Ishaq_Williams

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.

 

Kelly and Swarbrick turn attention to science of injury prevention

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Amidst the chaos of their live Signing Day show, UND.com ran had a far-reaching interview with head coach Brian Kelly. It was conducted by his boss, athletic director Jack Swarbrick, and his former team captain, Joe Schmidt.

So while there was a little bit of talk about the 23 recruits who signed their national letters-of-intent, there was also a very illuminating exchange on an issue that’s really plagued the Irish the past few seasons: Injuries.

Football is a dangerous game. And for as long as people play it, there’ll be impactful injuries that take players off the field. But as Notre Dame settles into what looks like their longest run of stability since the Holtz era, the focus of Kelly and Swarbrick has moved past modernizing the team’s medical services, strength program and nutrition and onto the science of injury prevention.

Here’s what Kelly said about the efforts currently taking shape:

“I think the science piece is very important, because no longer is it just about strength and conditioning,  it’s about durability. It’s the ability to continue to play at an optimal level but also with the rigors of a college schedule, and particularly here at Notre Dame, how do we maximize the time but maximizing getting the most out of our student-athletes and not lose them?

“As you know, we’ve had a couple years here in a rough stretch of injuries. And how do we have an injury prevention protocol that brings in the very best science? You’ve done a great job of reaching out in getting us those kind of resources. so I think tapping into that is probably the next piece. As well as providing the resources for our student-athletes. Continuing to look at facilities. Continuing to give our student-athletes maybe that little edge. Because everybody’s got 85 scholarships.”

It’s clear that the issue is one that’s on the radar for not just Kelly, but the athletic administration. So it’ll be interesting to see some of the steps taken as the program begins investing time and additional resources to an issue that’s really hit the Irish hard the past few seasons.

There’s plenty of other good stuff in the 13-minute interview, so give it a watch.

Five things we learned: Signing Day 2016

FILE - In this Jan. 1, 2016, file photo, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly makes a call during the first half of the Fiesta Bowl NCAA College football game against Ohio State in Glendale, Ariz. Kelly has agreed to a six-year contract to stay on as coach at Notre Dame through 2021, the school announced Friday, Jan. 29,2 016.  (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)
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There were no last minute defections. No roller coaster recruits or down-to-the-wire decisions. Heck, there were no fax machines—with Notre Dame ditching the office dinosaur for a wireless, smart phone option.

Brian Kelly inked another Top 10 recruiting class on Wednesday. And he did so in decidedly uneventful fashion.

“It’s awesome. I think that everybody should try it once in their career,” Kelly said.

So while Kelly and the Irish staff hold out hope that 5-star talents Caleb Kelly and Demetris Robertson still decide to spend their college careers in South Bend, the 23-man class announced Wednesday was another Top 10 effort and a step in the right direction for a program on very stable ground.

Let’s find out what we learned.

 

Notre Dame’s staff continued to focus on rebuilding the secondary and rushing the passer. 

Yes, Brian Kelly saw what you saw—a group that struggled getting to the passer or to field a nickel or dime personnel grouping. So they countered that in the best way they knew how: By continuing to stockpile talent.

Notre Dame added seven defensive backs and four edge defenders in the cycle. They include safeties Jalen Elliott, D.J. Morgan, Spencer Perry and Devin Studstill and cornerbacks Julian Love, Troy Pride and Donte Vaughn. Perhaps just as important is the impression some of these defenders made in their time on campus, with Kelly pointing to Elliott and Studstill’s work during summer camp really making them must-have recruits.

“Jalen Elliott competed like no player that I have seen since I’ve been coaching in a camp setting,” Kelly said. “Same thing with Devin Studstill. His skill level was of corner-like ability but had the size of the safety, and so our guys went right to them early on, and that was a focal point because we got a chance to see them up close and personal.”

At defensive end, the Irish welcome 5-star recruit Daelin Hayes, getting him on campus as he recovers from shoulder surgery. He’s joined by former Alabama commit Khalid Kareem, the strongside counterpart that is an early candidate to see the field, especially as the staff looks for someone to spell Isaac Rochell for a few snaps. Longer-term prospects include a few speed rushers—Julian Okwara (younger brother of Romeo) and Ade Ogundeji, a long-limbed, below-the-radar edge rusher.

“We’re pretty excited about the potential for some guys in this class that can answer some four-man pass rush needs that we do have,” Kelly said.

 

It may not be the biggest group, but Brian Kelly is excited about his offensive line—especially the guys he pulled from Ohio State’s backyard. 

Three recruits in the offensive line class point to a big 2017 at the position. But the three the Irish did sign—guard Parker Boudreaux and tackles Liam Eichenberg and Tommy Kraemer—have Kelly very happy.

“Parker Boudreaux has that physical presence inside like, and I’m not comparing him, but he’s a Quinton Nelson in terms of size and physicality,” Kelly said. “And then two edge guys with Liam and Tommy on the outside. Those two kids are as good as you’re going to find in the country, and couldn’t be more excited to have two kids from the state of Ohio, from two great Catholic schools in St. Ignatius and Cincinnati Elder from the state of Ohio.”

Both Eichenberg and Kraemer were priority targets for Urban Meyer and company, with neither wavering after committing to Notre Dame. Kraemer was Ohio’s Gatorade Player of the Year and an Army All-American. He’ll be able to step into the two-deep immediately, capable of playing up front if the Irish need him. Eichenberg more than held his own at the Under Armour All-American game and has a high ceiling, especially as he learns the game under Hiestand.

It doesn’t take away the sting of the Fiesta Bowl. But it’s a nice consolation prize.

 

Irish legacies Jamir Jones and Julian Okwara may have big brothers who played for Brian Kelly, but they earned scholarships on their own. 

Classmates Jarron Jones and Romeo Okwara will turn over the reins to their younger brothers, linebacker Jamir Jones and defensive end Julian Okwara. The younger duo’s commitments felt all but inevitable throughout this recruiting cycle—even if that wasn’t always the case.

Jones had to come to camp to earn a scholarship. Having played quarterback and tight end as a high school standout in Rochester, the defensive staff had to see how he moved before they could find a position for him to play.

Similarly, Okwara’s journey to Notre Dame shouldn’t be taken for granted. While his older brother leaves Notre Dame the team’s leading quarterback sacker, Julian has a better natural pass rush skill-set than the 2015 team-leader.

“Julian can separate himself in a way because he has an elite initial movement and speed that Romeo has had to try and develop,” Mike Elston said in Okwara’s Signing Day video. “Romeo has the size and the power and the aggressiveness, but Julian can really add value for us right away.”

Kelly talked about how important it was to not just land this duo, but to have them already understand what the journey is that lies ahead.

“We didn’t recruit them because their brothers were here. We recruited them because we thought they were players that fit here at Notre Dame that would be very successful,” Kelly said. “Obviously it helps when their brothers have a great experience here and really enjoy their Notre Dame experience as a student and as an athlete, so that helps you in the recruiting… those kids really fit and can stand on their own two feet.”

 

Even without Demetris Robertson in the fold, Notre Dame’s receiving class is a group to watch. 

You want productivity? Throw on a highlight tape of Javon McKinley. You want an intriguing set of physical tools? Look no further than Chase Claypool. You want a sleeper prospect who out-performed every elite prospect who came to the Irish Invasion camp? Then your man is Kevin Stepherson.

Most of the attention on Signing Day was the fate of 5-star receiver Demetris Robertson. But the trio of athletes that’ll reload the receiving corps is a group that deserves recognition even without an additional infusion.

McKinley provided the day’s only scare when his smart phone struggled to send his signature via electronic fax. Claypool sent his national letter of intent in the day after scoring 51 points on the basketball court. And Stepherson is already taking part in team workouts in Paul Longo’s strength facilities, getting a jump start with the spring semester and 15 practices as the Irish try to figure out what life looks like after Will Fuller, Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle.

After Fuller left campus early on the back of two record-setting two seasons, Kelly said his staff has become more and more comfortable with the fact that his skill players need to develop quickly—especially with the allure of the NFL just ahead.

“If you’re really that good, you may not be here very long, and we hope that you’re here for four years and you stay, but you’ve got to be ready to compete,” Kelly said. “So our expectation in the recruiting process is for the wide receiver group to come in and compete to get on the field and be a player for us immediately.”

That’ll happen whether or not Robertson is a part of this group.

 

Amidst significant transition on both the coaching staff and recruiting office, Notre Dame managed a Top 10 class. Expect things to only get better from here. 

Let’s go back to Signing Day 2015. Within 24 hours of Brian Kelly’s press conference, he was dealing with two major changes—recruiting coordinator Tony Alford was out the door to Ohio State and Kerry Cooks was headed to Oklahoma. Two aces on the staff were gone, forcing the Irish to not just replace long-time staffers, but to find new area recruiters for the state of Texas and Alford’s stronghold in Florida.

Kelly brought in first-year college assistant Todd Lyght to work with defensive backs. He tapped the school’s rushing leader Autry Denson to handle the backs and duke it out in Florida. Mike Sanford shook up the offense as Bob Elliott moved into an off-field position. But perhaps just as important as those moves, Kelly turned over the administrative reins to Mike Elston, who moved into a recruiting coordinator position he had filled for his boss back at Cincinnati.

Elston had to reorganize a staff that saw relationships walk out the door and reboot a recruiting effort that saw significant changes behind the scenes. And in short order things got back on track and have progressed to the point that the Irish are ahead of the game, setting junior days and summer camp dates earlier than ever.

For those paying attention, they’ve noticed the improvements. Notre Dame has paid more attention to messaging—staffers more active on Twitter. There have been improvements on Instagram, Facebook and Vine—platforms that might sound like gobbledygook to grownups, but are critical pieces to a year-long recruiting effort. That should help this staff press ahead in 2017, a recruiting class that already has five members.

“With that team that we’ve put together, we’re not going to look back. It’s only going to get better,” Kelly said.

It was Elston that engineered the equipment truck visit to Savannah, a late-game recruiting move that drew a lot of attention to Notre Dame. It was recruiters like Denson who went to Alabama and got a visit out of Ben Davis, a Crimson Tide legacy who gave the Irish a much longer look than anybody could have expected. And it’s no surprise that a former Pro Bowler and first-round draft pick like Lyght was able to reel in a large group of defensive backs eager to learn from a guy who was a clear success story.

“I think each and every year, you hope that this group is the best group you’ve ever recruited,” Kelly said. “I’m hoping for that again.”

 

Faxes in: Liam Eichenberg

Liam Eichenberg
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LIAM EICHENBERG
Cleveland, Ohio

Measurables: 6’6″, 280 lbs.

Accolades: 4-Star, Under Armour All-American, 2015 MaxPreps first-team All-American, 2015 American Family Insurance All-USA Ohio, AP All-Ohio Division I first-team.

Impressive Offers: Florida State, Miami, Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, Tennessee

Projected Position: Offensive tackle.

Quick Take: Another offensive tackle with sky-high potential, Notre Dame snatched Eichenberg out from under Urban Meyer’s nose, bringing in yet another blue-chipper for Harry Hiestand to mold. More of a developmental project than Kraemer, Eichenberg’s upside could be just as lofty, especially after some time in a weight room and on the practice field.

What he means to the Irish: With numbers at tackle on the light side, Eichenberg won’t be asked to get on the field, but he might start his career in the two deep behind Mike McGlinchey. That could take away a redshirt if things go wrong, but the view from behind McGlinchey is a good spot for him, learning behind another talented athlete who came to campus as a developmental prospect but will enter his senior season (McGlinchey has two years of eligibility remaining) as a legit NFL prospect.

Eichenberg has the same kind of ceiling. He’ll just need to keep improving—something that he’s shown after a strong Under Armour All-American week in Orlando.

Obligatory YouTube clip: