Danny Spond

Recipe for success: Analyzing the Kelly recruits


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.


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.


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.


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.


Evaluating VanGorder’s scheme against the option

ANNAPOLIS, MD - SEPTEMBER 19:  Keenan Reynolds #19 of the Navy Midshipmen rushes for his fifth touchdown in the fourth quarter against the East Carolina Pirates during their 45-21 win on September 19, 2015 in Annapolis, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Notre Dame’s ability to slow down Georgia Tech’s vaunted option attack served as one of the high points to the Irish’s early season success. After spending a considerable amount of offseason energy towards attacking the option and learning more, watching the Irish hold the Yellow Jackets in check was a huge victory for Brian VanGorder, Bob Elliott and the rest of Notre Dame’s staff.

But it was only half the battle.

This weekend, Keenan Reynolds and Navy’s veteran offense come to town looking to wreak some havoc on a defense that’s struggled to slow it down. And after getting a look at some of the new tricks the Irish had in store for Paul Johnson, Ken Niumatalolo and his offensive coaches have likely started plotting their counterpunches days in advance.

How did Notre Dame’s defense slow down Georgia Tech? Brian Kelly credited an aggressive game plan and continually changing looks. So while some were quick to wonder whether Notre Dame’s scheme changes were the biggest piece of the puzzle, it’s interesting to see how the Irish’s strategic decisions looked from the perspective of an option expert.

Over at “The Birddog” blog, Michael James utilizes his spread option expertise and takes a look at how the Irish defended Georgia Tech. His conclusion:

Did the Irish finally figure out the magic formula that will kill this gimmick high school offense for good?

Not exactly.

The Irish played a fairly standard 4-3 for a large chunk of the game. James thought Notre Dame’s move to a 3-5-3 was unique, though certainly not the first time anybody’s used that alignment.

But what stood out wasn’t necessarily the Xs and Os, but rather how much better Notre Dame’s personnel reacted to what they were facing.

Again, from the Birddog Blog:

The real story here, and what stood out to me when watching Notre Dame play Georgia Tech, was how much faster the Irish played compared to past years. I don’t mean that they are more athletic, although this is considered to be the best Notre Dame team in years. I mean that they reacted far more quickly to what they saw compared to what they’ve done in the past.

Usually, when a team plays a spread option offense, one of the biggest challenges that defensive coordinators talk about is replicating the offense’s speed and precision. It’s common to hear them say that it takes a series or two to adjust. That was most certainly not the case here.

James referenced our Media Day observations and seemed impressed by the decision to bring in walk-on Rob Regan to captain what’s now known as the SWAG team. And while VanGorder’s reputation as a mad scientist had many Irish fans wondering if the veteran coordinator cooked something up that hadn’t been seen, it was more a trait usually associated with Kelly that seems to have made the biggest difference.

“It wasn’t that the game plan was so amazing (although it was admittedly more complex and aggressive than we’ve seen out of other Notre Dame teams),” James wrote. “It was plain ol’ coachin’ ’em up.

“Notre Dame’s players were individually more prepared for what they’d see. Notre Dame is already extremely talented, but talented and prepared? You can’t adjust for that. That’s more challenging for Navy than any game plan.”

Irish prepared to take on the best Navy team in years


Brian Kelly opens every Tuesday press conference with compliments for an opponent. But this week, it was easy to see that his kind words for Navy were hardly lip service.

Ken Niumatalolo will bring his most veteran—and probably his most talented—group of Midshipmen into Notre Dame Stadium, looking to hand the Irish their first loss in the series since Kelly’s debut season in South Bend.

“Ken Niumatalolo has done an incredible job in developing his program and currently carrying an eight-game winning streak,” Kelly said. “I voted for them in USA Today Top 25 as a top-25 team. I think they’ve earned that. But their defense as well has developed. It’s played the kind of defense that I think a top 25 team plays.”

With nine months of option preparation, Notre Dame needs to feel confident about their efforts against Georgia Tech. Then again, the Midshipmen saw that game plan and likely have a few tricks in store.

As much as the Irish have focused their efforts on stopping Keenan Reynolds and the triple-option, Navy’s much-improved defense is still looking for a way to slow down a team that’s averaged a shade over 48 points a game against them the last four seasons.

Niumatalolo talked about that when asked about slowing down Will Fuller and Notre Dame’s skill players, an offense that’s averaged over 48 points a game during this four-game win streak.

“We’ve got to try our best to keep [Fuller] in front of us, that’s easier said than done,” Niumatalolo said. “We’ve got to play as close as we can without their guys running past us. I’ve been here a long time and we’re still trying to figure out how to do that.”


Navy heads to South Bend unbeaten, defeating former Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco‘s team just two Saturdays ago. And while Diaco raised a few eyebrows when he said Navy would be the team’s toughest test of the year (they already played a ranked Missouri team), the head of the UConn program couldn’t have been more effusive in his praise.

“I have been competing against Navy for some time and this is the best Navy team I have seen for, let’s say the last half-dozen years,” UConn coach Bob Diaco told the New Haven Register. “I could click on footage from three years ago and see a lion’s share of players who are playing right now in the game as freshmen and sophomores. They have a veteran group, a strong group, a talented group and they look like the stiffest competition among our first four opponents.”

As usual, there will be those who look at this game as the breather between Clemson and USC. That won’t be anybody inside The Gug. So as the Irish try to get back to their winning ways in front of a home crowd, a complete team effort is needed.

“I’ll take a win by one,” Kelly said Tuesday. “That would be fine with me.”