Friday notes: Swarbrick, Russ, recruiting and more

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If you’re looking for some insight into the mind of athletic director Jack Swarbrick, the internet has got you covered, as both Eric Hansen and Tim Prister have very good Q&As with the man himself. They are both very much worth the read, but I’ll give you my favorite exchange from each of them:

We’ll start with Eric Hansen’s interview, which covered a wide variety of topics from the official death of 7-4-1 scheduling to Irish envy for the Yankee Stadium Jumbotron.

But here are Swarbrick’s comments on what the new Longhorn Network means for Notre Dame’s future.

Q: Can Notre Dame do the same thing? Will Notre Dame do the same thing at some point?

A: It’s really important for us to expand our media presence. There’s no question. And so I don’t know what form that will take yet.

Texas has geography going for it that Notre Dame doesn’t. So you can sell that into a geograhic region to cable providers, and it works well. We don’t have geography in that sense, so our approach will have to be a little different. But we’re  very excited about exploring ways to do that.

All of the emerging technologies are going to help us. What we have is probably the largest national following, but it’s dispersed. So we’re going to need robust broadband solutions and new forms of deliver of digital media, some of which don’t exist yet but are clearly coming.”

To me, this is absolutely fascinating, and is another great example of how much Swarbrick truly gets the business engine that powers collegiate athletics. Even in-house, Notre Dame has taken huge strides on their online platform, with the work the team at UND.com has done to give all of us better access behind the scenes and at press conferences. But as many of us have talked about, there is a huge opportunity to create a central Notre Dame home online, and from the sounds of it, it’s coming sooner than later.

Prister hasn’t tackled Notre Dame football in his epic three-part interview with Swarbrick, but here’s an exchange I enjoyed.

TP: You didn’t want to be the guy that was AD at Notre Dame when it lost its independence, did you, whether you were painted in the corner or not.

JS: (laughing) I know you won’t believe this, but it’s a little like when I hired Brian (Kelly). People were saying during that process, ‘This hire will define Swarbrick’s legacy.’ The same thing was said about independence.

I’m pretty secure in what I’ve done and what my relationship is here. If the best result for Notre Dame as a university – not as an athletics department but as a university – took us elsewhere, I wouldn’t have had any trouble with that. You just have to look at this from the broad perspective of the university.

People would be amazed that as we were talking internally how little time we spent on an athletics approach to it. Why are we independent? What is the value of independence to us beyond the traditional value? Its principle value is to the broader university, promoting Notre Dame, playing all around the country.

For anybody who was in New York this year at that (Army) game, that’s the power of Notre Dame. Those are the reasons to keep (our independence) because we still think it plays a really important role in the university.

Both guys did a great job and if you’ve got a spare hour or so, dig right in.

***

After 25 years in the training room, Notre Dame legend Jim Russ is moving from taping ankles to a newly created role in the athletic department: Director of Athletic Training and Rehabilitative Services. Here’s more from ND’s official release:

“As we look to create greater structure for the sports performance area, we had a great interest in creating a position that would provide oversight, direction and expertise for our delivery of athletic training and rehabilitative services to our student-athletes,” said Notre Dame athletics director Jack Swarbrick. “Jim is as well-respected as anyone in the country in his field, with nearly 35 years in the business, so he was a natural for this role. While we will miss Jim’s day-to-day focus on football, this move will enable him to apply his background, expertise and professionalism to provide improved guidance for all of our other sports – and Jim will play a critical role in the continuing integration of the various areas that comprise our sports performance division.”

Eleven years ago, I had plenty of opportunities to have my balky right elbow wrapped with ice by Jim and last summer he was right were I found him over decade earlier, this time willing to look at an ankle that didn’t feel quite up to running around in football cleats and full pads.

Notre Dame will look to replace Russ and find a new head football athletic trainer immediately, allowing Kelly to bring in a new — incredibly important — lieutenant to the football program. After a season that saw multiple players plagued with balky hamstrings, I’m guessing the interview process will include a long session on discussing the best way to keep Irish skill players on the field with two healthy legs.

