban Meyer, who else do you want running your program?”

 

The quarterback battle.

If there’s something that I find reassuring, it’s the fact that Connelly hasn’t lost the plot on this. Whoever wins the quarterback battle will play at a very high level. Or they won’t play at all.

As Kelly, Mike Denbrock and Mike Sanford showed last season, the Irish will coach up a quarterback and get very productive play out of them. (Unlike what happened at Ohio State last year.) And with Brandon Wimbush putting the redshirt on, Notre Dame has one of the country’s most dangerous weapons waiting in the wings.

 

The offensive line should be good again.

Remember all those data-driven pieces about minutes-played correlating to excellent offensive line play? I still believe them. But I also think the Irish will produce a very, very productive offensive line even with three new starters, thanks to two starting NFL linemen on the left side of their center and Alex Bars likely on his way, too.

 

Those skill players? They’ll be good.  

I’m bullish on the ground game. I’m high on the young talent in the secondary. And I’ll give the benefit of the doubt to a receiving corps that I think is still a little more unsorted than I’d guess this staff wants.

Torii Hunter should lead the unit. After that, I’m not sure what to expect.

The move of Alizé Jones to the “W” (boundary side) receiver gives you an idea that this staff is preparing to go forward if Corey Robinson steps away from the game because of concussions. It also might point to an offensive direction that’s more similar to 2012, a physical approach that could put more tight ends on the field and would allow the Irish to lean on a very strong running game and a quarterback who’ll be able to take deep shots down the field.

 

The Defense?

How you improve after losing headliners like Sheldon Day, Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt, Elijah Shumate and KeiVarae Russell is hard to comprehend. But I think this unit will have more versatility, as injuries and certain personnel limitations really hamstrung a unit that was maddeningly inconsistent at times.

Can they improve against the run? I think the answer starts with Jarron Jones and Jerry Tillery, two stout guys who’ll hold up in the trenches in front of Nyles Morgan. That’ll serve as the critical building block to the scheme, with pieces added and subtracted to make sure the Irish can be multiple and match-up with opponents on a weekly basis.

I’m punting on this topic (for now), while acknowledging that improvement on this side of the football is critical to success and the biggest unknown heading into the season.

 

Good play in tight games

Remember those heart-stopping finishes in the Weis era? Or that dreadful feeling you got every time a game got close and an opponent mounted a comeback?

For some, it’ll never go away. But under Brian Kelly, the Irish have been a very good close game team—even considering the two tight losses last year.

I appreciate the comparison Connelly made in his piece to a baseball team with a good bullpen. When the Irish have been at their best, they’ve been able to control the game late with solid quarterback play, a dependable running game and a defense that held up.

Justin Yoon and Tyler Newsome play an important part in this process, too. The specialist duo will help control field position and make critical kicks, with Yoon putting together a really respectable freshman season and Newsome showcasing a booming leg.

 

The Schedule

I haven’t fully dug into the intricacies of the schedule, but just at face value it’s a much less daunting climb that years past. The Irish get Michigan State and Stanford at home (and under the lights) and replace Clemson with North Carolina State. Army comes back onto the schedule and Navy loses the majority of its team, including star Keenan Reynolds.

There is no shortage of coaching pedigree that Brian Kelly will face. Mark Richt, David Cutcliffe, and some young rising talent like Justin Fuente and Clay Helton in a regular season finale in Los Angeles.

But you can only win the games you play, and you can only play the teams on your schedule. (Thanks, Yogi.) As Connelly mentioned, there’s no “sure loss” on this slate, and I think Notre Dame will be favored every time they take the field next year.

 

Jurkovec’s commitment as solid as it can get

Phil Jurkovec 247
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In a sport like college football, not much is certain. Coaching changes, recruiting battles, it is a week to week sport in nearly every sense of the word.

So when coveted 2018 quarterback Phil Jurkovec chose Notre Dame last week, many kept their enthusiasm tempered. Especially with memories of prospects like Blake Barnett fresh in their minds.

But Jurkovec seems to have his priorities aligned. And a recent comment to Matt Freeman of IrishSportsDaily.com should have Irish fans feeling very good about their young QB-in-waiting.

For as long as Notre Dame has recruited, teams have recruited against Notre Dame. And in recent years, the sales pitch has changed—not from worries of a head coach or assistants being fired, but rather the chance that they may leave for greener pastures.

