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.

 

Path to the draft: Ronnie Stanley

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 28:  Ronnie Stanley of Notre Dame holds up a jersey with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell after being picked #6 overall by the Baltimore Ravens during the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University on April 28, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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Your name didn’t have to be Mel Kiper or Mike Mayock to understand that from the moment Jaylon Smith stepped foot on campus at Notre Dame he was destined to be an early-round NFL draft pick. But as the dust settles on the Irish’s impressive 2016 draft haul, a look back at the developmental process of the team’s seven draft picks serves as a wonderful testament to Brian Kelly and the program he has built.

Notre Dame’s draftees come in all shapes and sizes. Fifth-year seniors like Nick Martin. Three-and-out stars like Jaylon Smith and Will Fuller. Consistent four-year performers like Sheldon Day and one-year wonders like C.J. Prosise.

But each followed a unique path to the NFL, one that was fostered by a coaching staff that allowed each athlete to develop at their own pace and ascend into a role where an NFL team thought highly enough to select each player in the first 103 picks of the draft.

Let’s take a trip down (recent) memory lane, as we connect the dots from recruitment, development and playing career as we look at Notre Dame’s seven success stories.

 

Ronnie Stanley
No. 6 overall to Baltimore Ravens

The first offensive lineman selected in the 2016 draft, Stanley’s recruitment saw the Irish find their first bit of success at Bishop Gorman High School, leading the way to Nicco Fertitta and Alizé Jones. A four-star prospect who hovered between a Top 100 and Top 250 player depending on the evaluation, Stanley was invited to the Semper Fidelis All-Star game, a second-tier game that all but signified his status outside of the elite, at least on the recruiting circuit.

That’s not how Notre Dame’s coaching staff felt about him, though.

“He’s probably as gifted of an offensive linemen that we have seen in many years,” Kelly said on Signing Day in 2012.

Stanley proved early that Kelly wasn’t blowing smoke. He saw the field in 2012’s first two games, earning reps against Navy and Michigan before he suffered an elbow injury that allowed him to save a year of eligibility.

But even offseason surgery didn’t prevent Stanley from stepping into the starting lineup, flipping to right tackle and playing 13 games in a very successful sophomore campaign across from first rounder Zack Martin.

Even though Stanley was blossoming into one of college football’s best players, we still openly wondered who would slide to fill Martin’s left tackle spot. (That’s how it goes with offensive linemen, their work only truly appreciated by those with either inside information or a coach’s eye of evaluation.)

In his opening comments before spring practice in 2014, Kelly named Steve Elmer, Christian Lombard and Mike McGlinchey as candidates along with Stanley, so it wasn’t necessarily a lock for the staff yet either. But it took just a few practices for the Las Vegas native to solidify his spot on the left side.

Stanley’s first season at left tackle was so solid that some wondered if there’d be two. While some of the online analysts saw Stanley as a potentially elite draft pick, the NFL Advisory Board came back with a second-round grade, perhaps all Stanley needed as he made his decision to stick around for his senior season. Still, Notre Dame took no chance. Kelly, Harry Hiestand and Jack Swarbrick traveled to Las Vegas to sell Stanley on the virtues of a final season in South Bend.

It worked. With a healthy offseason and weight-room gains needed, Stanley stuck to the script and played a mostly anonymous 2015 season. That was a very good thing—only along the offensive line can All-American honors and being named Offensive Player of the Year be considered ho-hum.

Add in the vanilla off-the-field life, and an elite academic profile that’s a comfort to teams investing millions in a potential cornerstone, Stanley’s placement as a Top 10 pick should have never been in doubt. While he lacked the dominance at Notre Dame that we saw from Zack Martin, he possesses athleticism and a body that Martin wasn’t given—a big reason the Cowboys shifted him inside to guard from day one.

Picked instead of Laremy Tunsil amidst a bizarre scenario that’ll go down as one of the draft’s cautionary tales, John Harbaugh talked openly about his relationship with Harry Hiestand and the comfort that came from Notre Dame’s offensive line coach as they pulled the trigger on Stanley. And Stanley, almost epitomizing that faith that the Ravens showed, all but embodied that when he told Joe Flacco in his first visit to Baltimore that he celebrated his selection by heading back to his hotel room and going to sleep.

Counted on by Baltimore to be a key piece of the puzzle as the Ravens look to rebuild an offensive line tasked with protecting a franchise quarterback in his prime, now it’s up to Notre Dame’s highest draft pick since Rick Mirer to continue his ascent.

Five Irish players sign UFA contracts

Matthias Farley
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Notre Dame had seven players selected in the 2016 NFL Draft, trailing only Ohio State, Clemson and UCLA on the weekend tally. But after the draft finished, the Irish had five more players get their shot at playing on Sundays.

Chris Brown signed with the Dallas Cowboys. Romeo Okwara will begin his career with the New York Giants. Matthias Farley and Amir Carlisle signed contracts with the Arizona Cardinal. Elijah Shumate agreed to a contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

After missing two seasons, Ishaq Williams will be at Giants rookie camp next weekend as well, working as a tryout player. Expect Jarrett Grace to receive similar opportunities.

Count me among those that thought both Brown and Okwara would hear their names called. Brown’s senior season, not to mention his intriguing measureables, had some projecting him as early as the fifth round.

Okwara, still 20 years old and fresh off leading Notre Dame in sacks in back-to-back seasons, intrigued a lot of teams with his ability to play both defensive end and outside linebacker. He’ll get a chance to make the Giants—the team didn’t draft a defensive end after selecting just one last year, and they’re in desperate need of pass rushers.

Both Shumate and Farley feel like contenders to earn a spot on rosters, both because of their versatility and special teams skills. Shumate played nickel back as a freshman and improved greatly at safety during 2015. Farley bounced around everywhere and was Notre Dame’s special teams captain.

Carlisle might fit a similar mold. He played running back, receiver and returned kicks and punts throughout his college career. With a 4.4 during Notre Dame’s Pro Day, he likely showed the Cardinals enough to take a shot, and now he’ll join an offense with Michael Floyd and Troy Niklas.

 

Robertson picks Cal over Notre Dame, UGA

Demetris Robertson
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Demetris Robertson‘s decision wasn’t trending in Notre Dame’s direction. But those that expected the Savannah star athlete to pick the in-state Bulldogs were in for a surprise when Robertson chose Cal on Sunday afternoon.

Notre Dame’s pursuit of the five-star athlete, recruited to play outside receiver and hopefully replace Will Fuller, likely ended Sunday afternoon with Robertson making the surprise decision to take his substantial talents to Berkeley. And give credit to Robertson for doing what he said all along—picking a school that’ll give him the chance to earn an exceptional education and likely contribute from Day One.

“I am excited to take my talents to the University of California, Berkeley. The first reason is that the education was a big part of my decision. I wanted to keep that foundation,” Robertson said, per CFT. “When I went there, it felt like home. Me and the coaching staff have a great relationship. That’s where I felt were the best of all things for me.”

Adding one final twist in all of this is that Robertson has no letter-of-intent to sign. Because he’s blown three months through Signing Day, Robertson merely enrolls at a college when the time comes. That means until then, Kirby Smart and the Georgia staff will continue to sell Robertson on staying home and helping the Dawgs rebuild. Smart visited with Robertson Saturday night and had multiple assistant coaches at his track meet this weekend.

Summer school begins in June for Notre Dame. Their freshman receiving class looks complete with early enrollee Kevin Stepherson and soon-to-arrive pass-catchers Javon McKinley and Chase Claypool.

Sheldon Day drafted in 4th round by Jaguars

North Carolina v Notre Dame
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Former Notre Dame captain Sheldon Day didn’t have to wait long on Saturday to hear his name called. The Indianapolis native, All-American, and the Irish’s two-time defensive lineman of the year was pick number 103, the fourth pick of the fourth round on Saturday afternoon.

Day was the seventh Irish player drafted, following first rounders Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller, second round selections Jaylon Smith and Nick Martin, and third rounders KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise.

Day has a chance to contribute as he joins the 24th-ranked defense in the league. Joining a draft class heavy on defensive players—Jalen Ramsey, Myles Jack and Yannick Ngakoue already picked ahead of him—the front seven will also include last year’s No. 3 overall pick Dante Fowler, who missed the entire season with a knee injury.

Scouted by the Jaguars at the Senior Bowl, Day doesn’t necessarily have the size to be a traditional defensive tackle. But under Gus Bradley’s attacking system (Bradley coordinated the Seahawks defense for four seasons), Day will find a niche and a role in a young defense that’s seen a heavy investment the past two years.