***

Four-star running back Savon Huggins just announced his intent to stay home and play for Greg Schiano’s Rutgers squad, taking one of the final names the Irish are chasing off the big board. (Unless Bob Diaco ends up sitting as Huggins’ kitchen table tomorrow morning before dawn.) As we discussed yesterday, Los Angeles Times lineman of the year Troy Niklas is arriving on campus today, and will make his final decision between USC and Notre Dame by Signing Day.

Niklas would obviously be icing on the cake for a pretty historic front-seven class for the Irish, something Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples dug into in an article today. While his article talked about the proportion of defensive linemen that hail from the Deep South, it isn’t hard to see why what Notre Dame did pulling guys like Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt out of the area, (not to mention Louis Nix last season) was such an astounding feat.

In related SI news, Stewart Mandel took a look at the glass ceiling that keeps elite kickers rated artificially low in the five-star model that has taken over big-time recruiting.

Four years ago, Auburn signed a top 10 recruiting class that included many of the players who wound up starring for last season’s national championship team: defensive linemen Nick Fairley and Antoine Carter, linebacker Josh Bynes and offensive linemen Lee Ziemba and Ryan Pugh. No player, however, was rated higher at his position than Wes Byrum, Rivals.com’s No. 2 kicker.

Yet the same guy rated so highly in his position group — the same guy who wound up hitting four game-winning field goals during his time at Auburn, including in the BCS title game — was essentially dead weight when it came to the Tigers’ class ranking. Because Byrum was just a three-star recruit in Rivals’ eyes, his mere presence dragged down the average rating for a class with 10 four- and five-star prospects.

Wondering why I’m including this tidbit in today’s links? Well consider this little nugget, something I’ve been wondering since the focus has turned to recruiting rankings.

No one is suggesting that Kyle Brindza, Scout.com’s top-ranked kicker this year, should be rated the No. 1 player in the country, as Henderson was last year. Heck, the Notre Dame commit doesn’t even need to be ranked 100th.

But it would be nice if Brindza at least got that fourth star so that Brian Kelly’s class — currently ranked seventh with a 3.57 star average — isn’t penalized for signing the best player in the country at his position.

Brindza is Kelly’s only two-star recruit according to Rivals, pulling down their overall ranking quite a bit. Take that into consideration when you measure ND’s class against others.

***

Speaking of recruiting, for all those that still were wondering about the whirlwind battle for Stephon Tuitt, here’s where he stands as of yesterday, according to Irish Illustrated.

The five-star defensive end from Monroe, Ga., remains committed to Notre Dame and on Thursday denied a report that he planned to postpone signing his letter-of-intent by a couple days.

To the contrary, Tuitt plans to send his paperwork to South Bend from Austin, Texas, where he will participate in the USA vs. The World game along with fellow Irish commits Josh Atkinson, George Atkinson III, Matt Hegarty and Anthony Rabasa.

“I’m very excited,” Tuitt said. “I get to do it with my future teammates.”

The 6-foot-5, 260-pound prospect put the finishing touches on his commitment during a meeting earlier in the week with Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco and defensive line coach Mike Elston.

Among the topics discussed was a potential spring trip back to campus.

“It went well,” Tuitt said. “I got a chance to see about going up to the spring game. A game or a practice. I don’t know which one I’d go to. But I got a chance to talk to (Diaco) about that and see how that was gonna go. Then (we talked) about really how to do the signing and everything.”

I think the Irish coaching staff will breath a huge sigh of relief when Tuitt’s fax comes through The Gug. (Good to see somebody still uses fax machines…)

***

Bonus Jack Swarbrick quote, courtesy of Eric Hansen, who asked about putting field turf into Notre Dame Stadium, after another dreadful season of field conditions on Notre Dame’s natural grass.

“I think there are two issues there. One is I was disappointed in our field this year. It wasn’t where it needed to be and, frankly, that was without any real weather challenges.

“So we’ve got to make sure we get the field to a quality that makes sense. The other is, as the university considers doing more things in the stadium, we have to make sure we keep a natural grass field in the shape we want it to be, graduation being an example. That’s where graduation is held now, in the stadium.

“So it’s a little like Jumbotron, video boards if you will, nothing imminent. But as the use of the stadium evolves – it’s like so many things about this – we’ve got to stay open to new ideas, but maintain the tradition of Notre Dame.”

It’s refreshing to see that the man in charge of Notre Dame athletics acknowledges that the surface in the stadium has been bad. When they ever do anything about it, that’ll be worth following.

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s tight ends, a surplus of depth, unproven talent

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Notre Dame has such tight end depth, it was somewhat surprising when the Irish pursued a second tight end in the class of 2018, but the possibilities of yet another playmaker in Tommy Tremble combined with a physical option in George Takacs forced the coaching staff’s decision.

“I always like to have that versatility each year and each signing class,” Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long said Feb. 7. “… We don’t want to pass up on a great athlete … being able to present different challenges to the defense with those kind of guys and still be very physical at the same time.”

That is a key to remember when looking at the Irish tight ends — Long sees different purposes amid the individuals in that position’s meeting room. Tremble, for example, could line up as a receiver as often as not while Takacs might fill in as Durham Smythe most recently did, serving as an additional blocker when needed and offering sure hands otherwise. In many respects, the two roles are two different positions.

Spring Roster:
— Fifth-year Nic Weishar, who Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said had shoulder surgery recently, though Kelly did not offer a timetable for return.
— Rising senior Alizé Mack.
— Rising sophomore Cole Kmet, when he is not pitching in relief for the Irish baseball team. Kmet made his second appearance of the season Thursday night. A letdown (3.0 IP, 3 ER, 3 H, 4 K), it did not go anywhere near as well as his debut did (4.0 IP, 0 ER, 1 H, 3 K).

@NDFootball

— Rising sophomore Brock Wright, who underwent a shoulder surgery of his own shortly following the regular season. A recent photo (left) from the @NDFootball Twitter account indicates Wright is partaking in at least some winter conditioning drills.
— Early-enrolled freshman Takacs.

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman Tremble.

Depth Chart Possibilities:
Long uses multiple tight ends, deploying both of those aforementioned archetypes at the same time. That tendency should be seen even more often in 2018 with more options now available. A full year in a collegiate program should have both Kmet and Wright ready for bigger roles, challenging Weishar for some of what were Smythe’s snaps in 2017.

The third tight end will see opportunities. It is essentially a second-string role. If granting the argument of two different forms of tight ends, then even the fourth tight end will get chances, as he will simply be the second-stringer in that particular role.

Kmet would seem the more likely of the rising sophomores to get a bit more time, but that only means Wright will see plenty of time in a blocking back role, just as he did in situational packages in 2017.

Biggest Question:
Kmet could find his way to a more prominent role if he offers something not yet seen from Mack: consistency not just on the field, but in all respects.

Can Mack finally translate his athleticism and potential into a consistent mismatch and productive threat? At his best, he could be the product of an offensive coordinator’s daydreams, but Mack has so rarely been at his best. That applies both on and off the field, considering his multiple drops in 2017 were followed by Kelly suspending Mack for an internal team matter for the Citrus Bowl before Notre Dame even headed down to Florida.

Another year of Mack spinning his wheels will result in a loss of playing time with the likes of Kmet and Tremble around. If Mack does not provide positive results in the spring while Kmet does, that shift could begin even before the Blue-Gold Game on April 21.

Fifth-year tight end Nic Weishar will provide Notre Dame not only with depth and experience in 2018, but also sure hands. That alone should give him a leg up on the other tight ends entering this spring. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Pertinent Reader Question:
“Every year a four- or five-star disappoints and every year a three-star or lower prospect surprises. My prediction is fall: Mack, rise: Weishar. I have been the lone man on the Weishar bandwagon for a few years now and really hope that this year he becomes the big receiving target we need.

What are your fallers and risers for this coming year?” — Mark H.

