Signing Day 2011: Skill

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Both Jimmy Johnson and Charlie Weis helped prove that in college football it’s not “the Xs and Os, but the Jimmys and the Joes.” For all the talk of decided schematic advantage, Weis’ offense and football program only succeeded when it had a proper stable of players executing the Xs and the Os.

(Note: This isn’t an argument that skill players win football games, because if there’s anything that the data has shown over the last few years is that they clearly don’t. The Irish have turned into a mediocre program not for lack of playmakers but because a solid foundation of linemen and linebackers was never set.)

But as we’ve paid proper homage to the Big Skill and Power segments of this recruiting class, it’s time to take a look at the players that’ll be filling the box scores for the next four to five seasons. While we’ve learned that the Irish will never become an elite football team without building the core of the football team, it wasn’t too long ago that the Irish struggled to track down elite athletes that could compete with college football’s traditional powers.

If there’s a grouping that doesn’t have recruitniks hopping around, it’s the skill portion of the class. The Irish missed on two high-profile running backs, and while they landed Cam McDaniel they missed on Savon Huggins and Justice Hayes. Bennett Okotcha was set to fill a much needed space in the secondary before he defected last minute to Oklahoma. But the players the Irish did reel in are nothing to sneeze at. Wide receivers George Atkinson III and DaVaris Daniels filled a vacancy that the coaching staff was open and honest about.

“At wide receiver, there was one objective,” offensive coordinator Charley Molnar said. “Let’s get faster and let’s get more athletic. There’s no doubt in our mind that we’ve not only become faster and bigger, but also more athletic.”

Let’s take a look at the skill portion of the 2011 recruiting class, and lump in specialist Kyle Brindza, who plans on giving Ben Turk a run for his money at punter as well as for beach muscles.

SKILL PLAYERS

George Atkinson III, WR: Remember all those worries Irish fans had when Brian Polian decided to leave South Bend and head to Stanford? Well Mike Denbrock, he of the Ty Willingham era, went into Northern California and pulled out George Atkinson, one of the fastest athletes in the recruiting class, with offers from Alabama, Oregon and USC. Atkinson ran a 10.6 100 meters in the California state track meet and scored 17 touchdowns as a running back, wide receiver and defensive back this season, and will immediately give the Irish another vertical threat at wide receiver, as well as the option for a ball-hawking safety.

Josh Atkinson, DB: Josh may not get the accolades that his brother gets, but he fills an enormous need for the Irish and he’ll likely battle for immediate playing time in a secondary with only three returning scholarship cornerbacks. Josh signed his letter-of-intent in Austin today, as he prepared to represent Team USA as they battled a collection of international “stars.” At 6-foot, 185-pounds, Atkinson has the size coveted by Kelly and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco for their 3-4, zone coverage system.

DaVaris Daniels, WR: Daniels supplied some recruiting fireworks back in June when the Chicago Sun-Times scooped a reported press conference where Daniels was going to select the University of Miami as his school of choice, after reportedly being denied admission at Notre Dame.

But neither Daniels nor the Irish quit on each other, and after Daniels’ father, 15-year NFL veteran Phillip Daniels refuted the Sun-Times report, Daniels hunkered down on his school work, committed to the Irish, and gave Notre Dame one of Chicago’s best prep players.

Matthias Farley, DB: If you’re looking for a wildcard in this grouping, it’s Farley. Here’s an elite athlete with premium size at cornerback who started playing football his junior year of high school. That first season, he scored 12 touchdowns at wide receiver, and scholarship offers from places like North Carolina, UCLA and Wisconsin. After listening to Kelly today, one thing is sure, he passes the eyeball test.

“He’s all of six foot and he’s about 195 pounds,” Kelly said. “He looks like a college football player. He has that presence about him. Great young man.”

It might take some time to get Farley up to speed from a football IQ perspective, but with the proper development, Farley has the makings of an elite college defensive back.

Everett Golson, QB: If Golson were three inches taller, he’d have a five-star rating and would be one of the nation’s most sought after recruits. But Golson is six-foot, a slight 170-pounds, yet still has offers from nearly the entire SEC. The Irish pulled Golson out of a long-time commitment to both North Carolina football and basketball after a late season visit to South Bend.

Golson didn’t enroll early to take his time and redshirt behind a crowded quarterback depth chart, and Kelly opened up about the ways he’s considering using the dazzling athlete from Myrtle Beach.

