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Recipe for success: Analyzing the Kelly recruits

Jul 13, 2011, 2:17 PM EDT

Danny Spond

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.


  1. nudeman - Jul 13, 2011 at 2:33 PM

    Agree completely that it’s premature to get TOO excited about these guys. But if there’s one thing in the above story that stands out to me, it’s this: “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”

    Just seems to me that the Irish got, among other things, “out physical-ed” during the Weis years. Of course they were also out conditioned and out schemed. But Kelly seems to understand this is a game about knocking someone on their ass first, unlike the Schematic Advantage guy.

  2. bradwins - Jul 13, 2011 at 2:57 PM

    Excellent job, here, Keith.

  3. mrtyj - Jul 13, 2011 at 6:53 PM

    Excellent read…GO IRISH!

  4. tlndma - Jul 13, 2011 at 11:28 PM

    Rees, Hendrix, Shembo, Moore any others missing?

    • Keith Arnold - Jul 14, 2011 at 4:55 PM

      TLNDMA — They weren’t KELLY recruits. They were WEIS recruits.

  5. 1historian - Jul 14, 2011 at 11:50 AM

    Excellent piece Keith.

    Nudeman – “I agree completely that it’s premature to get TOO excited about these guys.”


    But it’s IMPOSSIBLE not to.

  6. alsatiannd - Jul 14, 2011 at 1:09 PM

    Reminds me of going to the Nevada game, the 2009 home opener and Weis’s last season. I got a good spot on South Quad to watch the team walk over to the stadium. Now, I’m 5-’10” on a good day and I remember thinking, “That’s weird. Not many of them are bigger than me.”

  7. 1historian - Jul 14, 2011 at 2:29 PM

    Nudeman – your quote “this is a game about knocking them on their ass first.”

    Well said.

    It would follow that if all of the opposing 11 are knocked on their ass the 11 good guys would have the advantage.

    I like that

    • nudeman - Jul 15, 2011 at 10:28 AM

      Yes, this simple concept demonstrates that Kelly understands how to build a team, where Weis thought he could outscheme everybody. Frankly, I never saw anything the least bit interesting or “wow” in nature about Weis’s offenses. Yes, they threw the ball all over the place. And yes, they destroyed Hawaii and their 127th ranked pass defense in the Hula Bowl But I have zero memories of an Irish running back running right while the entire defense ran to the left.

      “Out-ego-d” maybe, but not out-schemed.

      Anyway, that comment about “knocking someone on their ass” is semi-borrowed from Mike Ditka when he took over the Bears. They had for years taken “great athletes” in the draft, and he said “we need some guys who can play football and knock you on your ass; not run a 9.3 100 dash”.

      • 1historian - Jul 16, 2011 at 7:37 AM

        Nudeman (LOVE that handle)- with all respect –

        ‘Knocking someone on their ass’ has been the essence of football since day one. Mike Ditka did not invent the concept or the phrase. Having played the game myself (not well) I can remember how much fun it is – being either the knocker or the knockee.

        It is frequently said that the game is won up front and this is true – it’s a game of physical domination and knocking someone on his ass helps.

      • 1notredamefan - Jul 16, 2011 at 6:53 PM

        All this nude man and ass talk…….startin to worry me;)

      • nudeman - Jul 16, 2011 at 8:48 PM


        Mike Ditka didn’t event the concept of knocking guys on their ass. Just a reference point for me as an ardent Bears fan who got tired of them drafting great athletes in the 70s and winning 5 games/year.

        Ditka understands football. Kelly understands football.

        Ditka won a SB. Kelly will take the Irish back to the top. Nothing about what he’s done makes me more confident than his recruiting for the OL/DL. The guy knows football.

        I love the Bears and I love the Irish.

      • ftnirish - Jul 27, 2011 at 11:30 AM

        This has been my biggest bone of contention with the past regimes. I have been so tired of sitting on my couch Saturday after Saturday watching by beloved Irish getting smacked in the mouth & not responding (Save the Zibby’s & McCarthy’s…). I BELIEVE that football game is still one by the biggest beast. The bigger the game, the more the need for the beast. IMHO.

