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.

 

Irish A-to-Z: Jonathan Bonner

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After two seasons of limited duty, there’s a road to the field for Jonathan Bonner. The rising junior, who spent last year mostly watching and learning as Brian VanGorder and Keith Gilmore played a skeleton rotation, has a chance to break into a position group that’s searching for answers that Bonner seems well-suited to provide.

But Bonner also plays behind the team’s best defensive lineman, with senior Isaac Rochell poised to anchor the front seven. So as the rising junior moves into his third season in South Bend, he’ll need to show a versatile set of skills to get onto the field.

 

JONATHAN BONNER
6’3″, 286 lbs.
Junior, No. 55, DL

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Bonner may not have been a highly-touted recruit, but he was just starting to rack up impressive offers when he pledged to Notre Dame. Bonner earned a scholarship offer at every summer camp he attended, and his commitment to the Irish came after he dominated some of the best offensive line prospects in the country at Notre Dame’s summer camp.

An All-State performer and the defensive player of the year in St. Louis. Also a more than impressive student-athlete, with a note he wrote to himself as a grade schooler a pretty incredible piece of maturity.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Did not see action.

Sophomore Season (2015): Played in 10 games, making 10 tackles and notching one sack. Played a season-high 39 snaps along the defensive line in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State. Saw double-digit snaps against Texas, UMass, Wake Forest and Boston College.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

This seems pretty solid.

I’m buying Bonner’s future, though I’m a little less sure that he’ll break loose in 2015. With Isaac Rochell capable of being a frontline player, Bonner getting on the field might mean Rochell’s off of it, which I just don’t see happening too often.

But if there’s a beauty to Brian VanGorder’s defense—at least when it’s playing like it did the first half of the season—it’s the ability to mix and match. And if there’s no way to find Bonner a role in this defense, especially as the Irish try to find someone to come off the edge, then it’s more on the young prospect’s knowledge base than anything a coaching staff can do.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

This might not be a make or break season for Bonner, especially since he’s got a fifth year available. But I think it could be. With the opportunity to provide a disruption from the interior of the defensive line, Bonner needs to find a home in a position group that could use a versatile defender who can both hold up at the point of attack and get to the quarterback.

Bonner started at outside linebacker, but quickly moved to the front four. Last year’s progress was slowed by a turf toe injury in April, short-circuiting a sold spring. There wasn’t a lot of opportunity to contribute in 2015, but there was certainly a need for someone to provide a pass rush and Bonner wasn’t given that chance—something that speaks to where he was as a developmental prospect last year.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I think Bonner will find a niche on the inside or third downs, considering neither Jerry Tillery nor Jarron Jones look like pass rush threats. That could kick open a spot for Bonner on the inside, or it could allow him to play at the strong side if Rochell slides inside.

Of course, that’s mostly determined by Bonner, who has flashed talent and athleticism, but hasn’t translated that to the field yet. Some think Bonner is one of the most intriguing athletes on the roster, and he’s certainly one of the team’s better workout warriors. But that needs to transition to the football field with some productivity, a key development piece for Keith Gilmore and a uncertain front four.

Bonner spoke with confidence this spring that his knowledge base was now matching his skill-set. If he’s able to put everything together, he could be a very nice complementary piece to the front four.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship

Jarrett Grace signs FA contract with Chicago Bears

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 5: Jarrett Grace #59 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in action during a game against the Texas Longhorns at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Texas 38-3. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Former Notre Dame linebacker Jarrett Grace has signed with the Chicago Bears. The former Rockne Award winner will continue his improbable return from a devastating leg injury during OTAs and training camp, fighting for a roster spot on the NFC North squad.

Grace worked out for the Bears at a tryout camp and Chicago made the roster move official Wednesday, signing Grace and releasing linebacker Danny Mason.

After redshirting as a freshman and sitting behind Manti Te’o, Grace moved into the starting lineup as a junior and led the Irish in tackles before suffering a severe leg injury against Arizona State. It took nearly two years for Grace to return to duty, needing to re-learn how to run as he underwent multiple procedures to repair the rod that held Grace’s bone in place.

He played in 32 games for the Irish, finishing with 78 total tackles.

Irish A-to-Z: Grant Blankenship

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Notre Dame’s junior defensive end has an unclear status entering his third season in the program. Suspended by Brian Kelly this spring after playing minimal snaps as a sophomore, the Texas native already had an unclear path to the field even before you consider his status as a member of the team and student at the university.

After playing in 11 games as a true freshman, Blankenship struggled to make progress after adding the mass needed to play on the strong side. With the depth chart at defensive end already in question, Blankenship is a true unknown entering 2016.

 

GRANT BLANKENSHIP
6’5″, 278
Junior, No. 92, DE

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A late-riser on the recruiting scene, Blankenship turned down an offer from Charlie Strong to stick with his commitment to Notre Dame, his favorite program as a child. An early target by former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, and he stuck with Notre Dame even after Diaco departed for UConn.

Not highly rated, Blankenship fell outside the 250 recruits on 247’s composite.

 

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Played in 11 games, making 12 tackles including one TFL. Didn’t play against Navy or LSU. Made three tackles against Syracuse.

Sophomore Season (2015): Appeared in three games, making one assisted tackle. Played a season-high 10 snaps against UMass.

 

WHAT WE PROJECTED LAST YEAR

Blankenship’s participation took a step backwards. He looked like a potential redshirt until he played in garbage time. Partial credit, at best. Nobody gave Rochell and Day a break.

It’s too hard to project Blankenship as a 30-snap-a-game contributor. But if he’s forced into action, the experience he got last season will come in handy. More likely, Blankenship will be part of an expanded front seven depth chart, and will make it easier to keep guys like Isaac Rochell and Sheldon Day fresh.

As a second-year player, he and Andrew Trumbetti have a chance to both make big steps forward this season. If either can help a pass rush that needs to win more from base packages, it’ll be huge for the defense. Expect new defensive line coach Keith Gilmore to get this through to Blankenship, who likely derives fuel from being overlooked, something he certainly was last season.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

We’ll know a lot more about Blankenship’s future when the Irish enroll in summer school. If he’s there, it’ll signal that there’s a road back onto the team. If not, it’ll be another washout at defensive end, a position that’s been very difficult to keep together.

At this point, barring some remarkable change to his production or the depth chart, there doesn’t look like much of a road to playing time for Blankenship, at least not with Isaac Rochell on the roster in front of him.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Very unclear.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Blankenship was a part of a different program come next fall or buried on the depth chart at Notre Dame. The one reason for optimism is the position he plays. There’s opportunity at defensive end, especially if you can rush the passer.

Blankenship hasn’t show that ability yet. Part of that came from gaining a ton of weight between his freshman and sophomore seasons. The other part of it was scheme—he was recruited by Bob Diaco to play a different type of end.

Let’s get Blankenship out of the doghouse and back onto the field before we look for optimism.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin

 

This week’s episode of Blown Coverage features me pitching John Walters on the perfect three-year solution for Notre Dame’s QB conundrum. And a bunch of other stuff. Enjoy. 

Even with talent drain, Irish can be CFB Playoff contender

LANDOVER, MD - NOVEMBER 01: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks on from the sidelines during the first half against the Navy Midshipmen at FedExField on November 1, 2014 in Landover, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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Brian Kelly’s next football team might have less talent than the group that produced seven of the first 103 picks in the NFL Draft. But it might have a better chance to make it to the College Football Playoff.

It’s a trendy thought lately. The kind of thing you do when it’s May and we’re still a long way away from any football this fall.

But there’s good reason to be bullish on the Irish. And SBNation’s Bill Connelly providing the thinking man’s rationale for the optimism last week when he unveiled his preview of the 2016 Fighting Irish.

The entire preview is very much worth your time, but here’s the synopsis:

  • Brian Kelly is an excellent coach. (Sorry complainers.)
  • Whoever wins the quarterback job is going to be really good.
  • An offensive line that’ll reload.
  • Tons of skill talent.
  • A defense trending in the right direction.
  • A good close game team.
  • A schedule that’s more conducive to winning.

Again, go read the article. (You’ll be smarter for it.) But after crunching many of the variables, here’s Connelly’s mighty optimistic conclusion:

There isn’t a sure loss on the schedule. In fact, there’s only one game in which Notre Dame has a worse than 59 percent chance of winning. But operating in close games will be critical. That means finding go-to receivers for the quarterback in times of need, continued quality from Yoon, and a defense that improves up front despite turnover and holds steady in the back despite freshmen on the two-deep.

All of the “ifs” are realistic, and while the defense still has plenty to prove, I’m not going to doubt Kelly after last year. If I had a poll vote — and thank goodness I don’t — I would seriously consider Notre Dame in the preseason top five.

