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.


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.


Pregame Six Pack: Finding answers

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 15: DeShone Kizer #14 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish runs the ball during the game against the Stanford Cardinal at Notre Dame Stadium on October 15, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. Stanford defeated Notre Dame 17-10. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
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With a week off to step away, the Irish are back with a hefty challenge. Find a third victory and keep bowl eligibility alive with a win against Miami.

On paper, the odds aren’t that long. The Irish actually opened as a favorite this Saturday, though that turned quickly to two-point underdogs. It’s a common move these past few weeks—Vegas believing that Notre Dame will eventually snap out of this funk, though the betting public thinks otherwise. So far, the betting public has been right.

So while most fans look for a silver lining (one that won’t likely be coming until next season), this football team looks for a win. And as Kelly’s young depth chart seeks validation after some hard work and even harder losses, the Hurricanes are coming.

Let’s get to the Pregame Six Pack. Before a 3:30 NBC kickoff at Notre Dame Stadium, let’s look at six potential slump busters for the Irish as they look to break through.


COLE LUKE. Notre Dame’s senior cornerback needed a rest. And let’s hope he got it last week because one of Miami’s all-time receiving leaders is coming to town.

Luke may not draw Stacy Coley every snap, but he’s slowly returning to his spot as the playmaker in Notre Dame’s secondary. Coming off a big game that would’ve been even bigger had an early whistle not taken away a strip-and-score, Luke needs to find a way to make an impact against Brad Kaaya—who will likely be taking dead aim at the freshmen surrounding him.

Since Luke moved inside to the slot, he’s rejuvenated his game. And we saw that against Stanford, his best performance, though in a losing effort. And with Miami likely expecting to complete a high percentage of their throws, Luke needs to capitalize a few times, taking a shot—and cashing it in—when the opportunity presents itself.


JOSH ADAMS. Brian Kelly admitted this week what everybody watching Josh Adams was wondering all season. Is the sophomore running back really 100 percent?

No, he’s not—banged up and working through things since fall camp, a variety of soft-tissue issues making it difficult for Adams to display the horsepower and speed he showcased in the most impressive freshmen seasons in school history.

But against Miami’s beat-up defensive front, the Irish need to establish a running game to call off a pass rush that’ll want to pin its ears back and get after DeShone Kizer. And if Adams was able to catch his breath after a week off, he’ll be the best answer for a running game that’s looking for big, explosive plays.


TORII HUNTER. What’d you do on your off weekend? Well, Torii Hunter got married. The newlywed now needs to turn these next few weeks into a honeymoon (see what I did there?), five weeks to finish a regular season off strong after he had his year derailed in the season opener against Texas on a dirty hit in the end zone.

One tweak to Hunter’s game is where he’s lining up. The Irish featured Hunter less at the X receiver and more in the slot last week, an idea some blogging idiot around here (the one typing) had been advocating. It’s put Kevin Stepherson in a position to make more plays one-on-one, while putting Hunter into a spot where his skills and savvy can get loose over the middle.

Hunter’s best trait is his versatility, something that Kizer can also utilize. And while the offense had a poor outing against Stanford’s defense, Hunter found some openings, four catches for 70 yards. That’s momentum worth following.


SAM MUSTIPHER. After losing his mojo the last few weeks, Mustipher needs to get his shotgun snapping back under control. And just as important, he needs to get his mind off the mechanical first step of his job, because Miami’s Kendrick Norton will be looking to do some damage across from him.

Norton’s had a nice impact as a run defender this season and the Irish have struggled on the interior, with Mustipher, Colin McGovern and Hunter Bivin struggling. McGovern is healthy again, back in the lineup after missing the Stanford game. And for the Irish to keep the ball moving and stay ahead of the chains, they can’t afford any wayward snaps—or blown assignments on the inside—to derail them.

The staff believes Mustipher will pull out of his funk—watching him get right after sailing a safety past Malik Zaire against Stanford. Now he’s got to trigger a ground game that should have opportunities, the Hokies running for over 250 yards last week against Miami.


ISAAC ROCHELL. It’s been a quiet season from Rochell, a senior defensive lineman who made his best impact as an iron man last year, but a member of the supporting cast. So while he’s been steady this year, he hasn’t been spectacular, failing to make the leap to leading man that many of us expected this season. That’s not to say that Rochell has been bad, he’s excelled at times, and he was mostly anonymous against Stanford.

There’s an opportunity to change that. Miami’s offensive tackle depth chart is ravaged, with Sunny Odogwu out and Tyree St. Louis struggling mightily. Virginia Tech sacked the quarterback a ridiculous eight times last week—more than the Irish have on the season.

