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.

 

Spring positions to watch for revelations: DL & WR

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 05: Jerry Tillery #99 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish tackles Jerrod Heard #13 of the Texas Longhorns for a loss of yards during the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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If quarterback, rover and the early enrollees could be Notre Dame fans’ springtime Christmas thrills, what positions present as potential spots of coal?

Three former Irish players were invited to next week’s NFL Combine in Indianapolis: quarterback DeShone Kizer, defensive tackle Jarron Jones and defensive end Isaac Rochell. Losing two consistent defensive linemen leaves this year’s unit with some questions. Jones and Rochell combined for 100 tackles, 18 for loss and three sacks last season. Notre Dame’s returning defensive linemen combined to total 111 tackles and only 5.5 tackles for loss. To be clear, sacks are not included in that latter list because no returning defensive linemen recorded one. Among the returnees, junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37 tackles, three for loss) and senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26, 0.5) contributed solidly alongside the two NFL prospects.

This dearth of known and reliable linemen is a large part of why the potential transfer of Clemson graduate defensive tackle Scott Pagano is so intriguing. Pagano would immediately be a favorite to start, and if not that, at least rotate in heavily.

For now, though, Pagano remains a theoretical

By the end of spring practice, who already on campus will emerge alongside Tillery and Trumbetti in the Irish front? Senior ends Jay Hayes (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) and Jonathon Bonner (nine tackles) seem the most-likely candidates … aside from former four-star recruit and now rising sophomore Daelin Hayes. In his debut season, D. Hayes finished with 11 tackles.

Look for senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) to establish himself as Tillery’s immediate backup this spring, but that spot in the rotation will be up for competition all over again once four-star tackle Darnell Ewell (Lake Taylor High School; Norfolk, Va.) arrives on campus in the fall. His size and quickness should play right into new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s system.

Equanimeous and Who?
Not only did Notre Dame bring in a graduate transfer at receiver in former Michigan wideout Freddy Canteen, but it has also already received the commitments of two four-star receivers in the 2018 recruiting class. The continued emphasis on the position reflects the lack of bona fide game-breakers currently on the roster.

Junior Equanimeous St. Brown established himself as the top Irish threat in 2016, and he should shine only further with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush targeting him. Classmates often amplify each other’s success, simply due to the added shared reps innate to joining practice at the same time. With Torii Hunter, Jr., now pursuing a professional baseball career, who will prevent the secondary from focusing all its energies on St. Brown?

Canteen will not be with Notre Dame in the spring, as he does not graduate from Michigan until April. That will give a clear shot for the likes of juniors Chris Finke, C.J. Sanders and Miles Boykin, and sophomores Kevin Stepherson, Javon McKinley and Chase Claypool to establish themselves. Did that say “clear” shot? It should probably read, “a chance to separate from the crowd.”

If a genuine threat does not line up opposite St. Brown, his explosiveness will likely be greatly reduced by focused defensive scheming. Wimbush will need another target before 2018.

Of course, here is where one should acknowledge the millennia-tested fact: Coal under pressure becomes diamonds.

2016 Notre Dame’s win expectancy was 7.2
Sports Illustrated’s Chris Johnson named the Irish as his team most likely to dramatically improve its record in 2017. Johnson’s thinking is based, at least in part, on Notre Dame’s second-order win total having been 7.2 in 2016, compared to the four wins the Irish actually walked away with. That discrepancy was the largest in the country.

Second-order win totals reflect how many points a team should have scored and allowed based on offensive and defensive stats. In theory, this shines a light on how luck and chance factored into results. Naturally, losing seven games by one possession will often be reflected by a higher second-order win total.

“Notre Dame’s win-loss record belied a solid, if imperfect, squad that just couldn’t pull out close games…” Johnson writes. “The Irish may not get back into College Football Playoff contention in 2017, but they’re bound to post a few more Ws because of reversion to the mean.”

Admittedly, the small sample size of a football season reduces the applicability of metrics such as second- and third-order wins when compared to baseball and basketball.

