Signing Day 2011: Big Skill

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Most coaching staffs spend time identifying where recruits will play on the field before making a decision on their future. Not to say that isn’t the case for Brian Kelly and his staff, but Kelly has refined his approach to recruiting high school athletes and put position secondary, instead focusing on three subsets of players: Skill, Big Skill, and Power.

While Notre Dame is using that breakdown online to help untangle the swarm of bodies that can technically be classified as defensive ends, Kelly’s spoken eloquently on the three sets of players. Before last year’s recruiting class was inked, Kelly talked about the three different player groups he looks for when recruiting:

“I have a different way of categorizing as we get to know each other better,” Kelly said. “I recruit power, big skill, and skill. Those are the three categories, those are the only three categories I operate out of. Power, big skill, and skill.

“A power player fits a profile for us. Generally those are you your linemen. Big skill is profiling out, if I could take 20 guys who are tough gentlemen who fit the profile at Notre Dame academically and were 6-foot-4, 215 or 220 pounds, you’d never be able to track who is playing where. ‘I don’t know, he just takes a bunch of those guys and some play defensive end, some play tight end, some are safeties, big skill.’

“Then skill obviously have a specific, specific strength in that particular area, be it ball skills, throwing it, kicking it and I’ve always operated out of those three categories wherever I’ve been and will continue to operate out of those three categories here at Notre Dame.”

If there was a grouping that the Irish needed to address in this recruiting class, it was finding elite athletes to play the Big Skill positions. From a sheer numbers perspective, the switch to a 3-4 defense meant filling the rosters with athletes that could play with both a hand on the ground as well as in space, and with Notre Dame’s depth chart extremely thin at both outside linebacker and defensive end, filling those spots in the 2011 recruiting class were essential.

“They’re all big, they’re all fast, they’re all athletic,” Kelly said earlier today when talking about the players coming in that fill the Big Skill distinction.

BIG SKILL PLAYERS

Ben Councell, OLB: There might not be a faster rising player in the recruiting universe, as Councell went from an under-the-radar regional prospect to a four-star, national guy thanks to his performance at the Shrine Bowl. In many ways, he’s the perfect prototype for outside linebackers coach Kerry Cooks to mold into Bob Diaco’s multiple 3-4 system. Here’s how Cooks described him this morning:

“Long, fast, smart, athletic, he’s going to be able to do a lot of the jobs were going to ask our outside linebackers to do,” Cooks said.

Councell walks into South Bend needing to add weight, but immediately presents an athlete that has the ability to play the drop linebacker position.

Jarrett Grace, ILB: Grace represents the only inside linebacker in the recruiting class and while he’s a little short on star-rating, he’s got some offers that have you thinking he’s an elite recruit, with Michigan, Ohio State and Alabama all pursuing the Cincinnati product.

Grace is listed at 6-3, 235 by Notre Dame, adding some good height and size at an interior linebacker position. He was a first-team AP Ohio All-State linebacker, as well as a two-time first team All-Star by the Cincinnati Enquirer. Grace is a complete football player that’s got the ability and physical tools to be a very good linebacker in the 3-4 system.

Ben Koyack, TE:

Koyack ranks as one of the nation’s best tight ends, continuing an astonishing trend for the Irish in reeling in elite players at that position.

“He’s an outstanding football player. He possesses all the key elements of somebody who’s going to be a spread style and attached tight end,” tight ends coach Mike Denbrock said. “What set him apart in my mind more than anybody in the country was his ability to do something with the football after he caught it. He was our No. 1 target from the very beginning.”

Rivals views Koyack as a top-ten player at his position while Scout has him listed as the No. 1 tight end in the country. Koyack was a consensus first-team All-State player in Pennsylvania and was selected SuperPrep’s best offensive player in the Northeast. At 6-5, 242-pounds he should challenge for playing time immediately.

Troy Niklas, TE/OL/DL:

Once again, the Irish coaching staff goes into Southern California and snags the Los Angeles Times lineman of the year, repeating last year’s feat when they signed Justin Utupo. Niklas is the definition of ‘Big Skill,’ and even the Irish coaching staff acknowledges that there are three potential places he could end up depending on how he develops. Niklas has the athleticism to succeed as a tight end, starting as a forward on his high school basketball team as well as playing on both sides of the ball for Orange County power Servite high school. Niklas didn’t visit South Bend until last weekend, when he took his official visit to Notre Dame. He’ll start his career at defensive end, where he’ll need to add weight to his frame.

