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.

Rochell drafted in 7th round; three other former Notre Dame players sign

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All the unnecessary draft conversation may have centered on DeShone Kizer, but the quarterback was not the only former Notre Dame player watching this weekend’s NFL Draft with rapt attention. Aside from Kizer, only Isaac Rochell heard his name called. The San Diego Chargers picked the defensive lineman in the seventh round Saturday with the 225th overall pick.

Rochell finished his Irish career with appearance in 49 of 51 possible games and 167 tackles, including 22 for loss and 4.5 sacks. In 2016, he recorded 55 tackles, good for sixth on the team, with seven for loss.

By the end of the evening, three more former Notre Dame starters had signed on with NFL teams as undrafted free agents. It should be noted, many argue the route available for undrafted free agents is preferable to that of late-round picks. An undrafted free agent can choose which of a handful of situations is preferable to him for whatever reason. A late-round pick does not have that luxury, but still makes a comparable salary.

Linebacker James Onwualu opted to join Rochell with the Chargers. Defensive lineman Jarron Jones signed with the New York Giants. Cornerback Cole Luke latched on with the Carolina Panthers.

Onwualu began his Irish career as a receiver before moving to linebacker before his sophomore season. He finished his career with 143 tackles, including 75 in 2016 with 11.5 for loss and three sacks. His 75 tackles finished behind only now-rising senior linebackers Nyles Morgan’s 94 and Drue Tranquill’s 79.

Battling injuries throughout his Notre Dame career, Jones made 105 tackles with 45 in 2016. His 11 tackles for loss were outdone only by the aforementioned Onwualu total.

Luke made 152 tackles in his Irish career, including 48 last season, and eight interceptions.

Three more players from past years’ Irish rosters could yet find an NFL home—long snapper Scott Daly, defensive lineman-turned-tight end Chase Hounshell and running back Tarean Folston. If any or all do not sign, they can still join teams for rookie mini-camps in hopes of making a positive impression.

RELATED READING: Browns pick former Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer 20th in second round

Browns pick former Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer 20th in second round

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After months of pointless chatter and a night spent waiting, DeShone Kizer’s NFL Draft experience ended Friday night when the Cleveland Browns drafted the former Notre Dame quarterback with the 20th pick in the second round, the No. 52 overall selection.

Originally from Toledo, Ohio, Kizer will have the opportunity to earn the starting job for the franchise less than two hours from his hometown. The Browns trotted out five different quarterbacks in 2016, only two of which remain with the team. Rookie Cody Kessler played in nine games, throwing for 1,380 yards and six touchdowns with only one interception while fellow rookie Kevin Hogan threw for 104 yards and two interceptions in four games.

The Browns have since added Brock Osweiler in a trade with the Houston Texans, though that trade was largely-viewed as a cash-for-picks swap, with the Browns “paying” for picks by taking on Osweiler’s contract in which he is owed $47 million over the next three seasons, including $16 million this season.

A year ago, the No. 52 pick (linebacker Deion Jones to the Atlanta Falcons) received a four-year, $4.546 million contract with a $1.506 million signing bonus.

Hall of fame running back and Browns legend Jim Brown announced the selection of Kizer at the draft festivities.

Speculation a year ago pegged Kizer as an early first-round pick. As the draft approached, projections of his slot varied widely, many including a second-round status. Despite first-round theatrics leading to three quarterbacks going in the first 12 picks Thursday night, Kizer had to wait another day before learning where he will start his NFL career. (more…)

Friday at 4: ‘Attention to detail’ includes Notre Dame Stadium

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Brian Kelly proselytized multiple abstract concepts this spring. By the end of the 15 practices and subsequent media sessions, even the Irish coach knew some of his references to “grit” would be met by muted eye rolls from the press. If a questioner included the word in their query, Kelly reacted with tongue-in-cheek approval, “You’ve been listening.”

In his press conference the day before spring practices commenced, Kelly used the phrase “attention to detail” six separate times. While he was referring to his players on the football field, Kelly could have also been discussing the ongoing—but supposedly close to finished—construction at Notre Dame Stadium known as Campus Crossroads.