A logical argument can be made that “fallers” should not be labeled as such until after their collegiate careers conclude. There are so many factors that can limit a player for years before he breaks out. Consider rising senior receiver and former consensus four-star prospect Miles Boykin. As recently as New Year’s Eve, he may have been labeled a bust, but now he can lay claim to one of the most dramatic catches in Irish history and is a frontrunner for a starting role in 2018 with another year of eligibility remaining after that. He could end up with a stellar collegiate career by every measure.

Mack has had the opportunity to shine to date, and he has not done so, but he also might have two more seasons to go to change that reputation.

As for “risers,” Weishar makes sense and he certainly showcased his strong hands when given the chance in 2017, but his ceiling is likely not much higher than that. A couple touchdown catches, a handful of third-down conversions and a year of physical blocking would be a welcome success.

Notre Dame’s safeties, though, could stand out to fit the criteria laid out by Mark. If — and that is a two-letter word not to be overlooked — Navy transfer and rising junior Alohi Gilman and rising sophomore Jordan Genmark-Heath end up as productive starters for the season, then they will both have exceeded the expectations set out by star ratings.

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Mack: 19 catches for 166 yards and a touchdown, highlighted by six receptions for 38 yards against North Carolina with rising junior quarterback Ian Book starting in place of an injured Brandon Wimbush.
Weishar: Nine catches for 52 yards and two touchdowns.
Kmet: Two catches for 14 yards; appeared in all 13 games.
Wright: Appeared in 11 games, no statistics recorded.

Notre Dame gets the letter: George Takacs
Notre Dame gets the letter: Tommy Tremble

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are
Linebackers, a proven two and then many questions

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s linebackers, a proven two and then many questions

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Any concerns about Notre Dame’s linebackers were allayed when Te’von Coney spurned the NFL to return for his senior season. That decision, and Drue Tranquill making the same move, means the Irish do not need to replace their two best playmakers at the position from last season.

Nonetheless, defensive coordinator Clark Lea does need to figure out how to fill in for the graduated Nyles Morgan and his 92 tackles, not to mention classmate Greer Martini and his 75, good for second and fourth on the team, respectively.

Spring Roster:
— Two known and welcome playmaking veterans in Coney and fifth-year Tranquill.
— More than a handful of unproven and untested possibilities in rising senior Asmar Bilal, rising juniors Jonathan Jones and Jamir Jones (no relation), and rising sophomores Drew White, David Adams and Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah.
— A trio of early-enrolled freshmen in Jack Lamb, Bo Bauer and Ovie Oghoufo.

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman Shayne Simon, a likely rover candidate.

Entering 2017, Te’von Coney was not even a starting linebacker. By the end of the season he was the leading tackler, and in 2018, he will be counted on as a defensive stalwart. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Depth Chart Possibilities:
Wherever Tranquill ends up — be it at rover or a more traditional linebacker position, with the latter seeming more likely — someone will need to earn the third starting role. Bilal is the front-runner for that duty, at either position, but he will need to show a quicker understanding of the game than he has in the past.

The rising senior has always been ready physically, but he has looked up the depth chart at the likes of Morgan, Martini, Coney and Tranquill. Opportunities were not readily available. Now that one very much is, Bilal will need to either seize it or get ready to be bypassed by the newcomers.

It would be a surprise for Lamb or Bauer to be named that third starter in their freshman season, but both could certainly land in the two-deep, as that entire second unit is up for grabs. Neither Jones showed much last season, and the linebacker recruiting emphasis of 2018 belied the coaching staffs’ opinions of the rising sophomores pretty clearly.

Presuming Bilal steps forward and secures the starting position, and some combination of Jones, Jones, Lamb and Bauer fill two of the backup roles, only Owusu-Koromoah stands out as an obvious rover substitute. In that respect, depth remains a concern at the defense’s second level, albeit less of one than in years past thanks to the influx of four touted freshmen.

Biggest Question:
Where does Tranquill line up against Michigan on Sept. 1? More to the current purpose, where does he line up in the Blue-Gold Game on April 21?