“At the quarterback position, it’s pretty clear that Tommy Rees and Everett Golson are two different quarterbacks relative to style,” Kelly said. “So I think what you’ll see is Tommy Rees and most likely Dayne Crist and the other quarterbacks fit into that category. Then on the other side of the ledger you’ll have Everett Golson. And within our offensive structure, we can go full out spread with Everett Golson.”

Bringing in a quarterback that can bring a running component to the offense the way Zach Collaros did at Cincinnati for Kelly means just another weapon in an offensive that all of a sudden needs to catch up with Bob Diaco’s defense.

Eilar Hardy, DB: If there’s a profile that’s developing for defensive backs that Kelly and company are collecting, Hardy fits into that mold. He’s a sturdy six-foot defensive back that can play corner or safety, tackles well, and more importantly, he’s a productive football player.

While Ohio State never pulled the trigger on an offer, most of the Big Ten did, with Iowa, Michigan State, and Wisconsin all offering the first-team All-State Ohio selection. It’s interesting to consider that most of the defensive backs the Irish have chased share cohorts with a program like Wisconsin, where Kerry Cooks spent time coaching the secondary and where the Badgers do a very good job of putting athletes in a system that works.

Cam McDaniel, RB: McDaniel certainly won’t wow anyone with his physical attributes (not to mention some of the stereotypes that come with being a white running back), but if there’s anyone that’s put up an impressive body of work it’s the Irish’s lone running back recruit, who put up monster numbers as a second team All-State running back in the power conference of Texas high school football.

Earlier today, running backs coach Tim Hinton hoped that McDaniel would become the Irish’s Danny Woodhead, a proposition that has to have Irish fans salivating. Even if he never becomes a pinball like the diminutive Patriots star, he’ll immediately add some competition in the punt return game.

Kyle Brindza, K/P: If Brindza’s highlight tape is any indication of his collegiate success, the Irish may have stumbled upon their own mini-Sebastian Janikowski. Hailed by the coaching staff as the most talented kicker in the country, it’s hard to fathom Brindza’s kickoff exploits, where he routinely knocks the ball out the back of the endzone and sometimes through the uprights. With David Ruffer entrenched at placekicker, the coaching staff thinks Brindza can immediately offer an upgrade on kickoffs and provide competition for Ben Turk at punter.

Notre Dame adds another 2019 commitment out of Georgia

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Eight months from now, Notre Dame may be forced to sign a smaller recruiting class than usual thanks to the larger class this past recruiting cycle. If that expectation does indeed hold, this past week’s five commitments, including consensus three-star safety Kyle Hamilton’s (Marist High School; Atlanta) on Tuesday evening, will be a hefty portion of the class.

Hamilton becomes the second safety in the class, and in the week, following the Saturday pledge of rivals.com four-star Litchfield Ajavon (Episcopal H.S.; Alexandria, Va.). Hamilton’s list of finalists included Michigan, Georgia, Ohio State and Clemson, a grouping more telling than perhaps his recruiting ranking is.

Some of that expected potential may derive from Hamilton’s 6-foot-3 frame. Such length at safety would be a change for the Irish, currently without a safety taller than six-feet in the rotation. Even heralded incoming-freshman Derrik Allen, also out of Georgia, is listed at only 6-foot-1.

It is a coincidence those two Georgia recruits, one signed and one now verbally-committed, are both safeties. Add in the January commitment of rivals.com three-star cornerback K.J. Wallace (Lovett; Atlanta), and a third defensive back comes from the state, along with class of 2018 signees tight end Tommy Tremble and running back C’Bo Flemister. Five prospects from Georgia, presuming both Hamilton and Wallace do indeed sign with Notre Dame, is not a coincidence.

“My point being is that it’s such a fertile ground in recruiting, you just need to be in [Georgia], and there’s great football players in there,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said in December 2017, during the inaugural early signing period. “We’ve got so many players that we can talk about that came of there. It’s just having a presence and getting back into a very, very good recruiting area for us. We need to have a great presence there.”

No matter what state Hamilton comes from, he could find himself quickly in the mix at safety upon his arrival. Presuming health for the current safety depth chart, juniors Jalen Elliott and Devin Studstill will have one year of eligibility remaining apiece upon Hamilton’s enrollment. Junior Alohi Gilman will have two, thanks to spending the 2017 season sidelined following his transfer from Navy. Early-enrolled freshman Griffith and Allen will both have three more years, presuming both play in 2018.

Thus, Hamilton and Ajavon could find themselves backing up that last duo as soon as 2020.

Blue-Gold Game Leftovers: Notre Dame’s offensive ceiling is tantalizing, though also unlikely

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Immediately following the 2017 spring game, I walked by two much smarter, savvier and more veteran Notre Dame reporters on our way to post-game interviews. Our two minutes of exchange included them riffing on various hypothetical position changes that were eventually not seen come fall, including how much better of a guard than a tackle Tommy Kraemer could be. It should be noted, the junior began lining up at guard this spring.

My contribution to the conversation hinged entirely on repeating, “That offense just isn’t ready. It’s not close to ready.”

Of course, that assessment figured the spring game struggles were against a porous Irish defense, something freshly-arrived and since-departed defensive coordinator Mike Elko had already taken tangible steps toward fixing, far quicker than expected.

That evaluation also failed to recognize the potential of a running attack led by Josh Adams. Notre Dame knew it had a stalwart running back, and did not need to see more than eight carries for 39 yards and a touchdown from the lead back.

The point stood, though. The offense was not ready then or in November.

Driving away from this past Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game, the thought bouncing around my pickup’s two-seat cab was simple: This offense is unlikely to reach its ceiling, but if it did, it would be really, absurdly high-powered.

This time, that assessment offers some deference to first-year defensive coordinator Clark Lea’s ability to turn nine returning starters into another strong defense, perhaps superior to last year’s.

The praise of the offense must be hedged thanks to IF after IF after IF after IF. If senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush displays those mechanics and that accuracy against opposing defenses …
If senior running back Dexter Williams (pictured above) decides it is worthwhile to play, and play well, through pain …
If junior receiver Chase Claypool maintains the necessary emotional equilibrium …
If senior tight end Alizé Mack offers a consistent performance, even if not stellar, but stable …

In those four upperclassmen alone, the Irish have unique talents whom opposing defensive coordinators should lose sleep thinking about. They will determine how high this offense’s ceiling is, while the likes of senior receiver Miles Boykin, junior running back Tony Jones and sophomore tight end Cole Kmet will set the floor, along with what looks to be yet another overpowering offensive line (with Kraemer at right guard).

Obviously, the most-promising players always set the height of a vaulted the ceiling. As they perform against Michigan, Stanford and Virginia Tech will determine how the season ends. However, to pinpoint four like this is an extreme end of the spectrum.

Exiting last year’s Blue-Gold Game, it was clear Wimbush needed to learn much more of offensive coordinator Chip Long’s scheme. Aside from that, the only possible ways to increase the offense’s potency was to teach receiver Kevin Stepherson self-discipline and figure out why Mack could not make a gameday impact. The rest was essentially known, even if the running game’s potential was overlooked after the spring exhibition.

Entering this summer, the gap between the offense’s floor and its ceiling is a vast one. To have four question marks of this magnitude speaks to the possible volatility awaiting in the fall. Logically speaking, it is most likely two of the four above IFs become realities. In that case, it will be a good offense, but not the utterly threatening one conceivable. The odds are slim all four come to fruition, but crazier things have happened, especially when discussing the rapid development of 18- to 21-year-olds.

Without Adams following two All-American offensive linemen, this rendition of the Notre Dame offense may take a step backward, but the talent is there for it to actually improve, to carry the day if/when an experienced quarterback picks apart the defense (see: the Seminoles’ Deondre Francois).

That could not be said in 2017.

OTHER QUICK TAKEAWAYS FROM THE BLUE-GOLD GAME:
Much of this will be discussed in greater length in the coming two weeks, but …
— The interior of the offensive line — fifth-year left guard Alex Bars, fifth-year center Sam Mustipher and Kraemer at right guard — is quite a physically-imposing trio. Some defensive ends may find success against first-year starter and junior left tackle Liam Eichenberg, especially early in the season, but the inside trio should at least create massive holes for the Irish running game.

— Ideally Long can deploy Mack and Kmet together, but the spring performance of the latter certainly eases the concerns about the maturation and consistency of the former.

Notre Dame may need an unexpected influx of production from senior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery if the fifth-year tackle he is intended to line up alongside, Jonathan Bonner, does not recover fully from a wrist injury suffered in the beginning of 2017. (Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune via AP)

— Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly insists fifth-year defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner’s fitness will not be overly-effected by the wrist injury that kept him out of most of spring practice and all of the Blue-Gold Game.

“He’s been doing everything (in weight-lifting) but at lighter weight, and now he’s only a couple of weeks away from being full-go,” Kelly said Saturday. “He was already physically really gifted, so we don’t think that’s going to be a big curve for him, and he’ll be able to start training aggressively when we get back here in June.”

Consider this scribe skeptical. Not only is Kelly often overly-optimistic about injury effects and timetables, but to think missing six months of strength and conditioning will not be noticeable along the defensive interior is idealistic at best. Bonner’s 2017 emergence was a direct result of the arrival of strength and conditioning coordinator Matt Balis.

Without more of that work, the Irish will need to turn to sophomore Kurt Hinish for an increase in snaps, perhaps pushing toward 50 per game with Bonner offering 20-30 and senior Micah Dew-Treadway filling in the balance. Hinish appears to be up to the task, which is necessary, because classmate Darnell Ewell is not.

Notre Dame gains commitments of four-star defensive end and three-star offensive tackle

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At this rate, Notre Dame might fill its 2019 recruiting class by the time the school year ends. With a Sunday morning commitment of a consensus four-star defensive end followed by a Monday evening pledge from a consensus three-star offensive tackle, the Irish class has grown from three recruits to seven in just four days.

The No. 238 prospect in the country and No. 28 at defensive end, per rivals.com, Howard Cross III (St. Joseph High School; Montvale, N.J.) announced his commitment via Twitter shortly after leaving campus from a visit for the Blue-Gold Game, choosing the Irish over offers from Michigan, North Carolina State and Virginia Tech, among others.

“I could tell [current Notre Dame players] really loved the school,” Cross said to Blue & Gold Illustrated. “It was really, really big to talk to them. When I was going to all the colleges, that was the main thing I wanted to do. I wanted to get the perspective of the players.”

Cross joins consensus four-star defensive end Hunter Spears (Sachse H.S.; Texas) as half of the four defensive linemen already in the Irish recruiting class. As always, no collegiate defensive line can be deep enough. Considering the previous two recruiting classes have yielded a total of two defensive ends — Kofi Wardlow and Justin Ademilola — opportunity should be aplenty for Cross and Spears early in their careers.

The defensive end duo will likely spend a not-insignificant portion of their collegiate career practices butting heads with Andrew Kristofic (Pine-Richland; Gibsonia, Pa.). If the high school of Pine-Richland jumps off the figurative page to Notre Dame recruitniks, that is because Kristofic has much experience protecting high school teammate and incoming Irish freshman quarterback Phil Jurkovec.

He chose Notre Dame, and new offensive line coach Jeff Quinn, rather than offers from a lengthy list including Clemson, Georgia and Ohio State.

“The combination that their school is able to provide being one of the very best schools in the entire country academically and one of the very athletically stands out,” Kristofic said to Blue & Gold Illustrated. “I think they have the best combination of those two things on top of being a school that is known for being able to produce such great offensive linemen is something that no other schools really have the combination of all those.

“When you can put together all the things that they can there, it’s certainly not something you can overlook or take for granted.”

The beginning of this influx of commitments came with the Friday decision of consensus four-star offensive tackle John Olmstead (St. Joseph; Metuchen, N.J.), the only other offensive lineman in the class to this point. Of the seven recruits committed to the Irish, five are four-star talents.

Former Notre Dame defensive lineman, Kona Schwenke, dies at 25

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Former Notre Dame defensive lineman Kona Schwenke, 25, reportedly died in his sleep Sunday morning. The cause of death has not yet been confirmed.

Schwenke spent four seasons along the Irish defensive front, culminating in a 23-tackle senior season, in 2013. Attrition along the defensive line in his first two seasons forced Schwenke into playing time, costing him a likely fifth-year with much greater production. He played in 31 games total, making 30 tackles.

Part of a Hawaiian surge in Notre Dame recruiting, Schwenke joined the likes of receiver Robby Toma and linebacker Manti Te’o in coming from the island in 2009 and 2010. The first two committed during Charlie Weis’ tenure, but Schwenke made the leap at the very beginning of Irish head coach Brian Kelly’s career, one of the first recruits to commit to Kelly at Notre Dame. Since then, sophomore defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa has renewed the trend.

Schwenke graduated in 2014 with a degree in anthropology. He then signed with the practice squad of the Kansas City Chiefs, moving around four different NFL franchises chasing his dream. Earlier this month he took part in a scouting event, The Spring League, gaining some notice when he forced Heisman-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel into a fumble.

Former Irish teammates took to social media Sunday afternoon celebrating Schwenke’s life and friendship.