Jones becomes Mack
A quick piece of housekeeping: Apparently junior tight end Alizé Jones has changed his name to Alizé Mack.

While Notre Dame’s roster may not reflect that change yet, it is reasonable to expect it will after its next update. The football program has consistently respected the intricacies of players’ name preferences. Tai-ler Jones becoming TJ Jones jumps to mind, for example.

Anyways, hopefully noting Mack’s name change here might reduce some confusion down the line. Probably not. How many readers possibly read to the actual bottom of an article? But hey, in good faith.

WR Lenzy makes 11th commitment, brings speed to Irish

lenzy
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At what point does an impressive recruiting roll become something more? When does it become a harbinger of things to come, even if not for a few seasons? How many notable commitments in a row establishes a class as special?

If the answer to any of the above is 11 commitments by the end of February, including five within two weeks, then Notre Dame is there following consensus four-star athlete Braden Lenzy’s announcement Thursday evening.

The Tigard High School (Portland, Ore) receiver/cornerback chose the Irish over offers from USC, Oregon and Michigan State, among a litany of others. In all, nine Pac-12 schools chased Lenzy—and a 10th, Washington, had shown interest—per rivals.com.

Lenzy will fit the leading 2018 need voiced by Irish coach Brian Kelly three weeks ago on National Signing Day 2017.

“Elite speed on offense will be a primary goal for us,” Kelly said Feb. 1. “Guys that can change the game on one possession. I think we’ll see that… We want a couple of home run hitters. We don’t care if they’re Darren Sproles’s size. We’re going to come off the board in terms of profile. We want some guys that can change the game on offense with elite speed.”

At 6-foot, 175 pounds, Lenzy is taller than Sproles’s 5-foot-6, but it is still his speed that drew Notre Dame’s interest.

“They made it clear they want me to do kickoff return and use me as a deep threat across the field,” he told Irish Illustrated. “Just being kind of an athlete, similar to what I’ve been doing already in high school, just on a bigger scale with a quarterback that can throw it a lot farther.”

Presuming Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush is that arm in 2018, throwing great distances should not be an issue. Between Lenzy and fellow 2018 commit Micah Jones, covering those distances should be a reasonable request, as well.

Lenzy brings Notre Dame’s class of 2018 to 11, including eight four-stars according to Rivals’ rating system. Current scholarship projections indicate the class will not be a large one, meaning the Irish coaching staff has already garnered the commitments of more than half the class. Once again, though, Kelly’s sentiment regarding recruiting timing should be remembered.

“We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

SWARBRICK’S TAKE ON RECRUITING
Kelly credited Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick with much assistance in securing the country’s No. 13 recruiting class in 2017. A refresher on those comments:

“In a lot of instances, [Swarbrick] had to be there to support our football program and talk to recruits about where this program is and where it’s going,” Kelly said. “There are questions when a family comes on campus. He reminded them about the investment we were making in staff and what we were doing for the present and for the future.”

Swarbrick did not dispute the factual nature of any of that in an interview with the Indianapolis Star, but he did contest the need for praising what he saw as part of his job, one of the preferred parts of his job, at that.

“I can’t say anything about this year felt all that different,” Swarbrick told Star reporter Laken Litman. “Some asked questions about the future of the program and can we compete for a national championship. And I would talk about the elements of the program we were focused on improving.”

Swarbrick and Litman discussed a number of items in the second-half of the interview released by the Star, including Notre Dame’s facilities, a possible early signing period in football and if the Oct. 8, 2016, game against North Carolina State should have been played. Spoiler: No. Then why was it? Go check it out.

Swarbrick also told Litman he likes to write in his free time.

“I tend to think strategically with a pen in my hand.” Swarbrick added he is currently scribbling away on where he thinks college athletics are headed.

This scribe, for one, would be most interested in skimming those legal pads.

Will Wimbush, Elko and the early enrollees surprise in spring practice?

