Gunner Kiel

With classes set to begin, did the Irish flip two blue-chips?

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You’ve got to hand it to Brian Kelly and his assistants. A year after reeling in the trio of Ishaq Williams, Stephon Tuitt, and Aaron Lynch in dramatic fashion, the Irish are close to landing two of the nation’s most heralded recruits, amidst even more extraordinary circumstances than last year.

With the spring semester set to start tomorrow, the Irish might have pulled a rabbit out of the hat: five-star quarterback Gunner Kiel might be headed to Notre Dame after all. Multiple website — though first reported by Steve Wiltfong of 247Sports.com — are reporting that Kiel hasn’t enrolled in classes at LSU and instead will stay home in Indiana, giving Kelly and the Irish offense the No. 1 quarterback on their board in the most miraculous of fashions.

Less than three weeks ago, Kiel turned down the Irish and instead chose to enroll early at LSU, giving the nation’s top team one of the country’s best quarterbacks. Kiel impressed at the US Army All-American Bowl in San Antonio, where nearly every report had Kiel ready to head to Baton Rouge where he’d give Les Miles a pro-style quarterback (something badly needed after watching the BCS National Championship game). But someone forgot to tell the Irish coaching staff that Kiel had decided where he’d spend the next four years, and even amidst a coaching transition that gutted the offensive side of the ball, the Irish did enough to make today’s flurry of reporting possible.

We won’t know if Kiel’s attending Notre Dame until he’s actually enrolled in classes, and while there’s plenty of smoke surrounding the story, there’s nothing definitive yet coming from the Kiel family. In a 36 hour period Irish fans went from being apoplectic about a recruiting class that was seemingly crumbling, with Ronald Darby opening things up and Taylor Decker choosing Ohio State, to potentially ecstatic as the Irish have potentially added the best quarterback in the class. And that might not even be the most important feat of the week, with the defensive side of the ball potentially hitting both short term and long term jackpots.

As the Pac-12’s recruiting landscape dramatically altered with Tosh Lupoi leaving Cal and heading to Steve Sarkisian’s Washington staff, Notre Dame looked more and more like the potential landing spot for Arik Armstead, one of the nation’s premiere defensive linemen. Armstead also likely comes with his older brother Armond, a former starter for USC that sat out this season after the school wouldn’t medically clear him after an undisclosed issue. Armond will have one year of eligibility remaining, and he visited Notre Dame Sunday and Monday with his father to meet with the coaching staff to discuss his role in the team’s future. Arik joined Armond at Auburn earlier this weekend, where the younger Armstead took his final recruiting visit before heading to a classroom this week. What classroom is still to be determined.

Arik’s enrolled at Cal, Notre Dame and Auburn, filling out the necessary paperwork so he can simply arrive on campus and attend classes. He’s reportedly eliminated Cal after the move of Lupoi to Washington, a shocking twist when you consider Cal was the odds-on favorite to land the two-sport star. The brothers reportedly will enroll as a package, and are waiting for the family to reunite tonight before making a decision.

There’s a chance that all of this doesn’t end well for the Irish, and all this glitter doesn’t turn into recruiting gold for the Irish. But more importantly, after a week of getting beat up by the Notre Dame faithful for the changes in the coaching staff and the perceived weakness in this recruiting class, it’s another stark reminder that Kelly has assembled a group of coaches that continually fight until the very end for players they truly want. (For instance, even though Jordan Westerkamp reconfirmed his commitment to Nebraska, that hasn’t stopped Notre Dame from going after him.)

While that dogged determination hasn’t brought enough wins to campus yet, it’s helping to build a program that’ll likely deliver more in the near future, especially if Monday’s magic turns out to be as promising as it seems.

UPDATE: 1:20 a.m. ETDouglas Farmer of Notre Dame’s school newspaper The Observer reports that Gunner Kiel is officially enrolled. He’s on campus and set to move into O’Neill Hall.

 

Restocking the roster: Wide Receivers

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Some believe that the best way to look at recruiting is in two-year increments. As programs rebuild and rosters turn over, covering the needs of a football team over two recruiting cycles  allows a coaching staff to balance its roster.

