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Holiday Weekend notes: Christmas edition

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With Irish players at home enjoying some family time before reporting to Orlando tomorrow to begin bowl preparations, let’s clean out the note pad before Christmas weekend, with a lot of recruiting news coming soon.

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It sounds like the race for five-star quarterback Gunner Kiel isn’t just between Notre Dame and Vanderbilt. Various reports have LSU pushing their way into the game, with Les Miles and the Tigers making a serious play for Kiel, who was just named Indiana Mr. Football this week.

Steve Wiltfong of 247Sports.com has been as plugged in as anyone on Kiel’s recruitment and his latest report has Kiel legitimately torn between the three schools, with the timeline to early enroll coming very quickly.

Irish fan’s passion for Kiel — a player many regard as the No. 1 quarterback in the country — has been surprisingly level-headed. Maybe it’s the log jam that currently needs to play itself out with the current depth chart and the still-to-be-determined ability of guys like Andrew Hendrix and Everett Golson, but Kiel’s recruitment hasn’t turned into the message board soap opera other top prep quarterbacking targets have been in the past.

Still, with Dayne Crist gone and Luke Massa now working at wide receiver, there’s room on the depth chart for a quarterback, a position Kelly wants to add to every year in recruiting, and Kiel’s an awfully attractive option.

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Speaking of quarterbacking options, the Irish have already set a contingency plan if Kiel doesn’t commit to Notre Dame, and he’s a really intriguing option. New Jersey quarterback Devin Fuller has come out of nowhere to be an option for the Irish at quarterback, and he’s an electric dual-threat QB that shows the type of versatility Brian Kelly is willing to play with in his offense.

One look at his junior season highlight tape (with impressive production value I might add) let’s you understand the type of athlete Fuller is, and the Irish have pulled back into consideration for a guy a few recruiting services view as a five-star recruit as well.

“I grew up a fan of Notre Dame,” Fuller told Steve Wiltfong. “My coach grew up a fan. That’s our school colors. Everything fits. The school is unbelievable. The opportunities after college would be endless.”

Fuller is being recruited right now by Bob Diaco, and will likely set an official visit to Notre Dame if Kiel doesn’t commit to Notre Dame. He’s been told by the coaching staff that he’s a quarterback in their minds, but he has the type of athleticism that could get him onto the field on both sides of the ball and at a variety of positions.

Obviously, Kiel and Fuller aren’t the same kind of quarterback. But it’s refreshing to see this coaching staff be so aggressive this late in the game, and still find dynamic players that are interesting in Notre Dame. Fuller has taken official visits to TCU and Nebraska and will visit Rutgers as well. He’ll play in the Army All-American game as well.

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It hasn’t been the kind of senior year Ethan Johnson envisioned having, with a high ankle sprain limiting the veteran defensive end for the bulk of the season after getting off to a good start. Finally healthy, it’ll be interesting to see how NFL teams view Johnson, a really athletic 300 pound lineman that’s shown great versatility.

But don’t expect that to cross Johnson’s radar right now. He’s focused on beating Florida State.

“It’s all that matters,” Johnson said. “It’s all we’re focused on right now. For this game we’ve had a long time to focus on it, and we’re going to continue to work and prepare and get ready to play our best football. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t do that, there’s no reason why we’re not going to do that… We’re going to do that.”

For Irish fans lukewarm on a late December bowl game after having hopes for the BCS, hearing Johnson talk so pointedly about the importance of this game has to make you feel good about the progress of this football team, even if the four regular season losses were a big let down. But it all goes to the process of building a program, something Johnson and the departing senior class feel is part of their job.

“I’m a guy who believes you leave something better than you found it,” Johnson said. “I definitely want to do that. I want to leave this place better than when I found it.”

***

For those following the Irish’s quest to add another running back to their depleted depth chart, the Irish will find out if the recruiting class with add a complement to Will Mahone on December 29th, just a few hours before taking on the Seminoles.

That’s because Seattle running back KeiVarae Russell will be holding a press conference at his high school to announce his college choice, with the Irish and the hometown Washington Huskies finalists.

Russell spoke about the decision making process to the Seattle Times:

“It’s not tough at all,” said Russell, when asked where he’s at in the process. “I know exactly where I’m going. I’m just not going to tell anyone until next week.”

Right now, he’s not tipping his cap on whether it will be Washington or Notre Dame. He plans to make his decision public during a ceremony at Mariner at noon Dec. 29 — there is a chance it will happen on the 28th.

“I saw myself going to that school a few weeks ago, probably before my Cal visit,” he said. “I kind of knew where I was going to go but I wanted to make sure.”

Again, a quick look at his junior year highlights shows you a pretty dynamic athlete and a guy that looks to win the battle with speed and quickness as opposed to power. With Mahone looking like the kind of back that could take Jonas Gray’s place, adding Russell to the fold would help solidify the running back position, and add some certainty to a recruiting class that’s still actively pursuing a lot of big fish.

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Say what you want about Charlie Weis, but the man can recruit quarterbacks. Not only did Weis sign Dayne Crist to take over the starting job next season, he also took in former Irish target and one-time five-star recruit Jake Heaps, who’ll sit out next season after transferring from BYU and have two seasons to play for the Jayhawks.

The Jayhawks only have eight verbal commitments, but Weis has already accepted the commitment of Tre Parmalee, son of his former Irish assistant Bernie Parmalee, and is likely to score the commitment of South Bend’s Gehrig Dieter, who has put up some incredibly prolific numbers this season.

Of course, Weis still needs to put together a defensive staff, something he struggled to do at Notre Dame, and that process is ongoing.

More from the Lawrence Journal World:

There has been grumbling about the slow pace with which Weis has gone about hiring a defensive coordinator and filling out the rest of his coaching staff. But according to KU athletic director Sheahon Zenger, the delay has been by design. Monday night, during his time on “Hawk Talk with Bill Self,” Zenger talked about the ongoing quest for assistant coaches and shed light on Weis’ timetable.

“I’m watching him go through this process, and it’s really an old scientific term that we used to use in data collection of sifting and sorting through the folks and trying to get just the right combination,” Zenger said. “Sometimes I find myself shifting into fan mode when he shares names with me: I kind of go, ‘Well, hire him, hire him and hire him,’ but that’s not what he needs to do. He needs to make sure he gets the right puzzle pieces together to make this thing really work.”

Zenger, who has been a part of football coaching staffs at Kansas State, South Florida and Wyoming, says there is more that goes into putting together a coaching staff that many might think.

“That’s what he’s going through now,” Zenger said. “We’re going through background checks, and you gotta make sure the spouses would be happy in Lawrence. People don’t think about that, but when you bring together a staff of nine full-time assistants, you’re also bringing together nine families. And that’s critical to the chemistry of the staff.”

It’s good to see Charlie taking coaching chemistry to heart, but he’ll likely need to have his mind made up by January 3rd, when the recruiting dead period ends.

***

Just a quick note to say Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to everyone. It’s been an up-and-down season for the Irish, but we had a great year on the blog, with so many new readers coming aboard and continuing to stop by. Thanks for making this a stop in your search for Irish news. I truly appreciate it.

Notre Dame returns 15 starters in 2017; How many do its opponents?

TEMPE, AZ - NOVEMBER 08:  Quarterback Taylor Kelly #10 of the Arizona State Sun Devils throws a pass under pressure from linebacker Nyles Morgan #5 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during the fourth quarter of the college football game at Sun Devil Stadium on November 8, 2014 in Tempe, Arizona. The Sun Devils defeated the Fighting Irish 55-31.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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In six months—180 days, to be even more precise—college football will return. Sure, spring practice might be only eight days away in South Bend, but those sessions will have no tangible effect on the national championship chase.

On Aug. 25, Stanford will face Rice in Sydney. According to AP Style, one does not need to notate Australia there, but some thoroughness can’t hurt, right? For that matter, South Florida will take on San Jose State, and Hawai’i will travel all the way to Foxboro, Mass. to take on Massachusetts.

Six months ago—well, again, 180 days to be exact—No. 19 Louisville introduced America to quarterback Lamar Jackson in a 70-14 rout of Charlotte, kicking off the 2016 season with an eight-touchdown performance from the eventual Heisman winner. No. 9 Tennessee topped Appalachian State 20-13 in overtime, setting the stage for a Volunteers season full of dramatics.

A week after the Cardinal go down under to face the Owls, Notre Dame will open its season against Temple with 15 returning starters, eight on offense and seven on defense, pending any spring or summer departures or injuries. According to Phil Steele, 24 teams return more experience.

Offense: Offensive linemen Mike McGlinchey (12 starts in 2016), Quenton Nelson (12), Sam Mustipher (12) and Alex Bars (12); tight end Durham Smythe (12); receiver Equanimeous St. Brown (12); running back Josh Adams (nine) and C.J. Sanders (seven)
Defense: Safeties Drue Tranquill (12) and Devin Studstill (nine); cornerback Julian Love (eight); linebackers Nyles Morgan (12) and Te’von Coney (nine); and defensive linemen Jerry Tillery (11) and Andrew Trumbetti (seven)

How does this Irish listing compare to Notre Dame’s opponents? Right about middle of the pack. (If a quarterback is not specifically mentioned, the team does not return a starter at that position.)

Sept. 2 — v. Temple, returns 10 starters; six on offense and four on defense
Sept. 9 — v. Georgia, returns 17 starters; seven on offense, including quarterback Jacob Eason, and 10 on defense
Sept. 16 — at Boston College, returns 15 starters; eight on offense and seven on defense
Sept. 23 — at Michigan State, returns nine starters; four on offense and five on defense
Sept. 30 — v. Miami (Ohio), returns 16 starters; eight on offense, including quarterback Gus Ragland, and eight on defense
Oct. 7 — at North Carolina, returns 12 starters; five on offense and seven on defense
Oct. 21 — v. USC, returns 12 starters; five on offense, including quarterback and Heisman-threat Sam Darnold, and seven on defense
Oct. 28 — v. North Carolina State, returns 17 starters; nine on offense, including quarterback Ryan Finley, and eight on defense
Nov. 4 — v. Wake Forest, returns 15 starters; nine on offense, including quarterback John Wolford, and six on defense
Nov. 11 — at Miami (Fla.), returns 15 starters; seven on offense and eight on defense
Nov. 18 — v. Navy, returns 13 starters; five on offense and eight on defense
Nov. 25 — at Stanford, returns 16 starters; eight on offense, including quarterback Ryan Burns, and eight on defense

Naturally, the number of returning starters is cyclical, and some might argue teams with lackluster records one season should not want to return many starters the next. Then again, those players started over others for a presumed reason in the first place

Acknowledging that cycle, it seems innate to take a look at how many starters Notre Dame might return in 2018. By no means is the intent here to look past 2017. Rather, consider this something of a scholarship chart cliff notes. As always, this does not factor in the inevitable injuries, transfers and departures otherwise inherent to the coming six months.

Of the above eight offensive returnees, McGlinchey and Smythe will both be out of eligibility following 2017, and Nelson will nearly-certainly depart for the first round of the NFL Draft. The other five, though, could all be back in blue-and-gold. One would think quarterback Brandon Wimbush—2017’s assumed starter—will return, as would whoever the third receiver is in 2017, considering there is no senior at the position aside from graduate transfer Freddy Canteen who has two years of eligibility remaining anyways. If a tight end such as freshman early enrollee Brock Wright or junior Alizé Mack were to usurp Smythe, then the Irish may have eight returning offensive starters again in 2018.

Of the above seven defensive returnees, only Morgan and Trumbetti will finish their eligibility this season. If Tranquill does indeed end up manning the rover position in new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme, that will open a starting spot for another safety. Whoever that is, he will have eligibility remaining, as will whatever cornerback lines up opposite Love. The defensive line remains a quandary, but it is distinctly possible Notre Dame returns eight defensive starters, as well, in 2018.

Fortunately, spring practice begins March 8, and some light can begin to shine on those questions regarding the defensive line and the overall defensive alignment. In addition to garnering excitement for 2017, they can also shed some insights into the seasons to come.

Oh, and in case you are curious, Stanford will fly 7,434 miles to get to Sydney while Hawai’i will travel a mere 5,083 to get to Gillette Stadium.

Spring positions to watch for revelations: DL & WR

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 05: Jerry Tillery #99 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish tackles Jerrod Heard #13 of the Texas Longhorns for a loss of yards during the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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If quarterback, rover and the early enrollees could be Notre Dame fans’ springtime Christmas thrills, what positions present as potential spots of coal?

Three former Irish players were invited to next week’s NFL Combine in Indianapolis: quarterback DeShone Kizer, defensive tackle Jarron Jones and defensive end Isaac Rochell. Losing two consistent defensive linemen leaves this year’s unit with some questions. Jones and Rochell combined for 100 tackles, 18 for loss and three sacks last season. Notre Dame’s returning defensive linemen combined to total 111 tackles and only 5.5 tackles for loss. To be clear, sacks are not included in that latter list because no returning defensive linemen recorded one. Among the returnees, junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37 tackles, three for loss) and senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26, 0.5) contributed solidly alongside the two NFL prospects.