The three buildings around the exterior of the Stadium, the added suites and the video board above the south end zone have garnered the headlines. On a macro level, those are the changes of note. On a micro level, however, other details have trickled into the public stream of knowledge as the work nears its conclusion.

Over the weekend—and now reignited by a column from the South Bend Tribune’s Mike Vorel—the image of the newly-added visitors’ tunnel delighted Irish fans. Vorel likens the narrow entry to “the spot they’d stash the gladiators before feeding them to starving tigers in The Coliseum.” Assuredly, Vorel is going for dramatic effect, and it must work considering its citation here, but even a realistic view of the tunnel’s effects bodes well.

If nothing else, Notre Dame players should enjoy something of a psychological boost when racing out of their adult-sized tunnel and seeing their opponent trickle out of a tunnel seemingly-sized for ants. (Yes, the north end zone tunnel is at least three times bigger than the visitors’ tunnel.)

That pale, slanted staircase holds none of the luxuries of the home team’s entrance, something Kelly went out of his way to praise after using it in Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. (more…)

Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers

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You want complete honesty? The linebacker version of this series includes no revelations, no unexpected developments, no surprising spring performances. There is an allusion to a position switch, sure, but this piece became much simpler with the rover being discussed separately Thursday.

The idea was to capitalize on the NFL Draft for the morning and let the linebackers slip by in the afternoon, noticed only by those twiddling their thumbs through the last hours of the work week. Alas, former Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer was not drafted in the first round and a brief recap of his draft destination will need to await at least another day. Programming note: The NFL Draft reconvenes tonight (Friday) at 7 p.m. ET. The Green Bay Packers are on the clock. They will not draft a quarterback.

But back to the linebackers. This piece may have been intended to slip by with little fanfare, but that is not indicative of the Irish linebackers. Where Notre Dame was is so similar to where Notre Dame is simply because two experienced senior captains lead the way at linebacker.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
Aside from questions about defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s rover position, only one question stood out about this linebacker group: Who would start alongside senior Nyles Morgan: senior Greer Martini or junior Te’von Coney?

A year ago Coney recorded the fourth-most tackles on the team with 62. Martini finished fifth with 55, and his seven tackles for loss, including three sacks, dwarfed Coney’s 1.5. Yet Coney technically started nine games compared to Martini’s four.

RELATED READING: Two days until spring practice: A look at the linebackers

With the rover often lining up essentially as a linebacker, there would only be space for one of Martini or Coney in most formations.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
In his first season with the Irish, Elko will have quite a luxury in referring to Coney as a backup linebacker. In some respects, that designation was inevitable as soon as Martini was named a captain. Nonetheless, Coney will see plenty of playing time.

The two captains—along with fellow captain, senior Drue Tranquill at rover—will be counted on throughout the summer and fall camp to continue the defense’s growth in Elko’s system. Elko said he installed “close to 50 percent” of his entire defense throughout spring practice. The linebackers must deal with the most difficult aspects of that learning.

“There’s been a noticeable improvement in terms of this starting to look like the defense we want this to look like as spring has gone on,” Elko said a week ago. “… Linebacker probably more than any other position, linebacker and safety, where the scheme takes some time to get used to, how you see it, how you fit it, how you feel it. Those guys have gotten better with that which has then allowed them to play faster as the spring has moved on.”

Sophomore Jonathan Jones will likely provide any further depth that may be needed in 2017, unless either of the incoming freshmen, David Adams and Drew White, excel from the outset. Irish coach Brian Kelly indicated sophomore Jamir Jones (no relation to Jonathan, but is former Notre Dame defensive lineman Jarron Jones’ brother) may be destined for time on the defensive line, in large part to Jones’s continued growth. Junior Josh Barajas let the spring come and go without mandating he be involved in these conversations, which may as well count as removing himself from the conversation in most regards.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame Was, Is & Could Be: Rover