Anthony Rabasa, OLB:

Rabasa was named the best defensive lineman in Miami-Dade County by the Miami Herald, giving you an idea of just how productive of a football player he was throughout his high school career. Rabasa is the only edge player that checks in at under 6-foot-4 (He’s 6-3.5), which gives you an idea just how important the mold is for Kelly and his staff as they identify fits for their defense.

Rabasa is spending Signing Day down in Texas with future Notre Dame teammates George and Josh Atkinson, Matt Hegarty and Stephon Tuitt representing Team USA as they play an All-Star team from players assembled around the world. He’s a physical mature player who’ll likely battle for playing time coming off the edge in pass rushing situations, a perfect understudy to a guy like Darius Fleming.

Ishaq Williams, OLB:

If there’s a blue-chip player in the ‘Big Skill’ class it’s Ishaq Williams, who has already been in class for two weeks at Notre Dame after his much publicized commitment to defensive coordinator Bob Diaco in the early morning hours before Williams was scheduled to visit Penn State.

In years past, the Irish stayed in the running for players like Williams but lost out. But Diaco’s ability to beat recruiters like Penn State’s Larry Johnson for a player from Brooklyn goes to show you that the youth on this coaching staff — no defensive coach is older than secondary coach Chuck Martin, who’s only 42 — serves Kelly and his play-it-to-the-end mantra well.

 

Now is the time for Daelin Hayes to turn athleticism into pass rush threat

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This space has mentioned a few times the dearth of returning sacks among Notre Dame’s defensive line. It is a pertinent fact—no returning Irish defensive lineman recorded a sack in the 2016 season—but it fails to mention the flipside of that.

Most of Notre Dame’s defensive linemen had few, if any, opportunities to rush the passer in 2016. Perhaps at the top of the list of those who should bring down the opposing passer a few times this fall, sophomore Daelin Hayes has laid claim to a starting rush spot through five spring practices.

“The athleticism is what obviously stands out,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “He’s extremely athletic, he’s fit physically, 250 pounds and very strong.”

These facts are, after all, the reasons Hayes was a highly sought-after five-star recruit according to rivals.com.

“It’s the football knowledge, learning the techniques at the position in which he plays is really the piece,” Kelly continued. “It’s just learning right now for him. This is the time to do it, in spring ball.

“Squeezing down on a tight end when the back is away. Wrong-arming the puller. These are all football terms and schemes that are a bit new to him. We have to be patient with him. He’s an explosive athlete. There’s going to be some mistakes along the way, and I’m okay with that as long as he’s learning.”

Without much depth pushing for playing time behind him, Hayes will have the opportunity to make, and subsequently understand, those mistakes. Seniors Jay Hayes (no relation) and Andrew Trumbetti are mired in competition for the other end spot, while sophomores Julian Okwara, Adetokunbo Ogundeji and Khalid Kareem may have even more development ahead of them than Daelin Hayes does.

Incoming freshmen Kofi Wardlow and Jonathon MacCollister will join the fray in the summer, but for now, the younger Hayes has his chance to impress with his natural gifts while absorbing the intricacies of new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s defense.

Hayes is not a complete unknown. While Okwara made four tackles last season in 11 games and Kareem appeared in four games, Hayes saw action in every contest, finishing the season with 11 tackles, one pass breakup and one forced fumble.

“He’s an athlete,” defensive line coach Mike Elston said last week. “He’s on the edge in a two-point stance. He’s not a trained, put-your-hand-on-the-ground defensive end. He played running back in high school. He can see things better in a two-point and can diagnose quicker. He’s able to be more productive.”

It may be accurate to mention no returning Notre Dame defensive linemen tackled a quarterback for a loss last season, but it is more precise to also include the Irish have possibilities of changing that trend.