This dearth of known and reliable linemen is a large part of why the potential transfer of Clemson graduate defensive tackle Scott Pagano is so intriguing. Pagano would immediately be a favorite to start, and if not that, at least rotate in heavily.

For now, though, Pagano remains a theoretical

By the end of spring practice, who already on campus will emerge alongside Tillery and Trumbetti in the Irish front? Senior ends Jay Hayes (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) and Jonathon Bonner (nine tackles) seem the most-likely candidates … aside from former four-star recruit and now rising sophomore Daelin Hayes. In his debut season, D. Hayes finished with 11 tackles.

Look for senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) to establish himself as Tillery’s immediate backup this spring, but that spot in the rotation will be up for competition all over again once four-star tackle Darnell Ewell (Lake Taylor High School; Norfolk, Va.) arrives on campus in the fall. His size and quickness should play right into new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s system.

Equanimeous and Who?
Not only did Notre Dame bring in a graduate transfer at receiver in former Michigan wideout Freddy Canteen, but it has also already received the commitments of two four-star receivers in the 2018 recruiting class. The continued emphasis on the position reflects the lack of bona fide game-breakers currently on the roster.

Junior Equanimeous St. Brown established himself as the top Irish threat in 2016, and he should shine only further with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush targeting him. Classmates often amplify each other’s success, simply due to the added shared reps innate to joining practice at the same time. With Torii Hunter, Jr., now pursuing a professional baseball career, who will prevent the secondary from focusing all its energies on St. Brown?

Canteen will not be with Notre Dame in the spring, as he does not graduate from Michigan until April. That will give a clear shot for the likes of juniors Chris Finke, C.J. Sanders and Miles Boykin, and sophomores Kevin Stepherson, Javon McKinley and Chase Claypool to establish themselves. Did that say “clear” shot? It should probably read, “a chance to separate from the crowd.”

If a genuine threat does not line up opposite St. Brown, his explosiveness will likely be greatly reduced by focused defensive scheming. Wimbush will need another target before 2018.

Of course, here is where one should acknowledge the millennia-tested fact: Coal under pressure becomes diamonds.

2016 Notre Dame’s win expectancy was 7.2
Sports Illustrated’s Chris Johnson named the Irish as his team most likely to dramatically improve its record in 2017. Johnson’s thinking is based, at least in part, on Notre Dame’s second-order win total having been 7.2 in 2016, compared to the four wins the Irish actually walked away with. That discrepancy was the largest in the country.

Second-order win totals reflect how many points a team should have scored and allowed based on offensive and defensive stats. In theory, this shines a light on how luck and chance factored into results. Naturally, losing seven games by one possession will often be reflected by a higher second-order win total.

“Notre Dame’s win-loss record belied a solid, if imperfect, squad that just couldn’t pull out close games…” Johnson writes. “The Irish may not get back into College Football Playoff contention in 2017, but they’re bound to post a few more Ws because of reversion to the mean.”

Admittedly, the small sample size of a football season reduces the applicability of metrics such as second- and third-order wins when compared to baseball and basketball.

Jones becomes Mack
A quick piece of housekeeping: Apparently junior tight end Alizé Jones has changed his name to Alizé Mack.

While Notre Dame’s roster may not reflect that change yet, it is reasonable to expect it will after its next update. The football program has consistently respected the intricacies of players’ name preferences. Tai-ler Jones becoming TJ Jones jumps to mind, for example.

Anyways, hopefully noting Mack’s name change here might reduce some confusion down the line. Probably not. How many readers possibly read to the actual bottom of an article? But hey, in good faith.

WR Lenzy makes 11th commitment, brings speed to Irish

lenzy
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At what point does an impressive recruiting roll become something more? When does it become a harbinger of things to come, even if not for a few seasons? How many notable commitments in a row establishes a class as special?

If the answer to any of the above is 11 commitments by the end of February, including five within two weeks, then Notre Dame is there following consensus four-star athlete Braden Lenzy’s announcement Thursday evening.

The Tigard High School (Portland, Ore) receiver/cornerback chose the Irish over offers from USC, Oregon and Michigan State, among a litany of others. In all, nine Pac-12 schools chased Lenzy—and a 10th, Washington, had shown interest—per rivals.com.

Lenzy will fit the leading 2018 need voiced by Irish coach Brian Kelly three weeks ago on National Signing Day 2017.

“Elite speed on offense will be a primary goal for us,” Kelly said Feb. 1. “Guys that can change the game on one possession. I think we’ll see that… We want a couple of home run hitters. We don’t care if they’re Darren Sproles’s size. We’re going to come off the board in terms of profile. We want some guys that can change the game on offense with elite speed.”

At 6-foot, 175 pounds, Lenzy is taller than Sproles’s 5-foot-6, but it is still his speed that drew Notre Dame’s interest.

“They made it clear they want me to do kickoff return and use me as a deep threat across the field,” he told Irish Illustrated. “Just being kind of an athlete, similar to what I’ve been doing already in high school, just on a bigger scale with a quarterback that can throw it a lot farther.”

Presuming Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush is that arm in 2018, throwing great distances should not be an issue. Between Lenzy and fellow 2018 commit Micah Jones, covering those distances should be a reasonable request, as well.

Lenzy brings Notre Dame’s class of 2018 to 11, including eight four-stars according to Rivals’ rating system. Current scholarship projections indicate the class will not be a large one, meaning the Irish coaching staff has already garnered the commitments of more than half the class. Once again, though, Kelly’s sentiment regarding recruiting timing should be remembered.

“We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

SWARBRICK’S TAKE ON RECRUITING
Kelly credited Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick with much assistance in securing the country’s No. 13 recruiting class in 2017. A refresher on those comments:

“In a lot of instances, [Swarbrick] had to be there to support our football program and talk to recruits about where this program is and where it’s going,” Kelly said. “There are questions when a family comes on campus. He reminded them about the investment we were making in staff and what we were doing for the present and for the future.”

Swarbrick did not dispute the factual nature of any of that in an interview with the Indianapolis Star, but he did contest the need for praising what he saw as part of his job, one of the preferred parts of his job, at that.

“I can’t say anything about this year felt all that different,” Swarbrick told Star reporter Laken Litman. “Some asked questions about the future of the program and can we compete for a national championship. And I would talk about the elements of the program we were focused on improving.”

Swarbrick and Litman discussed a number of items in the second-half of the interview released by the Star, including Notre Dame’s facilities, a possible early signing period in football and if the Oct. 8, 2016, game against North Carolina State should have been played. Spoiler: No. Then why was it? Go check it out.

Swarbrick also told Litman he likes to write in his free time.

“I tend to think strategically with a pen in my hand.” Swarbrick added he is currently scribbling away on where he thinks college athletics are headed.

This scribe, for one, would be most interested in skimming those legal pads.

Will Wimbush, Elko and the early enrollees surprise in spring practice?

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 26: Fans congratulate Brandon Wimbush #12 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish after he ran for a 58 yard touchdown against the Massachusetts Minutemen at Notre Dame Stadium on September 26, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Umass 62-27.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Exactly 59 days from today, the Irish will take the field at Notre Dame Stadium. Sure, they will be playing against themselves, but nonetheless, it will be somewhat-competitive football played in gold helmets.

For timing context, exactly 59 days ago, you looked beneath the Christmas tree to learn if Santa Claus left you season tickets, socks or coal. I got socks. They had some of that extra cushioning, so I considered them a suitable treat.

Whether you care about my argyles or not (you don’t), for many the Blue-Gold Game and Christmas morning hold similar excitement. That fact is apparently why Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick does not concern himself when groups of alumni publicly lament his decisions, or lack thereof.

“I never worry about that,” Swarbirck told the Indianapolis Star in an exclusive interview you really should read. Go on, click the link, it will open in a new tab. You can come right back here when you are done.

“The hardest job in athletics is trying to generate passion in your program. If that sort of stuff bothers you, you can’t be the athletic director, head coach or the quarterback at Notre Dame.”

That very passion will undoubtedly lead to frame-by-frame discussions of video snippets from spring practice, parsing of each and every word Irish coach Brian Kelly says in quick interviews after those practices, and extreme pessimism and optimism about the 2017 season.

In the Christmas spirit, what toys could bring the must excitement during the spring unwrapping? Personally, the gift I was unsure of always brought the most joy. I would rather open an unexpected book than know about a charcoal-gray suit. In other words, at least for today, let’s look past the offensive line, the running backs and the inside linebackers. Instead, let’s look forward to learning about… (more…)