“My responsibility as linebackers coach is to put the best combination of people on the field,” Lea said Feb. 7. “I think everyone can see Drue Tranquill had a skillset, a talent base that can play multiple spots. Through the course of the winter and spring, we’ll take a look at different options.”

The duties at rover can be handled piecemeal, accounting for the tendencies of each opponent. When facing an up-tempo, aerial attack, perhaps even rising senior cornerback Shaun Crawford could be featured there. When facing a physical, ground-bound opponent, Bilal would make more sense.

Shifting around like that at the Buck linebacker spot makes far less sense. While Tranquill never necessarily had the speed to excel at safety, and two knee injuries only further limited him in that respect, he shined at rover in 2017. Concluding his collegiate career at linebacker is logical, both as it pertains to his development thus far and to his professional aspirations.

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Rarely can a defense lose two of its top-four tacklers and still return more than 200 tackles from starting linebackers. Thus is the luxury provided by both Coney and Tranquill bypassing the NFL for another year.

Coney: 116 tackles, 13.0 tackles for loss including three sacks, and one forced fumble which he recovered.
Tranquill: 85 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss including 1.5 sacks, one interception, three pass breakups, three fumbles recovered and one fumble forced.
Bilal: 18 tackles with 1.5 for loss.
Jo. Jones: 10 tackles with one for loss and one pass breakup.
Ja. Jones: Four tackles.

A 2018 Statistical Thought:
Presuming linebacker health, the three starters should end up as Notre Dame’s leading tacklers once again in 2018, even with the presumed drop off from Morgan to insert Bilal or Owusu-Koromoah or Lamb or … here.

The Irish defensive line will be much improved in 2018. Once upon a time, that seemed a guarantee just because the expectations for the line entering 2017 were so low, but it instead became a strength. Developing that strength and making it the backbone of Notre Dame’s defense moving forward will serve to burgeon the linebackers’ tackle totals, both at and behind the line of scrimmage.

Notre Dame gets the letter: Jack Lamb
Notre Dame gets the letter: Bo Bauer
Notre Dame gets the letter: Shayne Simon
Notre Dame gets the letter: Ovie Oghoufo

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are

A second four-star defensive lineman, Hunter Spears, joins the Notre Dame class of 2019

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When Notre Dame got five heralded defensive line recruits on campus together in January, it turned heads. When Irish defensive line coach Mike Elston offered public optimism about the possible 2019 commitments, it raised expectations.

Notre Dame has now secured a second of those five with the Tuesday commitment of consensus four-star defensive end Hunter Spears (Sachse High School; Texas). He joins consensus four-star defensive tackle Jacob Lacey (South Warren H.S.; Bowling Green, Ky.) as the early foundation to the recruiting class, now with four prospects pledged.

“Honestly, just talking with the guys today — Jacob Lacey, Mazi Smith, Joseph Anderson, Nana Osafo-Mensah, and myself — if Notre Came can land all of us, that would be the dream d-line class for Notre Dame,” Spears told Irish Illustrated. “I could see another pass-rusher or two, also.”

The other three names Spears mentioned all joined Lacey and him on Jan. 27 at an on-campus Junior Day. All five qualify as consensus four-stars, with Smith (East Kentwood; Kentwood, Mich.) a tackle, Anderson (Siegel; Murfreesboro, Tenn.) an end, and Osafo-Mensah (Nolan Catholic; Fort Worth, Texas) a possible end/linebacker hybrid.

From left to right: Osafo-Mensah, Anderson, Elston, Smith, Lacey and Spears. (Twitter: @JacobLacey6)

Landing all five may be ambitious, but it would also be the envy of most of the country.

Spears already held offers from the likes of Alabama and Michigan State, despite missing his junior season with a knee injury. The Irish extended a scholarship offer to him in June, prompting an unofficial visit to watch a 49-14 Notre Dame victory over USC in October. In a video released by 247Sports.com, Spears cited that experience as one of the three primary reasons he committed, along with the educational opportunity and the “overall tradition and culture.”