In this case, you have to feel good that Jurkovec seems to understand the realities of the situation. Because even if Brian Kelly is in the NFL or Mike Sanford is running his own program, the Golden Dome will still be standing.

Of course, it doesn’t do anything to guarantee Jurkovec will be in South Bend come 2018, but it certainly points to a kid and family having done their due diligence before making such an important decision.

Irish A-to-Z: Hunter Bivin

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One of many heralded offensive line recruits to follow Harry Hiestand to South Bend, Hunter Bivin has bounced inside and out on Notre Dame’s offensive line, looking for a home. After serving as a back-up to talents like Zack Martin, Ronnie Stanley and Mike McGlinchey at tackle, Bivin might have the inside track to earn his first starting experience at right guard.

After three years of hard work—and Steve Elmer deciding to cut short his college career after three seasons—Bivin looks like a true contender for a starting role. Now he needs to continue the work he put in this spring over the summer months, holding off a group of young talent to finalize the fifth starting job on a rebuilt offensive line.

 

HUNTER BIVIN
6’5.5″, 308 lbs.
Senior, No. 70, OL

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Bivin was an elite prospect. 247 ranked him as one of the top offensive linemen—and overall prospects—in the country. He was an All-State performer in Kentucky, an Under Armour All-American, and played for the USA Team.

Bivin chose Notre Dame over offers from Florida, LSU, Oklahoma, Ohio State and Michigan. He was a starter on a Kentucky state championship basketball team and also the state’s best shot putter.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2013): Did not see action.

Sophomore Season (2014): Made his Irish debut in the second half of a lopsided victory over Rice. Played in five games, including on special teams against Florida State.

Junior Season (2015): Played in five games, serving as a backup at left tackle for Ronnie Stanley. Notched a season-high 25 snaps against UMass. Played 14 snaps in a convincing season-opening win over Texas.

 

WHAT WE PROJECTED LAST YEAR

The crystal ball appeared to be working last year when it came to Bivin’s playing time.

Bivin’s got everything you’d want—on paper—when it comes to an offensive line recruit. That said, it’s time for those qualities to translate to the field, something we haven’t seen yet.

It’s not necessarily fair to call Bivin an underachiever, especially when you want to have the type of depth Notre Dame has developed up front. It’s also worth noting that the two positions the Irish have worked Bivin have required some difficult playing time battles: Matt Hegarty just moved to Oregon and was inserted as the team’s starting center after he couldn’t beat out Nick Martin. And Ronnie Stanley will follow Zack Martin into the first round of the NFL Draft.

So let’s hold our breath a little bit longer.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

It’s clear that Bivin has some ability, with the staff entrusting a second-string tackle job to the Kentucky native the past two seasons. But it’s also clear that he’s not the caliber of tackle prospect that Alex Bars is, with Bivin making the slide inside, hopefully solidifying the starting lineup with the team’s five best offensive linemen.

Right now—especially after Colin McGovern struggled through injuries this spring—Bivin has a grasp on that job. But after another summer competing with Tristen Hoge and incoming freshman Tommy Kraemer, that might not be as clear.

Hiestand and Brian Kelly both prefer playing veterans—especially along the offensive line. We’ve seen guys like Mike Golic, Christian Lombard and Matt Hegarty keep talented young players on the sideline as trusted veterans. Bivin likely can do the same as a senior with a fifth-year available, though he’ll need to be the best player for the job.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I have Bivin penciled in at right guard for the start against Texas. Whether he stays in the lineup will likely be dictated by how quickly this offensive line gels. Remember, it wasn’t too long ago that Kelly and Hiestand reshuffled their starting lineup, 2014’s offensive line swapped out mid-season after a disappointing start to the year. That’s a real scenario that could take place if this line doesn’t come together.

Being the fifth-best starter on an offensive line that features guys like Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson is no shame, especially when we’ve seen and heard such good things about first-time projected starters like Bars and Sam Mustipher. Bivin is a big body—he’s got prototype tackle size—and that’ll make the transition inside easier.

But I’m still waiting to see how he does as a mauler. There’s not much room for finesse at right guard, especially with the Irish wanting to establish a ground game early and often in 2016.

If Bivin brings that type of aggressiveness to the job and takes to guard over the summer, he’s a potential two-year starter. If not, he goes back to being a sixth man, capable of backing up essentially every spot on the offensive line.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal