Romeo Okwara

The Commitments: Front seven

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Part five of our series recapping the recruits ready to sign letters-of-intent with Notre Dame next Wednesday. (Or already on campus.) Previous installments include the running backsoffensive linewide receivers and quarterbacks

At his first signing day press conference, Brian Kelly all but announced his intent to rebuild the front seven of the defense via recruiting. Little did people know he planned on doing it in his first full recruiting class.

After watching the Irish swing and miss at defensive line targets for the better part of a decade, Kelly did all but the impossible: target, recruit, and land some of the most impressive front seven talent in the country. After years of missing players like Aaron Lynch, Stephon Tuitt, Ishaq Williams and Troy Niklas, Notre Dame went and landed all of them, bringing in a total of nine players that would immediately plug into the front seven defensive depth chart, transforming a roster in one recruiting cycle.

One year later, with a two deep spilling over along the defensive line and linebackers, the Irish welcome back Manti Te’o to the linebacking corps and Kapron Lewis-Moore to the defensive line. After dying to find defensive tackles comparable to Sean Cwynar, Kelly and his defensive staff were able to say farewell to the double domer poised for business success without worrying about the depth chart behind him.

The Irish didn’t land every target they had in the front seven, missing on two-way athlete Arik Armstead, who committed to Oregon Sunday afternoon after a whirlwind recruitment that saw the blue-chip prospect almost end up at a half dozen different schools. But Notre Dame’s chances to land Armstead dramatically decreased when the Irish couldn’t accept his older brother Armond, a USC transfer immediately eligible to play next season. Multiple sources have told me the elder Armstead wasn’t cleared to participate in football activities for the Irish, the same verdict the USC team doctors reached as well.

We can only wonder what the Irish defense would’ve looked like with those two additions, but the future is still incredibly bright for a unit that’ll likely be the strength of the roster for the next two seasons. Let’s see who the Irish plan on welcoming into the fold this Wednesday:

SHELDON DAY
High School: Warren Central — Indianapolis, Indiana
Measureables: Six-foot-two, 286-pounds
Other major offers: Arkansas, Florida, LSU, Michigan, North Carolina, Penn State, Stanford
Fun Fact: Finished second to fellow Irish early-enrollee Gunner Kiel for Indiana’s Mr. Football.
On choosing Notre Dame: “I’m excited to get here and get started on my classwork and to start the conditioning program with Coach Longo. I really liked meeting the guys during my recruiting process and I’m excited to start workouts with them this winter.”
What he’ll bring to the defense: Any other year, Sheldon Day is the recruit Irish fans are hysterical over. Rarely do the Irish beat out defensive linemen that have options like LSU, Penn State, Florida and Michigan, but Day had a relatively drama-free early enrollment and brings another building block to the defensive line. While he’s projected to be a defensive tackle by most recruiting services, Day might have the versatility to allow him to play along the edge of the defensive line, as a more athletic, but slightly smaller Ethan Johnson. An incredibly productive player at Indianapolis powerhouse Warren Central, Day is an excellent athlete that also happens to play defensive line.

JARRON JONES
High School: Aquinas Institute — Rochester, New York
Measureables: Six-foot-seven, 307-pounds
Other major offers: Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Florida State, Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State
Fun Fact: Named first-team All-State, Jones’ 5-foot-7 teammate, running back Billy Lombardi, was named state player of the year.
On choosing Notre Dame: “It’s perfect for me,” Jones told Irish Illustrated. “Notre Dame is just like my high school, it’s not even a big transition. The small class sizes, just typical high school to college. It’s not going to be an adjustment in atmosphere and it’s going to be something that I’m already used to.”
What he’ll bring to the defense: Jones is another one of those mold-busting recruits that have been attracted to Brian Kelly’s program, joining guys like Tuitt and Niklas as super-sized recruits. Jones might not be as physically ready to dominate as the two previously mentioned, but he won’t need to be. Ultra athletic, Jones could just as easily be a left tackle of the future, but he’ll get his first shot as a jumbo 3-4 defensive end. Another one of those recruits Notre Dame never seemed to land, Jones was initially committed to Penn State before the Irish staff flipped him in August.

ROMEO OKWARA
High School: Ardrey Kell — Charlotte, North Carolina
Measureables: Six-foot-five, 235-pounds
Other major offers: Clemson, Michigan, Georgia Tech, Miami, North Carolina, N.C. State, Pitt, Virginia, Virginia Tech
Fun Fact: Won’t turn 17-years-old until June 2012, making those 14 sacks and 27 TFLs look mighty impressive.
On choosing Notre Dame:  “Coach Kelly and I have a good relationship and getting on campus for a full weekend made me surer that Notre Dame is the perfect place for me,” Okwara told Blue & Gold. “The people were very welcoming and the basketball game was really fun. It showed me that Notre Dame takes pride in all of their sports which is really good.”
What he’ll bring to the defense: At the very least, Okwara is bringing a whole lot of bottled promise to South Bend. With the rare blend of size, speed, and power, the fact that Okwara was able to dominate high school football while playing his senior season at the age of 16 is a pretty impressive feat. Graduating from the same school that brought Notre Dame Prince Shembo, Okwara is an intriguing Cat linebacker prospect with his obvious pass rushing skills, though has the athleticism and speed to also play in space during the passing game. For Okwara’s sake, you almost have to hope he’s redshirted, so he gets a chance to play with kids his own age.

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: