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Junior Day focuses on four top prospects

Mar 5, 2012, 3:07 PM EDT

Ty Isaac

The Irish recruiting class of 2013 hasn’t exactly jumped out of the gates. With blue-chip offensive tackle Steve Elmer committed since September, the Irish haven’t added anybody yet to a recruiting class that’ll likely build to around 20 recruits when it’s all said and done. While the early success Michigan and Ohio State have had hasn’t likely been lost on Brian Kelly and his coaching staff, there’s a slightly different approach being taken this year by the Irish, who hosted their first junior day this weekend.

Instead of bringing in large group of prospects, the Irish staff focused their attention on four recruits near the top of their board. That list included running back Ty Isaac, the Midwest’s top running back and linebacker Jaylon Smith, one of the best players in the country and another talented player from Fort Wayne. Also joining were defensive end / tight end Jacob Matuska from Columbus, Ohio and North Carolina wide receiver Keeon Johnson, a big-bodied outside receiver from a state the Irish have had a lot of success in.

With reports rolling in after the weekend, the Irish made positive strides with all four players, although none pulled the trigger on a commitment (something nobody truly expected anyway). Here’s some reaction from the players pulled from around the interwebs:

TY ISAAC – Running Back

There might not be a more important offensive recruit than Isaac, who is being recruited by Chuck Martin and has just began building a relationship with new running backs coach Tony Alford. It’s hard to match Isaac’s offer sheet, and the Chicago Sun-Times’ player of the year spent the weekend getting some questions answered on his role in an evolving Irish offense. Jason Sapp of BlueandGold.com got some interesting insights from Isaac after his trip to South Bend.

“They said they’re only taking one running back in my class,” Isaac told Sapp. “I don’t feel any pressure about the situation, though. I want to get out and see all the schools I’m interested in. Notre Dame is a good place, but I’m not going to put the pressure on myself to worry about if the one spot is taken.”

One of the biggest things the Irish needed to do this weekend was let Isaac know his role in the offense, with the spread not necessarily the top choice for an I-back that’s put up record-setting numbers after carrying for 2,600 yards and scoring 51 touchdowns while leading his high school to a state championship. It seems like that was accomplished with Martin, Alford and Kelly spending significant time breaking down film and continuing to build their relationship.

“Coach Martin has told me about some of the things he wants to do. He showed me how they would use me,” Isaac told Sapp. “Coach Alford talked about what he’ll be doing as a position coach and the relationship he has with the players. A way I can look at the situation with Coach Alford having both running backs and slot receivers is a way to get some extra touches working both positions, and that’s a plus for Notre Dame.”

The battle for Isaac will likely continue until Signing Day, with coaches like Urban Meyer, Brady Hoke, and Lane Kiffin also taking dead aim at the talented Joliet product. But from the sounds of it, the Irish will be in this race until the end.

JAYLON SMITH – Linebacker

The recruiting weekend got off to an inauspicious start when All-American tight end Tyler Eifert publicly tweeted that he was looking forward to hanging with fellow Fort Wayne native Smith this weekend. As noted by the Chicago Tribune’s Brian Hamilton, the public mention might have run afoul with NCAA rules, though it’s far from a major issue and Eifert’s tweet was deleted, ending any issue and pulling him within 2,348 secondary recruiting violations of many college head coaches.

While the Twitter update won’t be coming anytime soon, Smith did have a chance to spend time with Eifert and also was partnered with another one of the Irish’s big fish, All-American linebacker Manti Te’o. Like Te’o was four years ago, Smith is likely the top target for the Irish at linebacker, where Smith could fit in at multiple positions, with his size and athleticism and pass rush skills.

You’d almost expect Smith to be ready to commit to Ohio State with his brother already playing for Urban Meyer, but from the sound of it, Smith is legitimately looking to spread his wings and make his own mark. That might be very good news for the Irish, who have done quite well in their early pursuit of the explosive athlete.

“The thing with Notre Dame is that all the people there are really genuine, and you can tell it’s a special place,” Smith told IrishSportsDaily.com. “The players have a special bond with each other and I thought that was really cool. I got to hang out with Manti and Tyler Eifert. Both of them are great guys, Manti and I connected. I could see myself playing next to him. He’s a very humble person and we definitely formed a bond.”

If you’re looking for good news, it’s that Smith is looking to make it back to South Bend for the Blue-Gold game, set for April 21.

