Stephon Tuitt

Weekend round-up: Offers, Tuitt, Bullard and Stonum

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The Irish are making a play at another Georgia native that likely won’t head north quietly. While Brian Kelly, Chuck Martin and company were successful getting Stephon Tuitt out of the land of peaches (we’ll get to Tuitt more in a bit), they’ll have quite a bit of company as they pursue Tucker High School’s Josh Dawson, a 6-foot-4, 226-pound outside linebacker/defensive end.

Michael Carvell at AJC.com caught up with Dawson to discuss Notre Dame’s entrance on the scene:

Tucker High School’s Josh Dawson was offered an early scholarship by Notre Dame on Sunday night.

The 6-foot-4, 226-pounder has nearly 20 offers, including UGA, Virginia Tech and South Carolina. He is projected to play defensive end or linebacker in college.

“I’m excited because it’s Notre Dame, and they have a pretty big name in football across the country,” Dawson told the AJC. Dawson added that he is not favoring any schools at this moment.

“I thought I had a good chance at getting offered by Notre Dame because one of the assistants came by the school a couple of weeks ago, saw me working out, took some of my film and told my coaches they would get back to me. I didn’t know it would be this soon.”

Dawson said if there’s an offer he expected but hasn’t gotten, it would be Georgia Tech. “I talked to one of the Georgia Tech assistants maybe three weeks ago. They haven’t been out to any of our spring practices [at Tucker]. I don’t know what’s going on. Hopefully they will come by this week and make an offer. I’m interested.”

Dawson mentioned that he’s interested in hearing from big-hitters like Alabama, Florida and Auburn, so expect quite a battle for Dawson, who comes from a pipeline school known for producing plenty of University of Georgia football players.

“We have so many people from Tucker going to UGA,” Dawson told UGASports.com. “It’s a tradition and most people who get that offer go ahead and commit to Georgia. I’m just going to take it slow but it’s a big thing. Three of my coaches actually went to Georgia.”

Don’t expect the Irish staff to be intimidated, but pulling a guy like Dawson out of Tucker would be quite the accomplishment.

***

Speaking of recruiting accomplishments, the AJC also caught up with incoming Irish freshman Stephon Tuitt, who looked back on the high-pressure process of getting recruited.

Stephon Tuitt was one of the state’s top recruiting dramas in 2011. The 5-star defensive end from Monroe Area High School initially pledged to Notre Dame but switched to Georgia Tech in mid-January. It lasted for about 30 hours as Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly quickly hopped on a plane to fly down to Georgia to convince Tuitt to commit again to Notre Dame, which Tuitt did, signing last February.

More than three months later, Tuitt was asked about his second choice. “If I didn’t go to Notre Dame, it would’ve been Georgia Tech. It came down to the point where it was … what my feelings were, talking to my family about them, looking for a brighter future, and that I felt more comfortable at Notre Dame. There’s nothing Georgia Tech could’ve done better. They recruited me very well.”

Tuitt was asked different questions as they looked back on the recruiting process and had a few interesting responses, including the regret of not visiting any West Coast schools during the process and Dabo Sweeney’s sales pitch on letting Tuitt play two-ways as both a tight end and a defensive end.

Still, if there’s a sentence that crystallizes Tuitt’s recruitment, this is it:

“It got crazy toward the end when it was finally time to sign the papers,” Tuitt said. “There’s a lot of pressure on you. People think you ought to sign with other schools than the one you signed with. Other than that, I enjoyed the recruiting precess and look forward to playing at the next level.”

Irish fans certainly looked forward to seeing Tuitt play there, too.

***

Former Irish offensive lineman Alex Bullard has been granted a hardship waiver by the NCAA, allowing the Tennessee native to be eligible immediately for the home-state Volunteers.

Bullard transferred out of Notre Dame after the death of his father. His decision to play for the home-state Vols came after he told Brian Kelly and the Irish coaching staff that he wanted to be closer to his mother and family.

Bullard has immediately drawn the eyes of the Tennessee coaching staff, putting together an impressive spring practice after being thrust into the middle of an open competition after right tackle Ja’Wuan James was sidelined with mononucleosis. Bullard was given the Harvey Robinson Award by coaches for being the biggest surprise on offense this spring.

“He has a lot of pride and he works very hard,” Vols offensive line coach Harry Hiestand said. “He has talent. It’s all brand new to him. He will progress. He’s been a pleasant surprise for us.”

Bullard is cross-training on the offensive line and has shown an ability to slide inside to center as well. You’ve got to wonder where Bullard would stand in the race to replace Chris Stewart at right guard. The coaching staff never got a true look at Bullard after he missed most of last year’s spring practice as he dealt with his father’s illness and only saw the field against Michigan State, Boston College, and Western Michigan.

Bullard took to Twitter to comment on the news that he’d be eligible next season for Tennessee.

“Just officially got the news… I’d like to give a shout out to the NCAA for allowing me to be eligible for this upcoming season.”

***

Meanwhile, it looks like Michigan has an offseason headache that’s threatening to derail any momentum built in Brady Hoke’s first offseason.

Early last Friday morning, standout wide receiver Darryl Stonum was pulled over and arrested for his second drunk driving offense during his time in Ann Arbor. Stonum was booked into jail at 4:30 a.m. by University of Michigan police, and the arrest was confirmed by a U-M spokesperson, where Stonum was stopped around 2:30 a.m. at an intersection near campus.

Head coach Brady Hoke released this statement:

“Darryl made a poor decision that is unacceptable and won’t be tolerated. He will be disciplined for behavior that is unbecoming of a Michigan football player. This is a serious situation, we are disappointed, and any athletic department discipline will be handled internally.

“We will provide the appropriate support and counseling in order for him to learn and grow from this mistake. Darryl has been suspended indefinitely from all team activities. If he fulfills all of his commitments he has to the legal system and our program, we will make a determination regarding his return to the team.”

It isn’t hard to see the similarities between Stonum and Irish wide receiver Michael Floyd, whose recent DUI arrest caused quite a stir in both the Notre Dame and national media.

Obviously, there’s a fairly large difference in the two when you consider this is Stonum’s second drunk-driving arrest, the first came during his freshman season at Michigan, when he served a one-game suspension for the September arrest. Stonum also ran into trouble when he failed to live up to the terms of his probation, missing court dates and failing to submit to the court ordered random alcohol testing. Stonum spent three nights in jail for the violations.

Brady Hoke’s comments left quite a bit of light at the end of the tunnel for both Stonum and Michigan, though you’ve got to wonder if public backlash will pressure the first-year coach into making an example of one of his leading receivers, like new Florida head coach Will Muschamp did when he kicked Janoris Jenkins off the team following his second drug-related arrest.

Stonum had 49 catches for 633 yards last season, so he’s nowhere near as productive as Floyd has been for the Irish, but it’ll be interesting following both the Michigan and national reaction to Stonum’s troubles. (I’m guessing it’ll be a fraction of the reaction that Floyd’s mishap elicited.)

May… One of the few times of year where football coaches just sit on pins and needles hoping their players simply take care of their final exams and stay out of trouble.

Spring positions to watch for revelations: DL & WR

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 05: Jerry Tillery #99 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish tackles Jerrod Heard #13 of the Texas Longhorns for a loss of yards during the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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If quarterback, rover and the early enrollees could be Notre Dame fans’ springtime Christmas thrills, what positions present as potential spots of coal?

Three former Irish players were invited to next week’s NFL Combine in Indianapolis: quarterback DeShone Kizer, defensive tackle Jarron Jones and defensive end Isaac Rochell. Losing two consistent defensive linemen leaves this year’s unit with some questions. Jones and Rochell combined for 100 tackles, 18 for loss and three sacks last season. Notre Dame’s returning defensive linemen combined to total 111 tackles and only 5.5 tackles for loss. To be clear, sacks are not included in that latter list because no returning defensive linemen recorded one. Among the returnees, junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37 tackles, three for loss) and senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26, 0.5) contributed solidly alongside the two NFL prospects.

This dearth of known and reliable linemen is a large part of why the potential transfer of Clemson graduate defensive tackle Scott Pagano is so intriguing. Pagano would immediately be a favorite to start, and if not that, at least rotate in heavily.

For now, though, Pagano remains a theoretical

By the end of spring practice, who already on campus will emerge alongside Tillery and Trumbetti in the Irish front? Senior ends Jay Hayes (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) and Jonathon Bonner (nine tackles) seem the most-likely candidates … aside from former four-star recruit and now rising sophomore Daelin Hayes. In his debut season, D. Hayes finished with 11 tackles.

Look for senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) to establish himself as Tillery’s immediate backup this spring, but that spot in the rotation will be up for competition all over again once four-star tackle Darnell Ewell (Lake Taylor High School; Norfolk, Va.) arrives on campus in the fall. His size and quickness should play right into new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s system.

Equanimeous and Who?
Not only did Notre Dame bring in a graduate transfer at receiver in former Michigan wideout Freddy Canteen, but it has also already received the commitments of two four-star receivers in the 2018 recruiting class. The continued emphasis on the position reflects the lack of bona fide game-breakers currently on the roster.

Junior Equanimeous St. Brown established himself as the top Irish threat in 2016, and he should shine only further with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush targeting him. Classmates often amplify each other’s success, simply due to the added shared reps innate to joining practice at the same time. With Torii Hunter, Jr., now pursuing a professional baseball career, who will prevent the secondary from focusing all its energies on St. Brown?