SPEAKING OF THE DEFENSIVE LINE
Notre Dame is nearly as thin at defensive tackle as it is at end. Junior Jerry Tillery leads the way with senior end-converted-to-tackle Jonathan Bonner lining up next to him thus far. Their reserves: Oft-concussed senior Daniel Cage, senior Pete Mokwuah and junior Micah Dew-Treadway with junior Elijah Taylor out for the spring with a foot injury.

Theoretically, junior Brandon Tiassum is also in the mix, and three freshmen (Kurt Hinish, Myron Tagovailo-Amosa and four-star Darnell Ewell) will join the group in the summer.

And maybe, just maybe, perhaps, possibly … Clemson graduate student transfer Scott Pagano could walk onto campus alongside those freshmen. Pagano visited Notre Dame the first week of March, and was due to look at Oklahoma and Arkansas the next two weekends, respectively. Instead, Pagano reportedly cancelled both of those visits Monday.

Pagano does still have a visit to Oregon scheduled for April 21. Until indicated otherwise, it may be prudent to presume Pagano hopes to land as close to his Hawaiian home as possible.

RELATED READING: 1 Day Until Spring Practice: A look at the defensive line

Recruiting success continues with OL Dirksen, class’s 12th commit

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Even in the doldrums of spring practice, Notre Dame’s recent recruiting success continues. Rivals.com three-star/scout.com four-star offensive lineman John Dirksen offered a verbal commitment to the Irish on Saturday, bringing the 2018 class to 12 commitments.

The 6-foot-5, 290-pounds Dirksen (Marion High School; Maria Stein, Ohio) joins consensus three-star prospect Cole Mabry (Brentwood H.S.; Brentwood, Tenn.) as the offensive linemen thus far among the 12. In three of the last four years, Notre Dame offensive line coach Harry Hiestand has pulled in four recruits, with 2015’s two (Trevor Ruhland, Tristen Hoge) as the exception. This recruiting cycle could again bring a limited offensive line haul, given the likely limits on the class’s size.

While any and all current class of 2018 team rankings should be taken with many grains of salt—there are 318 days between today and National Signing Day, after all—Dirksen’s commitment solidifies the Irish hold on the No. 3 class, per rivals.com. Other recruiting services place Notre Dame even higher.

Dirksen chose Hiestand and the Irish over offers from Michigan State, Iowa State and Boston College, among others.

 

Holmes out for spring; Jones & Jones shining

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Notre Dame’s spring continued over the weekend, and is all too often the case with football, that led to an injury. Early enrollee running back C.J. Holmes will probably miss the rest of spring practice due to a separated shoulder, Irish coach Brian Kelly announced following Saturday’s practice.

“We’ll get an MRI and know a little bit further on Monday once that calms down a little bit,” Kelly said. “We’ll get a picture of that and see. He had an open repair on that same shoulder his sophomore year in high school.”

Behind three backs, including two with experience, Holmes was unlikely to see playing time in the backfield in 2017.

Of those three backs, sophomore Tony Jones, Jr., is the unknown after preserving a year of eligibility last season. In limited practice viewing, however, Jones has only impressed. He has caught Kelly’s eye, as well.

“He’s 225 pounds, can catch the ball coming out of the backfield, [is] assignment correct, and can run elusively and can get into the second level,” Kelly said. “What does that equal? He’s a pretty good back.

“Obviously he was noticeable today in his play and he got some work with the first group as well. He wasn’t just getting second-team reps.”

Jones may be getting some first-unit exposure, but expect him to remain behind junior Josh Adams in the depth chart. Considering Jones’ style is somewhat comparable to Adams’, whereas junior Dexter Williams presents something of a change of pace, Williams should see more action than the sophomore, as well.

MORE PRAISE FOR ALIZE JONES
Junior tight end Alizé Jones—rather, Alizé Mack, per his Twitter account—has taken the lead in spring’s race of who reaps the most sound bite accolades. In complimenting Jones, who missed last season due to an academic suspension, Kelly also managed to laud new offensive coordinator Chip Long.

“I think Chip is doing a terrific job with [Jones],” Kelly said. “He’s got a good relationship. He knows how to rise him up when he needs to and scold him when he needs to. Alizé needs a little bit of that.

“He’s virtually un-coverable in certain areas of the field. I don’t care at any level. You can’t cover him. He just has that kind of talent. The one that I think stands out to me in the few days is he’s committed himself to being a blocker and playing physical. If he continues to do that, we’re going to find ourselves with a lot of tight ends on the field.”

Presumably, Jones would join graduate student tight end Durham Smythe in two tight end sets. It should be remembered, Long has historically shown a preference for such formations, and with Notre Dame’s plethora of options at the position, Long’s tendencies have no need to change. For that matter, Long had some praise for Jones this weekend, as well.

“Alizé can be as good as he wants to be,” Long said Friday. “…He’s growing up each and every day. Great joy to coach, and that whole group is. He doesn’t want to let that group down. There’s no question he can be as good as he wants to be.”

Friday at 4: 40-yard dashes and absurdity

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Of all the absurd things the football world often obsesses over, the 40-yard dash may be the most useless of them. Yes, it even beats out assigning star rankings to 16- and 17-year-olds, though not by much.

For now, let’s look past the rest of the inane Draft intricacies, such as former Irish defensive lineman Jarron Jones feeling pressured to increase his vertical jump by four inches. (He did, jumping to 24.5 inches in Notre Dame’s Pro Day on Thursday.) This scribe does not have an excess of time to spend discussing Jones’s outlandish wingspan if this piece is to post by its intended, though unnecessary, 4 p.m. ET deadline.

The 40-yard dash … No football play begins from a sprinter’s stance, yet it may be the factor most crucial to a low 40 time. Former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer posted a time of 4.83 seconds in the NFL Combine earlier this month. For context’s sake, Kizer ran .07 seconds slower than Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger did as a draft prospect in the 2004 combine.

Roethlisberger has had himself an excellent career, and his ability to shrug off 300-pound defensive linemen is a testament to his athleticism. Put Kizer and Roethlisberger in the open field together, though, and Kizer would presumably have outrun Roethlisberger at any point of the two-time Super Bowl champion’s career. In Indianapolis, however, Roethlisberger did a better job of getting his hips through his first couple strides of the heralded 40-yard dash.

Here, watch Kizer train for the 40, the most-hyped measurement of his combine.

“The ultimate goal is to have yourself in the best position to have your body weight back in those legs so you can create enough torque to get out as quickly as possible,” Kizer said. “A guy who is as long as I am, with long limbs that I have, I’ve got to make sure that my weight distribution is in the best position for me to get out and catch up to some of those quicker guys who are a little lower to the ground.”

What part of that sounds applicable to football? The 40 turns Kizer’s size (6-foot-4, 237 pounds) into a negative. He worries about the angle of his knees. After his throwing session at the Thursday Pro Day, Kizer summed up the draft evaluation process even more succinctly.

“This process is very different in the sense that the way you look productive in the combine and in a pro day is very different from what productivity actually looks like out on the field.”

Well put.

More pertinent to the actual game of football, Kizer’s completion percentage in the staged workout could have been higher.

Then again, he was throwing to the likes of former Irish receivers Corey Robinson and Amir Carlisle and former running back Jonas Gray. Reportedly, the only contact Gray and Kizer had before the session was Kizer emailing the former New England Patriot the planned series of routes.

The NFL Draft, where Gmail becomes a necessity.

Let’s do away with the 40. If we insist on keeping it, let’s do it twice, once from a standing start and once from a running start. Those would simulate actual football movements: A receiver getting off the line, and a ballcarrier breaking away and trying to outrun the defense.

Asking DeShone Kizer to mimic Usain Bolt is an exercise in futility, idiocy, absurdity.

Cue end of rant.

Why cite the Roethlisberger time? Many, including Sports Illustrated’s Chris Burke, have readily compared Kizer to Roethlisberger this spring.

The most notable line of that scouting report (scroll down to No. 32) may be its final one, echoing Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly’s sentiments from earlier this week.

“The mystery is whether he can regain his assertiveness,” Burke writes. “If so, he could turn out to be the 2017 class’s best QB. The team that drafts him will be taking a leap of faith.”

A leap. Not a dash.

For more Notre Dame Pro Day results, click here.

And with that, this just may make the 4 p.m. posting. You know what to do.