With Notre Dame’s two regular-season losses coming in the final moments of road games to top-five teams, this isn’t the type of “Here Come the Irish” headline that invaded our psyche and ruined the enjoyment of seasons under Bob Davie, Ty Willingham or Charlie Weis, the later still finding his way into the schlock headlines thanks to Notre Dame’s latest tax return release.

But Brian Kelly’s consistency has turned proclamations like Connelly’s into a decidedly uninteresting one. And at the same time that we go inch-by-inch through the roster, it’s helpful to see what the Irish look like from a 30,000-foot view—a better vantage point to evaluate progress than the perch most of us inhabit.

So while all previews in May expire by the time the calendar hits August, let’s go through the bullet points (as appropriated by me, not Connelly) just to add to the discussion.

 

Brian Kelly: elite coach. (No question mark) 

Right now, that’s a fairly undeniable assertion. And for those of you who’ll haggle about the definition of elite or harken back to a two-point conversion chart or the selection of the team’s defensive coordinator, this might be the best question to ask yourself: “After Nick Saban and Urban Meyer, who else do you want running your program?”

 

The quarterback battle.

If there’s something that I find reassuring, it’s the fact that Connelly hasn’t lost the plot on this. Whoever wins the quarterback battle will play at a very high level. Or they won’t play at all.

As Kelly, Mike Denbrock and Mike Sanford showed last season, the Irish will coach up a quarterback and get very productive play out of them. (Unlike what happened at Ohio State last year.) And with Brandon Wimbush putting the redshirt on, Notre Dame has one of the country’s most dangerous weapons waiting in the wings.

 

The offensive line should be good again.

Remember all those data-driven pieces about minutes-played correlating to excellent offensive line play? I still believe them. But I also think the Irish will produce a very, very productive offensive line even with three new starters, thanks to two starting NFL linemen on the left side of their center and Alex Bars likely on his way, too.

 

Those skill players? They’ll be good.  

I’m bullish on the ground game. I’m high on the young talent in the secondary. And I’ll give the benefit of the doubt to a receiving corps that I think is still a little more unsorted than I’d guess this staff wants.

Torii Hunter should lead the unit. After that, I’m not sure what to expect.

The move of Alizé Jones to the “W” (boundary side) receiver gives you an idea that this staff is preparing to go forward if Corey Robinson steps away from the game because of concussions. It also might point to an offensive direction that’s more similar to 2012, a physical approach that could put more tight ends on the field and would allow the Irish to lean on a very strong running game and a quarterback who’ll be able to take deep shots down the field.

 

The Defense?

How you improve after losing headliners like Sheldon Day, Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt, Elijah Shumate and KeiVarae Russell is hard to comprehend. But I think this unit will have more versatility, as injuries and certain personnel limitations really hamstrung a unit that was maddeningly inconsistent at times.

Can they improve against the run? I think the answer starts with Jarron Jones and Jerry Tillery, two stout guys who’ll hold up in the trenches in front of Nyles Morgan. That’ll serve as the critical building block to the scheme, with pieces added and subtracted to make sure the Irish can be multiple and match-up with opponents on a weekly basis.

I’m punting on this topic (for now), while acknowledging that improvement on this side of the football is critical to success and the biggest unknown heading into the season.

 

Good play in tight games

Remember those heart-stopping finishes in the Weis era? Or that dreadful feeling you got every time a game got close and an opponent mounted a comeback?

For some, it’ll never go away. But under Brian Kelly, the Irish have been a very good close game team—even considering the two tight losses last year.

I appreciate the comparison Connelly made in his piece to a baseball team with a good bullpen. When the Irish have been at their best, they’ve been able to control the game late with solid quarterback play, a dependable running game and a defense that held up.

Justin Yoon and Tyler Newsome play an important part in this process, too. The specialist duo will help control field position and make critical kicks, with Yoon putting together a really respectable freshman season and Newsome showcasing a booming leg.

 

The Schedule

I haven’t fully dug into the intricacies of the schedule, but just at face value it’s a much less daunting climb that years past. The Irish get Michigan State and Stanford at home (and under the lights) and replace Clemson with North Carolina State. Army comes back onto the schedule and Navy loses the majority of its team, including star Keenan Reynolds.

There is no shortage of coaching pedigree that Brian Kelly will face. Mark Richt, David Cutcliffe, and some young rising talent like Justin Fuente and Clay Helton in a regular season finale in Los Angeles.

But you can only win the games you play, and you can only play the teams on your schedule. (Thanks, Yogi.) As Connelly mentioned, there’s no “sure loss” on this slate, and I think Notre Dame will be favored every time they take the field next year.