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Midwest recruiting scene just got a little more crowded

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Way back in June, we took a look at the lay of the land in the Midwest, and noticed how the recruiting world might be shifting a bit. Back then, big news was that Russell Wilson — given his walking papers by North Carolina State coach Tom O’Brien — was signing on the dotted line with Wisconsin. (A story that I was credited for breaking, even though that wasn’t 100 percent my intent to be completely honest.)

Well, with Urban Meyer taking the head coaching job at Ohio State, and all the changes at Penn State, it’s time to take another look back at what’s gone on in less than five months. Let’s just say it’s been substantial.

Let’s check in across the Midwestern powers and see what’s happened since June.

OHIO STATE

Here’s what I said then:

Where the Buckeyes go is anyone’s guess, but it’ll be with an interim head coach, an athletic director that isn’t likely to survive the rather large magnifying glass that peers over his department, and a flagship program that’s unraveling faster than twine down stairs.

A very realistic outcome is something along the lines of USC — and maybe worse — but drastic scholarship reductions are coming soon, which lessens the chance of a coach like Urban Meyer taking over the program, something that’d put a tourniquet on the blood that’s being shed.

Still, on field results still trump stability and until the Buckeyes prove they’ve lost it, it’s hard to catapult an Irish football program that’s just a year removed from its own coaching transition in front of one of college football’s perennial powers.
Verdict: Irish still in rearview mirror, but the passing lane is only a season or two ahead.

Well, it turns out that $40 million is worth more than worrying about NCAA sanctions, which seem closer to a slap on the wrist than an anvil being dropped on the Buckeyes. After one year with his family and tending to his health, Meyer is back in coaching and taking over Ohio State, at what looks to be another one of his “dream jobs.” (In his defense, I’ve got multiple dream jobs, too. If only the Twins were looking for a over-the-hill shortstop that can’t hit that moonlights as a million-dollar screenwriter and Naval Aviator.)

Meyer’s return to college football will make the state of Ohio much more competitive and he’ll also be recruiting a similar type of offensive athlete as Brian Kelly. He also might be making a sales pitch to one of the Irish’s coaches, with running backs coach Tim Hinton getting a lot of attention in the media as someone that might join the new Buckeyes staff.

Hinton’s brother Steve, a high school coach in the area, talked to the Lancaster Eagle Gazette about the opportunity to head back to Ohio State.

“Whenever Urban has gone to be a head coach, he has offered Tim jobs,” Steve Hinton said. “(Tim) had young kids and didn’t want to move for that reason. I know Tim and Urban talk throughout the year, and that they had a really good working relationship.”

Steve Hinton was unsure whether his younger brother would accept an Ohio State position under Meyer if he was pursued.

“It would be a tough decision to stay or to come home, especially because he loves Notre Dame and the atmosphere that’s there,” Steve Hinton said. “As a brother, I would love for him to come home, but I would understand if he stayed at Notre Dame.”

There has been no noise out of South Bend on Hinton leaving and he’s been visiting recruits this week and also has plans to stay on the trail into next week as well, according to several reports. Still, Hinton’s work with the running backs has been tough to ignore, and if he decides to join Meyer’s staff in what amounts to a horizontal move, it’ll be a tough loss to a unit that is in desperate need of coaching this offseason.

MICHIGAN

Here’s what I said then:

Remember when rival fan’s took to spelling Lloyd Carr’s name with three Ls, almost belittling the coach’s inability to win more than eight or nine games? That level of “mediocrity” wasn’t good enough for Michigan brass so they brought in West Virginia head coach Rich Rodriguez to kick-start a program that was still one of college football’s elite. Three loses became three wins and Rodriguez was never able to put together a defense that could withstand the Big Ten schedule, nor an offense that could make up for it.

After three turbulent seasons, Rodriguez is gone and Jim Harbaugh didn’t come to Ann Arbor. In his place, Brady Hoke, who has successfully played the “wake up the echoes” card that tends to work well amongst proud football programs.

The Wolverines staff has taken dead aim at reclaiming Midwestern recruits and the message has been well received. Still, Hoke’s new offensive system could detract from the one strength Michigan had last year — a potent spread offense that ran Denard Robinson into the ground.
Verdict: For as bad as the Rich Rod era was, he still took 2 of 3 from ND. Dead heat, with this season’s match-up the likely tie-breaker.

That Hoke won ten games, including victories over Notre Dame and more importantly Ohio State has to have Wolverines fans ecstatic. Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison transformed one of the worst defenses in school history into a statistically impressive group, and even while it was with a lot of smoke and mirrors, ten wins is ten wins.

Offensively, the transition to a pro set was a work in progress, with Denard Robinson still the team’s leading rusher and ball carrier. And while getting the losing streak off their back was nice, there’s got to be some sense of agony knowing that even in the Buckeyes worse moment, they still nearly had Michigan, with freshman quarterback Braxton Miller missing a wide open receiver streaking to the end zone near the end of the game. Now enter Urban Meyer, the perfect coach for Miller’s skillset.

With a recruiting class 23 deep — including 14 recruits that profile on the defensive side of the ball — Hoke and Mattison know they haven’t fixed anything yet. More impressively, the Michigan staff is doing their best to put a fence around the Midwest, with 17 recruits from Ohio and Michigan.

PENN STATE

Here’s what I said then:

The Nittany Lions might not be that close geographically, but with Penn State in the Big Ten, they’ll always be considered Irish contemporaries. Call it a rite of autumn, but one of these years is going to be Joe Paterno’s last in State College, and when that happens, the fertile recruiting grounds of Pennsylvania and the Northeast should open up.
Verdict: The program may not be what it used to, but JoePa still has his pick of the region.

Obviously, nobody could have seen something like what’s happened coming, and Nittany Lion football will never be the same. Penn State is without a head coach, without any clear idea (or precedent) what the NCAA will do, and the damage Jerry Sandusky (and his enablers) did to the school is immeasurable.

From a pure football point of view, without a head coach, there’s no telling what this will do to the football program and recruiting. Right now names like Charlie Strong, Dan Mullen, Chris Petersen, Mike London, Al Golden, James Franklin and Pat Fitzgerald are being circulated as targets by Penn State websites. Not to say they’re dreaming, but stepping into Happy Valley right now is more than just taking a new job.

The Lions have 15 recruits on board currently, with names like Armani Reeves and Tommy Schutt familiar to Irish fans. Notre Dame wasn’t ready to accept Schutt’s commitment earlier this season when he was ready to give it. They’d likely take Reeves, though he said back in early November that he was 100 percent committed to Penn State.

 

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.

Smith, Martin, Russell and Prosise all drafted Friday night

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - SEPTEMBER 13: William Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Nick Martin #72 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrate a touchdown during the game against the Purdue Boilermakers at Lucas Oil Stadium on September 13, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
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Jaylon Smith, Nick Martin, KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise were all selected on Friday, with four Irish teammates taken on the second night of the NFL Draft. As mentioned, Smith came off the board at pick 34, with the Cowboys gambling on the injured knee of the Butkus Award winner. Nick Martin was selected at pick 50, joining former teammate Will Fuller in Houston.

The third round saw Russell and Prosise come off the board, with Kansas City jumping on the confident cornerback and the Seahawks taking Notre Dame’s breakout running back. It capped off a huge night for the Irish with Sheldon Day, one of the more productive football players in college football, still on the board for teams to pick.

Here’s a smattering of instant reactions from the immediate aftermath.