  8. ndgoldandblue - Jul 16, 2011 at 12:10 AM

    I agree that this last recruiting year was fantastic. And I thought that this recruiting year was getting off to a great start, but I’m starting to think that I was wrong. I just checked Rivals, and Michigan already has 20 verbal commitments for next year, and 10 of those 20 commitments are 4-star recruits. If Notre Dame has any plans on beating Michigan regularly (which has clearly not been the case lately), they need to out-recruit them. That may have happened last year, but it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen this year. You can’t let a program like Michigan out-recruit you if you plan to beat them. They already have so many issues to deal with, but they are out-recruiting Notre Dame? BK…I love ya’, man. And I love the fact that you brought in some blue-chippers last year. But you have to do this on a regular basis. Texas never has problems with bringing in blue-chippers. They line up to get recruited by Texas. So Keith, my question is, do you believe that BK can bring in these top-tier recruits on a yearly basis, or was last year just a fluke? If he can bring in these players every year, Notre Dame will get back to the upper-echelon on college football again. If his plan is to develop the RKG’s (outstanding young men that they are), he won’t get there. Trust me, I have all the appreciation in the world for the RKG’s. I was an RKG when I was in high school. I worked harder than anyone else on my team, and I was a great student and a gentleman off the field. But all of those things didn’t keep me from being an above-average player with no future in college football outside of the juco level. I’m proud of the RKG’s because they will make fantastic citizens of this country, and they will be the ones to lead us into the future, in all arenas. But the RKG’s don’t always become great football players. And I don’t care how good of a player developer Brian Kelly says he is, he’s not a magician. Certain players can only be developed so far, and then they hit their ceiling. We need to find guys that have a higher ceiling…guys that have proven before that they are worthy of the accolades that Rivals and ESPN puts on them. After all, if every major recruiting service thinks that a guy is a 5-star talent, it can’t be a coincidence. They must be doing something right. Let’s bring those guys in…every year.

    • 1historian - Jul 16, 2011 at 7:42 AM

      If I remember correctly ND didn’t get the BIG guns of this recruiting class until summer. Not to worry – there are 6 1/2 months to go.

    • paiten34 - Jul 16, 2011 at 7:55 AM

      Ndgoldandblue- first things first. Comparing Texas to any other program is just not fair. Texas is the top football state in the country. UT is the number 1 school in that state. Even with all that talent Texas can still have a season like they did last year. Now for ND and Michigan. Many of ND top recruits last year came just before signing day. That means that these early returns mean nothing. The two schools need completely different things from this next class. Michigan needs to rebuild their whole team. They’re changing coaches and with that changing styles of play. ND is just trying to build off of a good returning team and replace leaving players. So Michigan will most likely need bigger recruiting class than ND for the next two years.

      You’re right championship teams are built around star players but RKG’s win titles. I played college ball and now coach high school football. Star players draw double and triple teams but it’s the RKG that makes the plays off the double teams. A team of 55 players at best has maybe 5 star players. The rest are RKG or average type players. What made ND was not the stars but the average players that played above their talent level. Yes you need stars but you also need RKG. What I like about BK is that he has a proven record of getting the best out of his players. You’re right that the ceiling of stars is much higher but you can also get players who have reached their ceiling at the age of 18. Some stars only dominate because they’re bigger and faster than the kids they played against in high school. Some RKG players grow and develop into good players in college. Bottom line in BK has a system he trust and is recruiting players who can blossom in that system.

  9. bernhtp - Jul 16, 2011 at 3:23 AM

    Wow, recruiting panic already in July. This may be a new record.

    • paiten34 - Jul 18, 2011 at 3:03 PM

      Well, maybe but I think it’s been a long summer so it’s nice to just talk football.