KEEON JOHNSON – Wide receiver

Johnson is an interesting target and another product of the Irish’s excellent network in the Carolinas. At six-foot-three, 200-pounds, Johnson is the type of big-bodied wide receiver that the Irish are looking to add to their depth chart, and Notre Dame is one of the first non-regional offers Johnson has gathered.

The offer must have held some weight because the Johnson family took an 11-hour drive to South Bend to hear what the Irish coaching staff had to say and came away mighty impressed. Along with the usual niceties that come along with seeing the Notre Dame campus for the first time, Johnson talked about where he’d fit into the Irish scheme.

“We talked about the scheme and I would be the X or the W, but the outside receiver basically playing the backside of the offense in one-on-one situations,” Johnson told Jason Sapp of BlueandGold.com. “The position is for a long, tall receiver, and they said I’d be perfect at that spot for them. I’ve played that position most of my high school career anyway, so it would be a good fit.”

While Johnson doesn’t grade out yet on many national recruiting websites, it’s hard not to compare him to the under-the-radar Chris Brown when thinking of Johnson. As a recruit that’s planning to enroll early, it was a really important step for the Irish to get Johnson on campus early, and potentially get a return trip before an official visit that’ll happen during the football season.

JACOB MATUSKA – Defensive End

If you’re looking for the prototype “big skill” player that Kelly mentioned targeting in this recruiting class, Matuska represents one of the early targets. At six-foot-five, and 250 pounds, Matuska is another big body that’s been looked at as both a tight end and defensive end, with the Irish slotting him to work with Mike Elston on the defensive side of the ball.

The Irish offered Matuska a scholarship a few weeks ago and they’ve hardly been the only big-name program chasing after the Columbus native. While the hometown Buckeyes have yet to offer, Matuska has picked up offers from Michigan, Nebraska and Oklahoma recently. After his weekend visit to South Bend, it’s clear that the Irish staff know where they see him fitting into the defensive system.

Christian McCollum of Irish Sports Daily caught up with Matuska’s father, who spoke candidly about his son’s two-way options.

“Coach talked about, ‘Could he play tight end? Yes,’ but they see his best position for Notre Dame at defensive end,” the elder Matuska told IrishSportsDaily.com. “Notre Dame has a need and they’re looking for a position. That’s where they see him. We appreciate that, we respect that and we’re honored and happy that they would think about him and consider him for that position.”

It appears that the Irish coaching staff is already preparing for the eventuality of losing both Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt. If both talented rising sophomores take the leaps in their game the coaching staff hopes, that could be sooner than later, which explains the focus on players of Matuska’s profile. From various reports, it seems like Matuska could be one of the first to make their decision.

“We’ll get a chance to talk about it and put it all in perspective. It is a very big decision, obviously that’s an understatement,” Jim Matuska told ISD. “We don’t have a timetable, but I think we have what we need at this point. I would think it would be sooner than later if he can be confident of his decision. That could come very soon.”

  1. bernhtp - Mar 5, 2012 at 3:27 PM

    The key to recruiting this year probably has little to do with what has gone on so far. I was at the USC game where many of the nation’s top recruits were paraded into the stadium after the team on a beautiful fall day and an electrifying atmosphere. We even had the new sound system replete with Ozzie’s Crazy Train. All stars were lined up, unfortunately, for one: the team’s performance. They laid a big egg (not to mention Stanford and FSU) and that had a big effect on Feb 1.

    Whatever interest we get from top recruits this spring/summer will only be meaningful if we start winning some big games this year.

    • nudeman - Mar 5, 2012 at 4:01 PM

      Hard to disagree there.

      They don’t necessarily need to go undefeated this year – although I won’t stop them – but AT LEAST 1 and preferably 2 or 3 (or 4?) VERY high profile wins are MANDATORY.

      Michigan, USC, Stanford and Oklahoma come to mind.

      A year like that would totally change the dynamic of their recruiting. Right now it seems like they have to fight, scratch, claw and beg for every top athlete they get; as opposed to these recruits knocking on ND’s door, which used to be the case in the Era of Ara.