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 26: Fans congratulate Brandon Wimbush #12 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish after he ran for a 58 yard touchdown against the Massachusetts Minutemen at Notre Dame Stadium on September 26, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Umass 62-27.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Exactly 59 days from today, the Irish will take the field at Notre Dame Stadium. Sure, they will be playing against themselves, but nonetheless, it will be somewhat-competitive football played in gold helmets.

For timing context, exactly 59 days ago, you looked beneath the Christmas tree to learn if Santa Claus left you season tickets, socks or coal. I got socks. They had some of that extra cushioning, so I considered them a suitable treat.

Whether you care about my argyles or not (you don’t), for many the Blue-Gold Game and Christmas morning hold similar excitement. That fact is apparently why Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick does not concern himself when groups of alumni publicly lament his decisions, or lack thereof.

“I never worry about that,” Swarbirck told the Indianapolis Star in an exclusive interview you really should read. Go on, click the link, it will open in a new tab. You can come right back here when you are done.

“The hardest job in athletics is trying to generate passion in your program. If that sort of stuff bothers you, you can’t be the athletic director, head coach or the quarterback at Notre Dame.”

That very passion will undoubtedly lead to frame-by-frame discussions of video snippets from spring practice, parsing of each and every word Irish coach Brian Kelly says in quick interviews after those practices, and extreme pessimism and optimism about the 2017 season.

In the Christmas spirit, what toys could bring the must excitement during the spring unwrapping? Personally, the gift I was unsure of always brought the most joy. I would rather open an unexpected book than know about a charcoal-gray suit. In other words, at least for today, let’s look past the offensive line, the running backs and the inside linebackers. Instead, let’s look forward to learning about… (more…)

How did Mike Elko fare against past Irish opponents?

TALLAHASSEE, FL - OCTOBER 18:  Karlos Williams #9 of the Florida State Seminoles scores the touchdown that would win the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during their game at Doak Campbell Stadium on October 18, 2014 in Tallahassee, Florida.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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Former Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder took over at that position before the 2014 season. Former Wake Forest defensive coordinator, and now VanGorder’s successor at Notre Dame, Mike Elko took over in Winston-Salem at the same time. Since then, the two programs faced common opponents nine times.

With the lone exception of Army, all these games featured ACC opponents. When it comes to talent, Wake Forest tends to be outmatched in the ACC. Recruits from 2011 to 2016 suited up for the Deacons in the 2014-16 seasons. During those six recruiting cycles, Wake Forest never finished higher than No. 10 in the conference according to rivals.com’s rankings. In 2012 and 2014, the Deacons finished at the bottom of the conference in recruiting.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, finished behind an ACC team a total of 10 times over those six years. Florida State outpaced the Irish five times, the exception being Notre Dame’s No. 3-ranked class in 2013 following its national championship game appearance. Clemson finished ahead of the Irish four times (2014 joining 2013 as the outliers), and Miami rounds the listing off with its No. 9-finish in 2012, compared to Notre Dame’s No. 20.

The point being, VanGorder and the Irish could anticipate having a stronger and deeper roster in at least six of the games discussed below. Elko and Wake Forest may have been able to make that argument—and it would be a debatable one—just once, when they faced Duke this past September.

Before comparing the two units’ successes and failures in those nine—actually, 18—contests, let’s establish two points of clarification. Notre Dame and North Carolina State played in a literal hurricane this past October. Comparing that game to any other will accomplish nothing. Furthermore, before anyone starts griping about that afternoon’s play-calling, this is an exercise discussing defensive performances, not offensive. The run:pass distribution of Oct. 1, 2016, bears no significance here.

Secondly, the other two games the Irish played fitting this criteria but after VanGorder’s dismissal—Syracuse and Army—are included below. Only so much of the scheme changed mid-season, and the personnel did not.

If you are busy catching up from a long weekend and do not have the time to look at the numbers below, a quick summary for you: In five of the eight instances, Elko’s unit fared distinctly better than VanGorder’s in multiple notable statistical categories. However, the Deacons struggled with Army’s triple-option attack, and both 2014 Florida State and 2015 Clemson blew right through the aggressive defense far easier than they did against Notre Dame.

Presented in something resembling reverse chronological order: (more…)