That balance is critical to the health of a program. And it’s not just the work of a rebuilding coach. As we saw in Brian Kelly’s sixth season, injuries, attrition and scheme change impacted the defense, especially in the secondary.

Another position set to deal with major change is wide receiver. Gone is All-American Will Fuller, departing South Bend after three years, scoring 29 touchdowns over the past two seasons. He’ll look to run his way into the first round of the NFL Draft. Also gone are veterans Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle, putting the Irish in an unenviable position, needing to replace the team’s three leading receivers.

Reinforcements aren’t just on the way, they’re already on campus. While there’s not a ton of production to see, the recruiting stockpile has created a chance to reload for Mike Denbrock’s troop. So let’s take a look at the additions and subtractions on the roster, analyzing the two-year recruiting run as we restock the receiving corps.

DEPARTURES
Will Fuller
, Jr. (62 catches, 1,258 yards, 14 TDs)
Chris Brown, Sr. (48 catches, 597 yards, 4 TDs)
Amir Carlisle, GS (32 catches, 355 yards, 1 TD)
Jalen Guyton, Fr. (transfer)

 

ADDITIONS
Equanimeous St. Brown

Miles Boykin*
CJ Sanders
Jalen Guyton
Chase Claypool*
Javon McKinley*
Kevin Stepherson*

 

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Corey Robinson, Sr.
Torii Hunter, Sr.*
Justin Brent, Jr.*
Corey Holmes, Jr.*
CJ Sanders, Soph.
Miles Boykin, Soph.*
Equanimeous St. Brown, Soph.
Kevin Stepherson, Fr.*

 

ANALYSIS
Brian Kelly expects St. Brown to step into Will Fuller’s shoes. If the Irish are able to pluck another sophomore from obscurity to the national spotlight, it’ll say quite a bit about the depth and productivity the Irish staff has built at the position. At 6-foot-5, St. Brown has a more tantalizing skill-set than Fuller—and he was a national recruit out of a Southern California powerhouse. But until we see St. Brown burn past defenders and make big plays, assuming the Irish won’t miss Fuller is a big leap of faith.

The next objective of the spring is getting Corey Robinson back on track. The rising senior had a forgettable junior season, ruined by injuries and some bruised confidence. A player who has shown flashes of brilliance during his three seasons in South Bend, the time is now for Robinson, not just as a performer but as an on-field leader.

Torii Hunter Jr. is also poised for a big season. After finding reps at slot receiver and possessing the versatility to see the field from multiple spots, Hunter needs to prove in 2016 that he’s not just a utility man but an everyday starter. His hands, smooth athleticism and speed should have him primed for a breakout. But Hunter might not want to stay in the slot if CJ Sanders is ready to take over. After a big freshman season on special teams, Sanders looks ready to make his move into the lineup, perhaps the purest slot receiver Brian Kelly has had since he arrived in South Bend.

The rest of the spring depth chart should have modest goals, though all face rather critical offseasons. Justin Brent is three years into his college career and the biggest headlines he’s made have been off the field. Whether he sticks at receiver or continues to work as a reserve running back remains to be seen. Corey Holmes is another upperclassman who we still can’t figure out. Will he ascend into the rotation with the top three veterans gone, or will he give way to some talented youngsters?

Miles Boykin earned praise last August, but it didn’t get him time on the field. He’ll enter spring with four years of eligibility, same as early-enrollee Kevin Stepherson. The Irish staff thinks Stepherson has the type of deep speed that they covet, capable of running past cornerbacks and stretching a defense. Boykin has size and physicality that could present intriguing options for an offense that’ll be less reliant on one man now that Fuller is gone.

Live Video Mailbag: 40-year decision, more BVG, freshmen and more

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We’ve done plenty of mailbags, but this is our first shot at a Live Video Mailbag. This should be a better way to answer more questions and hopefully interact with a few of you as we try to work off some of yesterday’s Super Bowl snacks.

Topics on the list: The 40-year decision, more Brian VanGorder talk, the incoming (and redshirt) freshmen and a whole lot more.

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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.