      • irisheyesinsd - Mar 5, 2012 at 6:02 PM

        I agree that on field results impact recruiting, so let’s play the prediction game for 2012.
        It’s not always a good idea to predict the future on the results of the past. Players graduate, new starters emerge, some players improve their play as they develop. But even when I consider all of that, can we realistically predict that we are going to be better than say, 9-3 in 2012? Of course, anything is possible, but given the schedule I say 12-0 is less likely than 3-9. This 2012 schedule is brutal!
        @ Okla and @ USC cannot be predicted as wins, and most likely are losses. And we’ll be lucky to take 2 of 3 from Stanford, @ Michigan St., Michigan. This also assumes there are no slip ups against decent teams like BYU, Miami, and Pitt. And ND has shown itself as very capable of slipping up the past few years. (Navy, anyone? Tulsa. USF, to name a few under Kelly)…To me 9-3 sounds like an optimistic but not drinking from the kool-aid type of prediction.
        So if we assume 9-3, that means a bowl game but no BCS in all likelihood, and a slight improvement over two 8 win seasons. Where does that get us in recruiting? What does that say about Kelly’s future at ND? What number of wins must we have to land a top ten recruiting class?

      • nudeman - Mar 5, 2012 at 6:32 PM

        irisheyes
        I think you’re a tad pessimistic, and i point to last year as the reason.

        As infuriating as the season was with turnovers, bad play at QB, more turnovers, playing “flat” too often … do you realize how close they were to a 10 or 11 wim season?

        I am not a big believer in “If statements”, like “If so and so makes that tackle, we win”. They’re meaningless. There are no “Ifs” the real world. Having said that, how many games did they have that turned on a single play or single crucial stupid mistake?

        1. USF: Gray’s fumble at the goal lineults in a 14 point turnaround; or TJ Jones getting hit in the head with a pass at the goal line cost them 7. Take your pick. They lost by 3
        2. Michigan: Take your pick of ANY of the plays in the last 20 seconds when UM covered 80+ yards to score.
        3. USC: Dayne Crist fumbles at the goal line and it results in a 14 point turnaround, and the electricity in ND Stadium disappears into the night, never to return. They lose by 14 (I think).
        4. FSU: Floyd drops a rare perfectly thrown ball from Rees that costs them 7.

        Only against Stanford was there NOT a mind numbing crucial single error that cost the game. They pretty much got beat by a better team there, though Rees’ play didn’t help.

        So here’s the point, if it isn’t already clear: Just fix any 2 of those insipid moments and you’ve got a 10 win team. Will they make mistakes this year? Of course. But if they just cut the turnovers in half, they’re a 10 win team.

        Harder schedule? Yes. But more talent on the ND team this year too. And definitely a better QB. I like where this is going.

      • jrct2450yahoo - Mar 6, 2012 at 10:11 AM

        Forget it, Nude, best case is 7 and 5. This team has too many question marks for that type of turnaround with their schedule and uncertainty at QB.

    • 1historian - Mar 6, 2012 at 12:36 PM

      I’ve said this a number of times in the last few years and here I go again: This team is one player making one play away from being Notre Dame again.

      I’ve also said that we need a turnaround game – we WIN a game against a team we’re not supposed to have a chance against, preferably on their turf.

      Beating Oklahoma in Norman would be nice, and it would be the 55th anniversary of our snapping their 47 game win streak – on THEIR turf. (Yes I’m that old!)

      We’ve got the talent, but now we need the FIRE, we need the LEADERSHIP, we need people who STEP UP.

      I think BK is looking for the same thing.

      • 9irish - Mar 6, 2012 at 1:13 PM

        You all are saying so much stuff, I feel like I am talking to myself! Everybody acts like they are crappy and everything, in reality they just beat themselves. Except for Stanford, nobody really BEAT them last year (not sure if they would’ve beat USC, even if they didn’t spit-the-bit). They are far ahead of what people think, but whether you beat yourself or not, you still got beat. That’s the frustrating part. Good teams with good coaches don’t let that happen.

        So we’ll see

        Go Irish

      • 9irish - Mar 6, 2012 at 1:15 PM

        I meant that as in, you are preaching to the choir

      • papadec - Mar 6, 2012 at 11:23 PM

        1historian – you are absolutely right on the money, and based on past posts, I figure one of us is less than a year older than the other. I enjoy your posts – thanks.

  2. sullyp18 - Mar 5, 2012 at 3:34 PM

    with these two way athletes does anyone know which way they would prefer to play?

    • papadec - Mar 6, 2012 at 11:26 PM

      sully – seems to me that when Keith posts a write-up on these two-way guys he usually includes a comment on their preference. OR, maybe it’s stuff I read about them @ Irish Sports Daily.

  3. sullyp18 - Mar 5, 2012 at 6:22 PM

    The key to this season is to see if the team is ready to be winners. Through the past two season there were games that we should have won but essentially shot ourselves int he foot. I would be happy with a 9-3 season considering who is on our schedule. But I really think that if they can get past their stupid mistakes this season could be great.

