Danny Spond

Recipe for success: Analyzing the Kelly recruits

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It only took days for Notre Dame fans to cling to one of Brian Kelly’s first bits of coach speak. When asked about recruiting, one of the Irish’s new head coach’s perceived weak spots, Kelly uttered the term “Right Kinda Guys,” which instantly became preferred nomenclature for the recruits the former Grand Valley State, Central Michigan and Cincinnati coach would target.

In the days after Kelly took the job, with a recruiting cycle winding down, those “RKGs” looked like below-the-radar prospects that the head coach could mold using his tried and true developmental program. Little known guys like Danny Spond, Kona Schwenke, Tate Nichols and Bruce Heggie had people wondering if the Irish hired college football’s Billy Beane, with Kelly and his crew willing to play college football’s version of Moneyball, looking for outliers and unearthing gems while filling the Irish’s roster.

Of course, the 2011 recruiting cycle did plenty to dismiss those notions. In reeling in mega-defensive recruits Aaron Lynch, Ishaq Williams and Stephon Tuitt, Kelly proved all sorts of preconceived notions wrong when he landed not one, but three recruits that seemed to evade Irish coaches for a better part of a decade.

With over 40 commitments to the Brian Kelly regime since they took over in South Bend, it makes sense to take a look at the way Kelly has started to reshape the Irish roster, and see if there are any patterns emerging after two recruiting cycles.

2010

Derek Roback, Big Skill — After being brought in with a transition to defense in mind, Roback couldn’t help but scratch the quarterback itch, and he transferred to Ohio. He’s now a tight end for the Bobcats.

Danny Spond, Big Skill — Another high school quarterback, Spond seemed like a safety at first look, but one year in he’s fighting for a starting job at outside linebacker.

Austin Collinsworth, Skill — Collinsworth came in a wide receiver, excelled in kick coverage and transitioned to safety this spring.

Kona Schwenke, Power — Plucked out of obscurity by Kelly and his staff, the Hawaiian transformed from a 215-pound tweener to a 285-pound defensive end.

Matt James, Power — Kelly’s first big recruiting win, the left tackle tragically passed away during a spring break accident before coming to campus.

Tate Nichols, Power — A jumbo tight end in high school, Nichols walked onto campus and spent his freshman year in the weight room, transforming into a 6-foot-8, 320-pound tackle.

Louis Nix, Power — Legendary for his commitment to Tony Alford and ND before a new head coach was ever hired, Nix has scary upside now that he’s committed to fitness during a redshirt season.

Luke Massa, Skill — Brought in to add depth to a thin quarterback position, Massa was the odd-man out in the spring QB derby, but impressed in his transition to wide receiver, flashing his athleticism and size.

Bruce Heggie, Power — Heggie came out of nowhere in recruiting, quite literally. With ND his first major offer, Heggie spent his freshman season as a redshirt, and now provides depth at defensive end.

***

While a guy like Roback didn’t last long in South Bend, Kelly immediately chased players that had the ability to fit in at multiple positions, with guys like Spond and Schwenke immediately blossoming into contributors as they rocketed up the depth chart. It’s hard to get a true feel for a football player after one year on campus, but Kelly’s main accomplishment in his first year of recruiting was bringing in physically capable players, adding bulk and athleticism to the front-seven, a widely recognized area of weakness for the Irish.

2011

George Atkinson, Skill — Walks onto campus as a hybrid wide receiver/running back.
Josh Atkinson, Skill — Adds depth and prototype size at cornerback.
Kyle Brindza, Specialist — Immediately competes at all three kicking spots.
Jalen Brown, Skill — Versatile DB that will add depth at cornerback.
Brad Carrico, Power — Transitioned to offensive line during spring practice after early enrolling.
Ben Councell, Big Skill — Promising linebacker shot up recruiting boards after All-Star games.
Davaris Daniels, Skill — Elite athlete that should be in the mix immediately at wide receiver.
Matthias Farley, Skill — Raw but powerful player that Kelly called sleeper of class.
Everett Golson, Skill — Dual threat QB already showed his promise during spring drills.
Jarrett Grace, Big Skill — Physical middle-linebacker prospect likely will redshirt.
Conor Hanratty, Power — Interior offensive line prospect can take time in development.
Eilar Hardy, Skill — Promising cornerback might be most highly-anticipated DB in class.
Matthew Hegarty, Power — Elite tackle recruit has great size and athleticism.
Chase Hounshell, Power — Former Florida commitment should come in at defensive end.
Ben Koyack, Big Skill — One of the best prep tight ends in the nation adds to Irish riches at TE.
Aaron Lynch, Power — One of the most anticipated freshman defenders in the nation.
Nick Martin, Power — Zack’s brother could also become a center or any position on the line.
Cam McDaniel, Skill — Prolific Texas athlete will help in both run game and on punt return.
Troy Niklas, Power — Another two-way prospect that has the frame and physicality needed.
Anthony Rabasa, Big Skill — Dynamic South Florida recruit that could surprise people immediately.
Tony Springmann, Power — Massive prospect can flip to the offensive line if needed.
Stephon Tuitt, Power — Gigantic freshman will be physically ready to compete as a freshman.
Ishaq Williams, Big Skill — Spring practice helped get this elite recruit comfortable at OLB.

***

On Signing Day in 2010 Kelly outlined his needs in the next recruiting class and then he went out and accomplished exactly what he said he would, reeling in multiple front-seven and power-position prospects while replenishing the roster at cornerback and wide receiver. We’ve only seen moments of Aaron Lynch, Everett Golson, Ishaq Williams and the other early enrolled freshmen, but it isn’t difficult to hypothesize some big things out of a very impressive defensive recruiting haul.

2012

Nicky Baratti, Skill — Physical safety also being recruited by many as a QB.
Scott Daly, Specialist — Long-snapper capable of taking over on both kicks and punts.
Ronald Darby, Skill — One of nation’s fastest recruits. Also elite cornerback prospect.
Taylor Decker, Power — Another massive lineman that profiles as a jumbo tackle.
Justin Ferguson, Skill — Big-time Florida wide receiver looks every bit the national recruit.
Deontay Greenberry, Skill — High-rising pass catcher that’s an instant match-up problem.
Mark Harrell, Power — Versatile offensive lineman that can play on both the interior and edge.
Romeo Okwara, Big Skill — Young prospect that could blossom into a 3-4 defensive end.
David Perkins, Big Skill — Local product is a physically gifted recruit that could play anywhere.
CJ Prosise, Skill — Safety prospect that adds size and toughness to back end of defense.
Tee Shepard, Skill — Tall and lanky cornerback one of the top recruits in the West.
John Turner, Skill — Big strong safety that proved he can run in space at ND camp.

***

The Irish spent much of the 2011 season playing two scholarship safeties, a roster imbalance that was magnified after early season injuries to Jamoris Slaughter and Danny McCarthy. Kelly has targeted physical safeties that can run, bringing in CJ Prosise, a hard-hitting 200-pound safety that finished second in the state 100 meters and John Turner, another big body that proved he could run at Notre Dame’s camp. Nicky Baratti fits the mold perfectly as well. In David Perkins, Kelly has shown he’s willing to go outside the mold if an athlete displays an exceptional trait, and Perkins’ performance at The Opening displayed the athleticism that made a scholarship offer a no-brainer. If you’re looking for what life could be like after Michael Floyd, look at Deontay Greenberry, a walking mismatch that’s raw but could be a red-zone specialist immediately.

***

Kelly’s recruiting categories caught notice, bringing in players not based on a specific position, but in three different distinctions: Power, Big Skill, and Skill. With guys like Brad Carrico, Bennett Jackson and Austin Collinsworth, it meant a switch to a different side of the ball. For guys like Kona Schwenke, he built himself into a different position grouping.

Here’s a look at Kelly’s recruits by grouping.

POWER (15 recruits)

Defensive Line: Kona Schwenke (DE), Louis Nix (NT), Bruce Heggie (DE), Chase Hounshell (DE or OT), Aaron Lynch (DE), Troy Niklas (DE or OT), Tony Springmann (DE or OT), Stephon Tuitt (DE).

Offensive Line: Tate Nichols (OT), Matt James (OT), Brad Carrico, (G/T), Conor Hanratty (G), Nick Martin (T/C), Taylor Decker (OT), Mark Harrell (G).

BIG SKILL (10 recruits)

Derek Roback (TE), Danny Spond (OLB), Justin Utupo (ILB), Ben Councell (OLB), Jarrett Grace (ILB), Ben Koyack (TE), Anthony Rabasa (OLB), Ishaq Williams (OLB), Romeo Okwara (OLB), David Perkins (OLB).

SKILL (17 recruits)

Offense: Luke Massa (QB/WR), George Atkinson (WR/RB), Davaris Daniels (WR), Matthias Farley (WR), Everett Golson (QB), Cam McDaniel (RB), Justin Ferguson (WR), Deontay Greenberry (WR).

Defense: Austin Collinsworth (S), Josh Atkinson (CB), Jalen Brown (CB), Eilar Hardy, (CB), Nicky Baratti (S), Ronald Darby (CB), CJ Prosise (S), Tee Shepard (CB), John Turner (S).

***

While you’d expect Kelly’s emphasis on power and big skill positions to be in stark contrast from Charlie Weis’ recruiting targets, the differences are noticeable, but subtle. Kelly has brought in more power players, Weis actually brought in more players that’d be categorized as “big skill,” while they’ve both targeted a similar ratio of skill players.

That said, where you notice the difference immediately is in physical size. Many of the recruits Charlie Weis brought in wouldn’t be on the Irish’s recruiting board. Sure, a guy like Darius Fleming — who doesn’t have idea size at Cat linebacker — would probably have flashed enough potential to have the Irish staff take a shot on him. (David Perkins is a perfect example.) But the largest difference in roster structure is the size of the power and big skill players, specifically on the defensive side of the ball.  The Irish brought in 13 players that are reportedly 6-foot-4 or bigger in 2011. No recruiting class under Charlie Weis had more than eight. Nobody will mistake football for basketball, but it seems as if Kelly is confident he can build a physically capable football player once he gets his hands on them. He knows that he can’t grow them.

It’s dangerous to reach conclusions on recruiting classes when most of the players we’ve discussed have yet to play a down for the Fighting Irish. But after taking a closer look at the construction of Brian Kelly’s roster, you notice the subtle and stark differences in his philosophy toward building a football team.

 

Live Video Mailbag: 40-year decision, more BVG, freshmen and more

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We’ve done plenty of mailbags, but this is our first shot at a Live Video Mailbag. This should be a better way to answer more questions and hopefully interact with a few of you as we try to work off some of yesterday’s Super Bowl snacks.

Topics on the list: The 40-year decision, more Brian VanGorder talk, the incoming (and redshirt) freshmen and a whole lot more.

***

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.”