  10. ndgoldandblue - Jul 16, 2011 at 10:18 AM

    Yes, I agree that July is far too early to be panicking about recruiting since Signing Day isn’t until February. And I also agree that Texas has an advantage over everyone else, being the most popular college football program in the best state, talent-wise, for high school football. But I’m just tired of getting to October with any BCS or National Championship hopes already out the window. I hated losing to USC for eight straight years, but I could handle those losses better because I knew that USC just had more talent. It’s tough to see my home-state Twins lose to the Yankees every postseason, but what can I expect when the Yankees have that outrageous payroll? I just can’t stand losing to the Michigan teams every year. In the last handful of years, Notre Dame has been equal to or better than both Michigan schools when it comes to recruiting, yet the Irish still lose to one, if not both, of those schools every year on the football field. It’s difficult enough for the Irish to beat UM or MSU when they are out-recruiting them, but how are they going to fare if they lose to the Wolverines on the recruiting front? Again, I know that it’s early, but I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw how full UM’s cupboard already is in July.

    • 1historian - Jul 16, 2011 at 9:11 PM

      not to worry

    • paiten34 - Jul 18, 2011 at 3:18 PM

      well, to that I say it looks like RKG players at Michigan and Michigan state are out playing us. I think now that coach Kelly understands the intensity of ND football and our improved defense we will start to win more than they do.

      Look most of our games VS Mich and Mich ST have been close. Now with improved talent and coaching we will win games. No ND fan likes losing to our rivals so we all know what you’re saying. Just know that our quality will win their quantity any time.

  11. 1historian - Jul 16, 2011 at 9:19 PM

    Nudeman – Even though I live in new England I too love the Bears, one of the reasons being that to me they ARE pro football. They should be a factor every year. IMO as long as the McCaskey (sp?) family owns the team they will be mediocre. Last year they were ok, this year I look for them to be 3rd in the NFC North.

    I have been watching pro football for more than 50 years and in the Superbowl of 1986 they were the greatest team I have ever seen. They rose to the top of their game on that day and at the top of their game they were the best I ever saw.

    Notre Dame is coming back fast. Kelly is the right man for the job, the time is coming when other teams will respect them, and not long after that other teams will fear them.

    Am I overly optimistic? I don’t think so.

  12. nudeman - Jul 17, 2011 at 4:12 PM

    1historian, I don’t think you’re overly optimistic. There are all sorts of reasons to feel great about this program. And very little is being said about Dayne Crist who I think will have something of a breakout year.

    I’ll try to explain my original cautionary point this way: ND had, by all accounts a banner recruiting season. I just LOVE the sound of the guys they got and especially Tuitt and Lynch who they snared from other D1 big programs. Just an outstanding effort by BK and staff. Having said that, deep breath time.

    Depending on what you read, ND ranked 8th or 9th or 10th in recruiting this year.

    So the first point is that there are at least 8 or 9 programs out there whose recruiting classes sound even better when guys like us blog about them. Secondly, every recruiting class, every sport, every year has their disappointments and surprises. Until they line up, we don’t really know what we’ve got. Just a lot of guys who played great HS football and sound great on paper. Some will develop into stars; some might be ordinary, despite the hype; some will get hurt and never realize their potential; and some will transfer. Same for every D1 team.

    • 1historian - Jul 17, 2011 at 10:09 PM

      Point taken. In my defense permit me to repeat my first post in response to you:

      (You) “Agree completely that it’s premature to get TOO excited about these guys.”

      (Me) “True.

      But it’s impossible NOT to.”

      Q.E.D. (or whatever)

  13. kevhurls - Jul 19, 2011 at 6:27 PM

    I respect both of you guys’ commentary. (nudeman & 1historian) That being said, you sound like a couple of hissing cats! If you want to fight like pussies, there’s a school not too far up the road in Ann Arbor that might really dig your argument! Cheers ~

    • 1historian - Jul 19, 2011 at 7:56 PM

      I couldn’t disagree more, sir – ours was a civil discourse from word one. No derogatory feline references (such as yours) were used or even necessary. T’was a high level discussion on a subject dear to each of us.

      Cheers indeed!

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