  4. gpatton90 - Mar 5, 2012 at 6:23 PM

    9-3, plus a bowl win to put us at 10-3, plus a year end ranking in the teens, I believe, would put us back in great position with the recruits. That’s a 2-game improvement with a brutal schedule, a new QB that would now have a year under his belt, and really high expectations for ’13. That being said, if one of those losses is at USC last regular season game, it better be competitive. A blowout loss to those #@%*!ers would really put a damper on things.

  5. don74 - Mar 5, 2012 at 6:37 PM

    I am waiting until the team is packed for Ireland before I think about next year’s record. The Blue Gold game will showcase the QB’s, fall practice will tell us which freshman will play, who will play wide out and who’s playing corner. Time moves fast enough, let’s take enjoy spring ball and see what shakes out.

    • jerseyshorendfan1 - Mar 5, 2012 at 7:33 PM

      Amen, the voice of reason. How can we begin to predict a record for next season when we don’t even know who will start at QB yet. There are a lot of loose ends I’d prefer to see tied up before I start trying to figure out their record. On another note, this article points up the reality for the coaching staff of how the recruiting merry go round keeps on spinning at full tilt. I am still reveling in the performances of “newcomers” like Lynch and Tuitt, while the staff is hard at work sizing up their replacements. I guess the better the player, the greater the chance that you’ll need a replacement sooner. Must be a ton of work for those guys with no time to rest on your prior recruiting laurels.

      • turknd - Mar 5, 2012 at 9:07 PM

        It wil be interesting on this blog if Golsen doesn’t get the nod for QB

      • bernhtp - Mar 5, 2012 at 9:24 PM

        Golson has played exactly the same number of downs of college ball as Kiel – zero – and thus I can’t imagine too many people here completely stuck on him being the starter. With that said, another zero here is the approximate number of people that believe ND can be successful with TR still at the helm. Hendrix looked very good in spots but clearly showed his inexperience in others. It will be an interesting competition.

        With little evidence, my current guess is a 51-49 edge to Hendrix over Golson, mostly based upon experience and size, though Golson does show that electric it factor in his HS highlight video. If neither of them come to stand out with good execution – making plays and minimizing costly mistakes – I wouldn’t be surprised to see Kiel move up to the depth chart, maybe to the top, by the end of the season.

      • andy44teg - Mar 6, 2012 at 12:20 AM

        It will be even more interesting if Rees DOES get the nod…i don’t think a web site can implode in on itself creating a massive black hole that sucks the life out of every Notre Dame fan ALIVE!!!!!!…but anything’s possible right??

      • nudeman - Mar 6, 2012 at 1:37 AM

        Well, we’re all just biding time. Sort of a dead period now.

        This season is crucial to BK’s future. There is immense dissatisfaction in the ND world about his mis-handling of the QBs, sloppy turnover/penalty ridden play and uninspired performances.

        If they finish near the bottom again this year in penalties, turnovers and offensive efficiency, then it’s on BK. But I’m betting Chuck Martin taking over the offense and a new QB makes a big difference. And I’m in the Golson camp, partially because of the HS highlights I’ve seen and partially because I’m not totally sold on AH. for reasons I’ve already mentioned 17 times.

        And see Don? I never once mentioned “you know who”.

    • don74 - Mar 6, 2012 at 8:32 AM

      Nude,

      LOL. It may be time to check out the Giants or the Cubs as we wait for spring practice to get going.

      • nudeman - Mar 6, 2012 at 9:35 AM

        don
        LONG suffering Cub fan here
        Gearing up for another Cub losing season isn’t the way to lift my spirits.

      • papadec - Mar 6, 2012 at 11:38 PM

        nude & don74 – I can appreciate your long suffering with the Cubs – because of my Red Sox relatives/friends. But, even the Red Sox finally won A WS or two. Now, as a lifelong Yankee fan, I can go back to taking their money & not feeling sorry for them. However, I still feel for you guys.

  6. sullyp18 - Mar 5, 2012 at 9:41 PM

    I hope we dont see Kiel by the end of the season. If we do I think it will be because ND is not winning games.

  7. turknd - Mar 5, 2012 at 9:47 PM

    Having a hard time seeing Kiel at the top by the end of the season but you never know. I posted because a lot of people on this blog are putting a lot of blind faith in Golsen. Maybe not so blind but hasn’t seen the field yet. Maybe a split between Hendrix and Golsen, but I agree w/ your assesment, Hendrix at this point has the edge. I hope whichever one it is has the winning mentality to push the team to the top.