Canteen will not be with Notre Dame in the spring, as he does not graduate from Michigan until April. That will give a clear shot for the likes of juniors Chris Finke, C.J. Sanders and Miles Boykin, and sophomores Kevin Stepherson, Javon McKinley and Chase Claypool to establish themselves. Did that say “clear” shot? It should probably read, “a chance to separate from the crowd.”

If a genuine threat does not line up opposite St. Brown, his explosiveness will likely be greatly reduced by focused defensive scheming. Wimbush will need another target before 2018.

Of course, here is where one should acknowledge the millennia-tested fact: Coal under pressure becomes diamonds.

2016 Notre Dame’s win expectancy was 7.2
Sports Illustrated’s Chris Johnson named the Irish as his team most likely to dramatically improve its record in 2017. Johnson’s thinking is based, at least in part, on Notre Dame’s second-order win total having been 7.2 in 2016, compared to the four wins the Irish actually walked away with. That discrepancy was the largest in the country.

Second-order win totals reflect how many points a team should have scored and allowed based on offensive and defensive stats. In theory, this shines a light on how luck and chance factored into results. Naturally, losing seven games by one possession will often be reflected by a higher second-order win total.

“Notre Dame’s win-loss record belied a solid, if imperfect, squad that just couldn’t pull out close games…” Johnson writes. “The Irish may not get back into College Football Playoff contention in 2017, but they’re bound to post a few more Ws because of reversion to the mean.”

Admittedly, the small sample size of a football season reduces the applicability of metrics such as second- and third-order wins when compared to baseball and basketball.

Jones becomes Mack
A quick piece of housekeeping: Apparently junior tight end Alizé Jones has changed his name to Alizé Mack.

While Notre Dame’s roster may not reflect that change yet, it is reasonable to expect it will after its next update. The football program has consistently respected the intricacies of players’ name preferences. Tai-ler Jones becoming TJ Jones jumps to mind, for example.

Anyways, hopefully noting Mack’s name change here might reduce some confusion down the line. Probably not. How many readers possibly read to the actual bottom of an article? But hey, in good faith.

WR Lenzy makes 11th commitment, brings speed to Irish

lenzy
rivals.com
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At what point does an impressive recruiting roll become something more? When does it become a harbinger of things to come, even if not for a few seasons? How many notable commitments in a row establishes a class as special?

If the answer to any of the above is 11 commitments by the end of February, including five within two weeks, then Notre Dame is there following consensus four-star athlete Braden Lenzy’s announcement Thursday evening.

The Tigard High School (Portland, Ore) receiver/cornerback chose the Irish over offers from USC, Oregon and Michigan State, among a litany of others. In all, nine Pac-12 schools chased Lenzy—and a 10th, Washington, had shown interest—per rivals.com.

Lenzy will fit the leading 2018 need voiced by Irish coach Brian Kelly three weeks ago on National Signing Day 2017.

“Elite speed on offense will be a primary goal for us,” Kelly said Feb. 1. “Guys that can change the game on one possession. I think we’ll see that… We want a couple of home run hitters. We don’t care if they’re Darren Sproles’s size. We’re going to come off the board in terms of profile. We want some guys that can change the game on offense with elite speed.”

At 6-foot, 175 pounds, Lenzy is taller than Sproles’s 5-foot-6, but it is still his speed that drew Notre Dame’s interest.

“They made it clear they want me to do kickoff return and use me as a deep threat across the field,” he told Irish Illustrated. “Just being kind of an athlete, similar to what I’ve been doing already in high school, just on a bigger scale with a quarterback that can throw it a lot farther.”

Presuming Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush is that arm in 2018, throwing great distances should not be an issue. Between Lenzy and fellow 2018 commit Micah Jones, covering those distances should be a reasonable request, as well.

Lenzy brings Notre Dame’s class of 2018 to 11, including eight four-stars according to Rivals’ rating system. Current scholarship projections indicate the class will not be a large one, meaning the Irish coaching staff has already garnered the commitments of more than half the class. Once again, though, Kelly’s sentiment regarding recruiting timing should be remembered.

“We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

SWARBRICK’S TAKE ON RECRUITING
Kelly credited Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick with much assistance in securing the country’s No. 13 recruiting class in 2017. A refresher on those comments:

“In a lot of instances, [Swarbrick] had to be there to support our football program and talk to recruits about where this program is and where it’s going,” Kelly said. “There are questions when a family comes on campus. He reminded them about the investment we were making in staff and what we were doing for the present and for the future.”

Swarbrick did not dispute the factual nature of any of that in an interview with the Indianapolis Star, but he did contest the need for praising what he saw as part of his job, one of the preferred parts of his job, at that.

“I can’t say anything about this year felt all that different,” Swarbrick told Star reporter Laken Litman. “Some asked questions about the future of the program and can we compete for a national championship. And I would talk about the elements of the program we were focused on improving.”