Spears shows quickness for a defensive lineman, but not such that he would ever be considered an outside linebacker in any form. His size makes him an ideal candidate to set the edge against the run or possibly move inside when the Irish need a quicker defensive line to handle certain opponents. His agility, though, will make him a three-down threat, both a pass-rusher and an edge-setter.

Notre Dame currently has depth at defensive end, but with only one signed in the class of 2018 (Justin Ademilola) and one remaining from the class of 2017 (Kofi Wardlow), an influx will be a priority this recruiting cycle. Spears will theoretically have one season to adjust to collegiate competition before the quartet of rising juniors Daelin Hayes, Khalid Kareem, Julian Okwara and Ade Ogundeji run out of eligibility. (The first three have two seasons remaining, while Ogundeji has the possibility of three more years.)

Hence, that Junior Day emphasis and Elston’s confidence on National Signing Day.

“I’ve been at Notre Dame now going on for nine years, and I haven’t had a stronger group of underclassmen that I’m recruiting than I have this year in 2019,” Elston said. “This could be the best defensive line haul we’ve ever had here.”

Expect to read that quote again and again (and possibly again) if any of the remaining three in the above photo follow Spears’ and Lacey’s lead.

RELATED READING: ‘Accelerated’ start creates bright outlook for Notre Dame’s 2019 recruiting cycle

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are

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Notre Dame will open spring practice in about two weeks. As always, the proceedings will be filled with positive reviews, optimistic outlooks, and an injury or two.

A quick look at each position group should lend a better understanding to those perspectives and effects, beginning with the group lacking many questions — the running backs. The biggest reason there is relative certainty around the running backs is there are just so few of them following the winter dismissals of rising junior Deon McIntosh and rising sophomore C.J. Holmes.

Spring Roster:
Rising senior Dexter Williams (pictured above)
Rising junior Tony Jones
Early-enrolled freshman Jahmir Smith
Rising junior Mick Assaf

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman C’Bo Flemister

No one received more praise last spring practice than Tony Jones. He had a successful 2017, but compared to that hype, it could have been considered under-performing. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Depth Chart Possibilities:
At some point, either Williams or Jones will be named the Irish starter. It is quite possible that will be a distinction without much difference, as the two could certainly complement each other well in offensive coordinator Chip Long’s system, which already prefers to use multiple running backs.

Human nature, though, dictates is more likely one back receives a majority of the carries.

Biggest Question:
If Williams lines up with the No. 1 offensive unit in the Blue-Gold Game (April 21) to conclude spring practice, that will be the first genuine and tangible evidence he has improved as a pass blocker. Despite his big-play speed and seeming-ease breaking tackles, Williams’ one-dimensional game rendered him as much a liability as an asset in 2017.

Even in the Citrus Bowl victory, Williams followed up back-to-back rushes for a combined 36 yards with a blown pass protection resulting in a 13-yard sack.

“You have to be able to protect the quarterback with all positions,” Long said Feb. 7. “That dictates a whole lot if you’re going to play a lot or just be a situational guy. It’s something you have to embrace, the physicality.

“… That’s really the main thing, other than protecting the ball, that’ll keep a back off the field in our offense.”

The best ability is availability, and both an ankle injury and a balky quad limited Williams in that respect in 2017. Little blame can be cast for the natural bruises of football. Nonetheless, he will need to “embrace the physicality” if he wants to become more than a situational back.

Otherwise, Jones will be the default option. He has already shown a knack for both pass blocking and catching, making him a three-down option. Notre Dame will always prefer that rather than tip its hand to a running play every time Williams enters the game.

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Obviously, Josh Adams carried the burden in the running game last season. Behind rising senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush and McIntosh, Williams was only the No. 4 rusher on the roster in yards and touchdowns, while Jones was No. 4 in carries and No. 5 in yards and scores.

Williams: 360 yards on 39 carries, a 9.2 average, with four touchdowns. Two catches for 13 yards and one score.
Jones: 232 yards on 44 carries, a 5.3 average, with three touchdowns. Six catches for 12 yards.
Notre Dame gets the letter: Jahmir Smith
Notre Dame gets the letter: C’Bo Flemister