    • turknd - Mar 5, 2012 at 9:49 PM

      Mentality and leadership

    • nudeman - Mar 6, 2012 at 10:38 AM

      A combination of AH/EG is probably the MOST likely scenario, given Kelly’s penchant for using 2 QBs.
      He’s done it at Cincy and he did it last year at ND

      If I had to bet, I’d say
      1) AH will start in Ireland, as much to take the pressure off EG as anything else
      2) AH will take 60% of the snaps in the first couple games; EG 40%
      3) As the season progresses, that will flip as EG gets more comfortable and his superior level of talent becomes more and more evident
      4) BK will still find a way to get his boy TR in the mix. Somehow. I don’t know why, but you can bet on it. Groan-n-n-n
      5) GK will ideally redshirt, then be ready to seriously compete in 2013

      This all presumes no big injuries scramble everything

      • bernhtp - Mar 6, 2012 at 12:00 PM

        I agree with the following change: AH starts and stays in the game as long as he is doing really well. In this scenario, EG gets in when ND is comfortably ahead, but a bit earlier than traditional garbage time. EG does see earlier minutes if AH struggles or otherwise under-performs.

      • nudeman - Mar 6, 2012 at 1:25 PM

        bern
        BK loves shuttling QBs in and out. Remember USC?
        Rees gets hurt, Crist takes over, beautifully drives them down to near the goal line
        So Crist is THE MAN, right?
        Wrong
        BK puts AH in.
        OK, AH is in there to punch it in, right?
        Wrong.
        Puts Crist back in, and in 1 play the world ends

        AH will start in Ireland and Golson will have the proverbial “package”.
        He’ll see the field in the 1st half, even if AH is lights out.
        Which he won’t be, by the way.

        That’s BK.

        I’ve never believed that shuttling QBs serves a team well.
        Maybe in spurts or in a limited few situations. But history tells us you gotta’ pick a guy and stick with him.

      • bernhtp - Mar 6, 2012 at 4:58 PM

        I doubt that Kelly will plan a two QB system. First, there is no significant change of pace with AH and EG, not like there was between Hendrix and Rees. I think he will name one the starter and let him run with it as long as he is doing well, though he will (should) find ways to give others playing experience far more than last year.

        However, I also hope that Kelly learned something from last year. He handled the Crist situation poorly, IMO. While I would have given Dayne a series or two in the second half of USF to get it together before giving the hook, my bigger objection was sticking with Tommy in the second half of the season as opposing defenses were game planning to his limitations and his performance degraded.

      • 9irish - Mar 6, 2012 at 11:03 PM

        This 2 QB thing has got to go…hell I was getting confused at times last year and I wasn’t even playing. Just momentum and rhythm and everything gets all screwed up

  8. jomilly - Mar 6, 2012 at 2:02 AM

    To early in the season for predictions, hopes, dreams, I do have expectations though. With the scholarships left open from last year, this can be a big, aka top 3 year. I expect nothing less, time for Kelly and staff to do elite work, they have the scholarships to burn.

  9. tony34343434 - Mar 6, 2012 at 10:46 AM

    Hate to say it because we all hate them, but look at Michigan, they did not have great talent, i thought they would be a 6-6 team but they finished 10-2 and won a BCS game. It is time for BK to coach these athletes, we have better recruits than most schools, better than Boise, TCU, Cinn, and last year we had a better team than Michigan, we must start winning now not only for recruiting and to build on something but we are ready for a big year from BK.

    • nudeman - Mar 6, 2012 at 12:55 PM

      Agree
      Just reduce the mistakes by 50% and that alone gives them a decent shot at being a 10 win team.
      But if we see the same old mind numbing idiocy from 2011, then I think a reasonable conclusion is BK is a big part of the problem.

  10. sisqsage - Mar 6, 2012 at 9:31 PM

    With Davonte, they just pulled off a No. 10-rated class, by at least one national media account.
    They have to get the QB position fixed (no more Rees), or they will underperform again.

  11. 1historian - Mar 7, 2012 at 11:10 AM

    papadec: reply to your 11:23 – I can remember when we couldn’t beat Northwestern because of that guy they had coaching them. My freshman year Nick Buonoconti and Norb Roy were co-captains.

    Thanks for your kind words.

  12. rambler09 - Mar 7, 2012 at 11:36 AM

    Matuska is Irish!

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