Swarbrick and Litman discussed a number of items in the second-half of the interview released by the Star, including Notre Dame’s facilities, a possible early signing period in football and if the Oct. 8, 2016, game against North Carolina State should have been played. Spoiler: No. Then why was it? Go check it out.

Swarbrick also told Litman he likes to write in his free time.

“I tend to think strategically with a pen in my hand.” Swarbrick added he is currently scribbling away on where he thinks college athletics are headed.

This scribe, for one, would be most interested in skimming those legal pads.

Will Wimbush, Elko and the early enrollees surprise in spring practice?

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 26: Fans congratulate Brandon Wimbush #12 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish after he ran for a 58 yard touchdown against the Massachusetts Minutemen at Notre Dame Stadium on September 26, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Umass 62-27.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Exactly 59 days from today, the Irish will take the field at Notre Dame Stadium. Sure, they will be playing against themselves, but nonetheless, it will be somewhat-competitive football played in gold helmets.

For timing context, exactly 59 days ago, you looked beneath the Christmas tree to learn if Santa Claus left you season tickets, socks or coal. I got socks. They had some of that extra cushioning, so I considered them a suitable treat.

Whether you care about my argyles or not (you don’t), for many the Blue-Gold Game and Christmas morning hold similar excitement. That fact is apparently why Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick does not concern himself when groups of alumni publicly lament his decisions, or lack thereof.

“I never worry about that,” Swarbirck told the Indianapolis Star in an exclusive interview you really should read. Go on, click the link, it will open in a new tab. You can come right back here when you are done.

“The hardest job in athletics is trying to generate passion in your program. If that sort of stuff bothers you, you can’t be the athletic director, head coach or the quarterback at Notre Dame.”

That very passion will undoubtedly lead to frame-by-frame discussions of video snippets from spring practice, parsing of each and every word Irish coach Brian Kelly says in quick interviews after those practices, and extreme pessimism and optimism about the 2017 season.

In the Christmas spirit, what toys could bring the must excitement during the spring unwrapping? Personally, the gift I was unsure of always brought the most joy. I would rather open an unexpected book than know about a charcoal-gray suit. In other words, at least for today, let’s look past the offensive line, the running backs and the inside linebackers. Instead, let’s look forward to learning about… (more…)

How did Mike Elko fare against past Irish opponents?

TALLAHASSEE, FL - OCTOBER 18:  Karlos Williams #9 of the Florida State Seminoles scores the touchdown that would win the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during their game at Doak Campbell Stadium on October 18, 2014 in Tallahassee, Florida.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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Former Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder took over at that position before the 2014 season. Former Wake Forest defensive coordinator, and now VanGorder’s successor at Notre Dame, Mike Elko took over in Winston-Salem at the same time. Since then, the two programs faced common opponents nine times.

With the lone exception of Army, all these games featured ACC opponents. When it comes to talent, Wake Forest tends to be outmatched in the ACC. Recruits from 2011 to 2016 suited up for the Deacons in the 2014-16 seasons. During those six recruiting cycles, Wake Forest never finished higher than No. 10 in the conference according to rivals.com’s rankings. In 2012 and 2014, the Deacons finished at the bottom of the conference in recruiting.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, finished behind an ACC team a total of 10 times over those six years. Florida State outpaced the Irish five times, the exception being Notre Dame’s No. 3-ranked class in 2013 following its national championship game appearance. Clemson finished ahead of the Irish four times (2014 joining 2013 as the outliers), and Miami rounds the listing off with its No. 9-finish in 2012, compared to Notre Dame’s No. 20.

The point being, VanGorder and the Irish could anticipate having a stronger and deeper roster in at least six of the games discussed below. Elko and Wake Forest may have been able to make that argument—and it would be a debatable one—just once, when they faced Duke this past September.

Before comparing the two units’ successes and failures in those nine—actually, 18—contests, let’s establish two points of clarification. Notre Dame and North Carolina State played in a literal hurricane this past October. Comparing that game to any other will accomplish nothing. Furthermore, before anyone starts griping about that afternoon’s play-calling, this is an exercise discussing defensive performances, not offensive. The run:pass distribution of Oct. 1, 2016, bears no significance here.

Secondly, the other two games the Irish played fitting this criteria but after VanGorder’s dismissal—Syracuse and Army—are included below. Only so much of the scheme changed mid-season, and the personnel did not.

If you are busy catching up from a long weekend and do not have the time to look at the numbers below, a quick summary for you: In five of the eight instances, Elko’s unit fared distinctly better than VanGorder’s in multiple notable statistical categories. However, the Deacons struggled with Army’s triple-option attack, and both 2014 Florida State and 2015 Clemson blew right through the aggressive defense far easier than they did against Notre Dame.

Presented in something resembling reverse chronological order: (more…)