With the Notre Dame defense likely leaving defenders in coverage to slow down Kaaya and the passing game, it’ll be up to the defensive line to generate some pass rush. And while it’s not a trait that stands out for him, Rochell has a chance to win his one-on-one matchups, something he’s more than capable of doing.


DESHONE KIZER. Notre Dame’s chances to win or lose still likely ride on Kizer’s shoulders. After a tough couple of weeks and a poor performance against Stanford, expect Kizer to rally—and the Irish coaching staff to help him as they tailor a game plan that’ll play to his strengths.

That could mean added emphasis on getting the ground game going, knowing that Kizer is deadly working as a play-action passer. It’ll likely also include having protection shored up against Miami’s blitz, with Stanford’s pressure getting to Kizer.

Kizer’s second season as a starter has gone the way many go at this stage. Moments of greatness mixed in with a handful of struggles. So while many of us thought early in the year that Kizer was ready for the next level and the challenge of Sundays, this is a growth curve, hardly the straight line you’d sometimes predict.

So with a wounded Miami team in the middle of a three-game slide, it’s time for Kizer to see his opening. And a struggling Irish team that demands efficient and opportunistic play needs its best playmaker to get the job done.


Kelly thinks simplicity might aid offensive production

Notre Dame quarterback Kizer DeShone makes a throw during the Blue-Gold spring NCAA college football game, Saturday, April 16, 2016, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Ind. (Michael Caterina/South Bend Tribune via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
South Bend Tribune via AP

Back to the basics. If there’s a refrain we’ve heard—or one that’s made its way through the echo chamber these past few weeks—it’s that Brian Kelly and his coaching staff are drilling down, looking for any way to pull this team out of their slump.

We saw the changes defensively, a gigantic detour away from the scheme and philosophies of Brian VanGorder. And while that’s helped jump-start the defense, the impact of the move may have hit the offense’s productivity.

Kelly talked about some of those aftereffects this week, the changes on one side of the ball leaking over to the other.

“We’re keeping the points down, but we’re limiting possessions,” Kelly explained. “We went from 15 possessions earlier in the season to this past game we had four possessions in the first half. That’s like playing an option team. We’re going to keep the points down, we’re probably not going to get off the field quite as quick as we did earlier in the season.”

Those lack of opportunities have shown up in the box score. Throw away the game played in hurricane conditions and it’s still clear that the Irish offense didn’t capitalize on their chances against Stanford. And whether it was DeShone Kizer’s interceptions, Malik Zaire’s three short-circuited series or a general lack of running game, Kelly is taking a similar approach with his offense that he did with the opposite side of the ball—though not running anybody out of town.

“We have fallen into a similar trap that we were dealing with earlier defensively. We’re probably doing a little too much,” Kelly said. “When you do the things that you practice every single day, it becomes second nature. You can play free, you can play fast.

“I think from an offensive standpoint, we can just be who we are. Let’s practice what we’re good at and let’s be better at execution in this kind of game.”

Do what you do, but do it better. It’s an approach that’s worked under Greg Hudson’s direction, with a defense mastering the bare essentials as they try to stop the bleeding. Offensively, it’s been a long time since we’ve seen this unit struggle. And while pointing in one direction usually takes the focus off of a multi-faceted problem, cutting down the inventory and letting the Irish talent play fast and loose could be a big help for a group that’s still really young.

“I think there’s an understanding now that we have to figure out what we are doing well and put emphasis on that,” Kizer said. “In the first half of the season there were some specific looks that are more successful than others, and we have to put emphasis on those looks.”

Behind the Irish: Leaders eat last


Leaders eat last. As the 2016 season continues to be a struggle for the Irish, holding firm to leadership mottos like the above is more than just lip service or an empty slogan.

In our latest Behind the Irish feature, several Notre Dame players talk about this season’s slogan and how it helps guide the team as they look to stay united through this stretch run.

And in that corner… The Miami Hurricanes


Sure, the high-wattage match-up might have lost some of its preseason luster. But even with both Notre Dame and Miami entering the weekend limping, bringing the Hurricanes and the Irish together—two of college football’s premier programs with quite a bit of history together—is always a game worth watching.

As the Irish return from an off week healthy and looking to rebound after two-straight losses, Mark Richt’s Miami team poses quite a challenge. Especially as the Hurricanes do what they can to stop a three game slide. They’ve got the ammo to do it, with junior quarterback Brad Kaaya one of the best Notre Dame will face this season and a defense that’s done a 180 under new coordinator Manny Diaz.

To get us ready for a very big weekend, Isaiah Kim-Martinez joins us. A sophomore studying broadcast journalism who also writes for the student-run Hurricane (in circulation since 1929!), Isaiah took time away from his busy schedule to answer some questions from on the ground in Coral Gables.

Hope you enjoy.


This season started with a four-game winning streak and gave way to a three-game losing streak—all ACC opponents. What do you make of the season so far, and how do you evaluate a Hurricanes team that has just one win against a Power Five opponent?

I would say that this season has brought what most fans were expecting – inconsistency. The team is just not quite there yet. This season isn’t a failure, nor is it really a success. There was supposed to be growing pains with a new coach and a new system, and we are seeing it now as the Hurricanes have played tougher opponents.


Before we get to the play on the field specifically, what’s the transition to Mark Richt been like? Getting a tenured head coach with connections to the university looked like a coup from a far. Is that the reaction amongst Canes faithful? What’s surprised you so far through seven games?

The transition has been great. The school and the fans have welcomed him with open arms. There is a general understanding that bringing the U back to national prominence would take some time, even with someone of Richt’s track record. So, Canes faithful is generally being patient with the head coach, understanding that this is a process.

What’s surprised me most has been the ups and downs of the offense. Miami averaged over 40 points through the first four games, and that quickly dropped to under 20 for the next three. I understand that the difficulty of the opponent was higher over the last three weeks, but that is more of a drop off in offensive production than I expected.


When we looked at the 2016 Notre Dame season in August, Brad Kaaya looked like the best quarterback the Irish would face. The junior has a big-time national profile and has nice numbers so far, 12 TDs, 5 INTs, completing almost 62 percent of his throws. Evaluate Kaaya’s junior season.

Kaaya has played well, but has clearly not met the expectations that most fans had set for him prior to the season. The numbers look fine on paper, but what is misleading about stats is that they don’t tell you when the touchdowns and interceptions happened. In the biggest games of the season, Kaaya’s touchdowns have mainly come with the team being down, which to me, negates some of the luster of them. Many of the touchdowns have not been that impactful. Kaaya hasn’t buried any team over the past few weeks with a series of plays he has made. He has also already thrown more interceptions this season than he had thrown all of last season.

That being said, it is not all his fault. The offensive line has not been good, so Kaaya has not had the adequate time to consistently throw in the pocket. It seems that part of the reason for the struggle has been the adjustment to the new system and the play-calling of a new coach, which is perfectly understandable. Once again, it is not all on Kaaya, however I do not believe he has taken a legitimate step forward to this point in the season. He has been good, just not great.


Defensively, Manny Diaz has done a stellar job, the Hurricanes defense taking a huge step forward from 2015. What’s the strength of the unit? And how will they attack an Irish offense that looks in a bit of a slump?

The strength of the unit, especially early on, has been the defensive line. It is getting pressure to the quarterback. I expect the team to do the same against Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer, thus forcing him to make errors.


On the other side of the ball, Kaaya’s struggled with protection and the ground game isn’t necessarily putting up great numbers. What are the keys for the Hurricane offense, especially with Notre Dame finding its footing on the defensive side of the ball?

The key is the offensive line giving Kaaya the time he needs in the pocket to be effective, and making holes for running backs Mark Walton and Joseph Yearby to rush in between the tackles, which they have not been able to do effectively since before playing Florida State.


This is a rivalry with some history, though not many games against each other. Neither team is playing particularly good football, but it still was a game Irish fans circled on the schedule. How big of a game is this for the Hurricanes and their fans?

Indeed, it can be agreed upon that both teams expected to be in better situations come this matchup, so the implications are quite different. However, this is a huge game for the moral of the Hurricanes’ team and fans. Miami may have lost three straight games, but all the losses have come to opponents with records over .500. UM as a whole is being patient with the program, but I doubt there will be much tolerance if the Canes lose to a team that is currently 2-5.


Any prediction on how this game goes? Any keys that’ll determine a victor in your mind?

The Hurricanes defense is dealing with the injury bug, but I expect it to come out with a vengeance after allowing Virginia Tech to drop 37 points on it. The defense will hold the Fighting Irish to fewer than 25 points, and the Canes run game will finally see some day light and have a big day.

Keys to the game:

· Establish offensive presence early (strike first blood)

· No big plays allowed on defense

· Offensive line must play strong

Score Prediction: Miami 31 – Notre Dame 21