Wake Forest

And in that corner… The Wake Forest Demon Deacons

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The Irish now enter the ACC portion of their schedule, with a trio of Atlantic Coast opponents on the docket with Wake Forest, Maryland and Boston College up next for the Irish. The first of that trio is Jim Grobe‘s Demon Deacons, who sit at a surprising 5-3, with four wins in conference play, including a upset victory over Florida State.

Here to give us more on the Deacs is the managing editor of Blogger So Dear Martin Rickman, who is in charge of a “Wake Forest Demon Deacon sports blog where Charlie Brown is still trying to kick that football.” Peanuts references aside, you’ve got to like the blog for the title alone, a play on the lyrics of the school’s alma mater:

Dear old Wake Forest, Thine is a noble name;
Thine is a glorious fame, Constant and true.
We give thee of our praise, Adore thine ancient days,
Sing thee our humble lays, Mother, so dear.

Mother so dear, blogger so dear — I feel a mean-spirited sportswriter joke right around the corner.

With Irish fans in severe need of some Demon Deacon knowledge, I asked Rickman some questions on his beloved Deacs, and he gave me some very good answers.

Enjoy.

What does this game mean to Wake Forest and their fans? This will be the first time the two programs have met and while it’s definitely second banana behind LSU-Alabama, the game will be on national TV. Is it a tough ticket? Does Notre Dame resonate in your corner of the country?

It’s a huge game for a number of reasons. Notre Dame doesn’t play true road games often. We’ve been working on this series for awhile, what with the number of connections between ND and Wake: Irish AD Jack Swarbrick’s son is a Demon Deacon and WFU President Nathan Hatch worked at Notre Dame for 30 years.

And even more importantly than the prestige of the Golden Dome is that this game would get Wake bowl eligible after a difficult loss to UNC. It’s definitely one of the biggest non-conference games the Deacs have ever played, and tickets are hard to come by (something that doesn’t happen often).

The Demon Deacons are coming off an ugly loss, but have put together a nice run so far, highlighted by a big upset over Florida State. Is a 5-3 record a surprise at this point, especially seeing how 2010 played out?

This season has been a big surprise. If you looked up and down the schedule at the beginning of the year, it would be hard to find five wins all season. Instead, Wake was a handful of plays away from a win at Syracuse to start the season, held a 10-0 lead early against a good VT team, and pulled out a big win over Florida State.

Obviously BC and State being down a bit has helped, but Tanner Price and the WRs, along with some better-than-expected play from the DL and CB Merrill Noel has fans excited, something that didn’t happen much a year ago.

Offensively, you’ve got to be enthusiastic about this team. How good are the Deacs offensive weapons? Tanner Price, Chris Givens, Josh Harris and Brandon Pendergrass seem to be a talented group.

This offense is one of the finest that Wake has ever had. Price is one of the three best QBs in the ACC. Givens is a Top 10 WR in the country. Harris, when healthy, has incredible playmaking ability. Pendergrass runs hard, picks up tough yards and is a veteran leader. The offensive line has made great strides from a year ago, especially in pass blocking. WRs Michael Campanaro, Terence Davis and Danny Dembry have all made some huge catches this year.

The offense has stalled at times, and a lot of that has had to do with an inconsistent running game, but they can definitely put up points.

Nikita Whitlock is putting up some really impressive numbers, wreaking havoc in opponents’ backfield. How good is he? Who else on this defense will make an impact on Saturday night?

Whitlock is one of the most underrated players in college football. He’s “undersized,” and you hear about it all the time, but he’s unstoppable. It always takes two guys to block him, and when he gets a blocker one-on-one, he gets in the backfield with regularity. He has terrific closing speed, and wraps up his tackles. He and Kyle Wilber have really helped the Deacs get more pressure defensively.

In the secondary, I already mentioned him, but Bud Noel (despite getting manhandled by Dwight Jones on Saturday) is having an unbelievable year for a RS-FR. The Pahokee grad, same school as Alphonso Smith, deflects a ton of passes and has shown good tackling ability, especially on the quick swing passes to WRs. He makes mistakes, but has grown a lot on the field, and potentially has an All-ACC future ahead of him.

Wake Forest has the 106th rated rushing attack in the country. Can the Demon Deacons be effective on Saturday night as a one-dimensional offense?

I’m really not sure. Josh Harris is still hurting, and Pendergrass desperately needs J-Roc in there as a change of pace. There’s a small chance the Deacs burn the redshirt on true freshman Orville Reynolds, and his speed would definitely help, but there’s no denying the fact that Wake is going to need a much better game from Price than they got against the Tar Heels.

Price was rushed into some throws and made some poor decisions, and he will need Givens early and often to take pressure off the running game up front. It’s no secret that Notre Dame’s defense against the run is the strength of that unit, and I expect the Irish to use blitz schemes and a little zone to try and speed up Tanner. The Deacs need to get something out of the running game though, and that’s going to be a big key to watch.

Wake Forest is a two-touchdown underdog. What’s the recipe for success this Saturday night for Jim Grobe’s squad?

Better play defensively, especially in one-on-one coverage. At least 100 yards on the ground from whichever combination of Harris, Pendergrass and others sees the field. Winning the turnover battle. And taking risks offensively. If Wake gets vanilla when they have the ball and are more worried about controlling the ball than going for the jugular, the Fighting Irish’s big plays can take Wake right out of the game.

On film, the Demon Deacons actually match up pretty well against Notre Dame, and I think the 14-point spread is a little much. I’m not convinced Wake will have enough to win it, but stranger things have happened, and the nature of the game—at home, on national TV, at night, against an opponent like this—should add to the Deacs’ focus.

***

Read more of Martin’s work at Blogger So Dear, or follow him on Twitter @MartinRickman.

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.”

 

Faxes in: Liam Eichenberg

Liam Eichenberg
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LIAM EICHENBERG
Cleveland, Ohio

Measurables: 6’6″, 280 lbs.

Accolades: 4-Star, Under Armour All-American, 2015 MaxPreps first-team All-American, 2015 American Family Insurance All-USA Ohio, AP All-Ohio Division I first-team.

Impressive Offers: Florida State, Miami, Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, Tennessee

Projected Position: Offensive tackle.

Quick Take: Another offensive tackle with sky-high potential, Notre Dame snatched Eichenberg out from under Urban Meyer’s nose, bringing in yet another blue-chipper for Harry Hiestand to mold. More of a developmental project than Kraemer, Eichenberg’s upside could be just as lofty, especially after some time in a weight room and on the practice field.

What he means to the Irish: With numbers at tackle on the light side, Eichenberg won’t be asked to get on the field, but he might start his career in the two deep behind Mike McGlinchey. That could take away a redshirt if things go wrong, but the view from behind McGlinchey is a good spot for him, learning behind another talented athlete who came to campus as a developmental prospect but will enter his senior season (McGlinchey has two years of eligibility remaining) as a legit NFL prospect.

Eichenberg has the same kind of ceiling. He’ll just need to keep improving—something that he’s shown after a strong Under Armour All-American week in Orlando.

Obligatory YouTube clip: