Junior Day focuses on four top prospects

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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.”

Notre Dame beats Michigan for three-star TE Tommy Tremble

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One of Notre Dame’s deepest positions got even stronger with the Thursday morning commitment of rivals.com three-star tight end Tommy Tremble (Wesleyan High School; Norcross, Ga.). The No. 18 tight end in the class, per rivals.com, Tremble’s decision essentially came down to the Irish or Michigan.

A Wednesday night visit from Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, offensive coordinator Chip Long and running backs coach Autry Denson may have played a part in tipping the scales, though Tremble told Blue & Gold Illustrated he had been leaning toward the Irish since his official visit in October.

“There’s not many tight ends in the country that can do the kind of things that I can do,” Tremble said, then referencing Long’s view of the position in his system. “[Long] said with that in this type of offensive scheme it could be explosive.

“I’m going to be the hardest working at the entire college at anything. At everything too, not just football. I’m just going to make it work.”

In his first season at Notre Dame, Long showed his predilection for using multiple tight ends at a time, often pairing fifth-year senior Durham Smythe with junior Alizé Mack. Smythe would act as an additional offensive lineman who could slip out for a route while Mack’s duties were more akin to a receiver’s as often as not. Smythe finished his best collegiate season with 13 catches for 234 yards and a touchdown while Mack added 19 catches for 166 yards and a score. Current senior and returning fifth-year Nic Weishar chipped in seven catches for 39 yards and two touchdowns.

With two tight ends in this class now — Tremble joins consensus four-star George Takacs (Gulf Coast H.S.; Naples, Fla.) — Long should be able to continue with such as often as he wants. In 2017 he showed no caution in deploying freshmen Brock Wright and Cole Kmet occasionally. Presumably, Tremble and Takacs could see similar workloads from the outset.

The No. 52 overall player in Georgia, Tremble also held offers from Georgia, Auburn and UCLA, among others. He is the 20th commitment in the class with the early signing period commencing Wednesday.

Last week, Weishar declared his intention to return for a fifth year.

Notre Dame lands four-star former FSU commit, Houston Griffith, at safety

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If its defensive backfield was a concern this recruiting cycle, Notre Dame is putting together a strong finish to the class of 2018 to eradicate those worries. Consensus four-star Houston Griffith (IMG Academy; Bradenton, Fla.) became the second defensive back to commit to the Irish this week with his Tuesday evening declaration and the fifth of Notre Dame’s 19 (and counting) expected signees.

Griffith immediately becomes the most highly-rated commit in the Irish class. Rivals.com considers him the No. 3 safety in the class, the No. 9 player in Florida and the No. 35 overall prospect in the country. He had long been a Notre Dame target but initially committed to Florida State, partly due to the Irish struggles a year ago.

After Notre Dame showed much improvement this season — more specifically, its defensive shift — Griffith reopened his recruitment in late November.

“The changes that [Irish coach Brian Kelly] made really helped,” Griffith told Blue & Gold Illustrated. “The guys I know up there tell me it’s a different program, it’s a different team up there. Last season was a learning year and this year shows that they are starting to get all the pieces.”

Griffith has certainly bought in on the direction trending from 2016 to 2017.

“I feel like the next few years all the pieces are there to compete for a national championship.”

In addition to the Seminoles, Griffith held scholarship offers from the vast majority of college football’s powers, including Alabama, Michigan, Ohio State and USC.

He presents as a safety and seems to have been targeted as one, but he could also see early time at cornerback. In theory, a freshman may have a better chance of grasping that latter position. Then again, Notre Dame has a few established playmakers at cornerback; it very much does not have that luxury at safety.

At either position, Griffith and his fellow defensive back commits should shore up a position grouping that the Irish essentially whiffed on in 2017, when only two safeties were signed (Isaiah Robertson and Jordan Genmark-Heath) with no cornerbacks in the mix. Griffith is the third safety in the class of 2018, joining consensus four-star Derrik Allen (Lassiter H.S.; Marietta, Ga.) and consensus three-star Paul Moala (Penn; Mishawaka, Ind.).

All three, as well as the two cornerback commits and the other 14 prospects, are intended to sign with Notre Dame during this year’s early signing period, Dec. 20-22.

Where Notre Dame was & is: Running Backs

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Notre Dame’s running game stood little chance of exceeding expectations this season, considering how ambitious they were to start. This space’s preseason predictions, intended as a conservative and realistic harbinger of the months then-ahead, projected junior running back Josh Adams to gain 1,174 to 1,274 rushing yards this season. That upper limit would have placed Adams fourth in Irish program history, just ahead of his position coach’s 1,268 yards gained in 1997.

With a game to go, Adams stands only 51 yards of breaking Vagas Ferguson’s single-season record of 1,437 rushing yards, set back in 1979.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
In addition to the anticipation regarding Adams’ third season as a contributor, the Notre Dame backfield had depth entering the season. Junior Dexter Williams could provide a speed threat while sophomore Tony Jones built on springtime buzz as a do-everything option, often described as the best receiver of the group.

Early-enrolled freshman C.J. Holmes’ shoulder injury in spring practice seemingly sidelined him for the season, opening the door for sophomore Deon McIntosh to move from receiver to the backfield as a rest-granting fourth-stringer.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
As good as the season was for the Irish on the ground, it will be marked by “What if” thoughts as much as anything else. What if Adams had not worn down as the season progressed? What if Williams had been healthy for more than a week or two in the season’s first two months?

Even with his figurative crawl to the season’s conclusion, Adams surpassed all preseason projections and expectations. It still must be noted he gained only 195 yards on 54 carries in the final three regular season games, a 3.61 average.

Williams, meanwhile, was limited throughout the year. At the beginning, specifically against Georgia, that appeared to be by coaching decisions, but for most of the season, ankle and quad ailments robbed the speedster of his primary quality.

Absolutely no one expected sophomore Deon McIntosh to be the second-leading rusher among Notre Dame’s running backs in 2017. Credit to McIntosh, though, for making the most of an opportunity granted by others’ injuries.(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Jones, when healthy, provided a schematic shift as much as any statistical production. Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long clearly preferred Jones to be half of any two-back formation, due to Jones’ overall aptness.

McIntosh capitalized on every chance granted him, providing fourth-quarter rest to those limping from sprained ankles whenever the Irish had a worthwhile lead.

STATISTICALLY SPEAKING
Some of a statistical influx in rushing production should be credited to junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush, but the ground game as a whole was more successful in 2017 than it was a year ago no matter how the numbers are dissected.

2016: 2,123 yards on 410 carries (sacks adjusted); 176.9 yards per game and 5.18 yards per rush.
2017: 3,462 yards on 501 carries (sacks adjusted); 288.5 yards per game and 6.91 yards per rush.

— Jr. Josh Adams: 1,386 yards on 191 carries; nine touchdowns; 7.3 yards per rush; 10 catches for 82 yards.
— So. Deon McIntosh: 368 yards on 65 carries; five touchdowns; 5.7 yards per rush; three catches for eight yards.
— Jr. Dexter Williams: 324 yards on 37 carries; four touchdowns; 8.8 yards per rush; two catches for 13 yards.
— So. Tony Jones: 232 yards on 43 carries; three touchdowns; 5.4 yards per rush; four catches for 13 yards.
— Fr. C.J. Holmes: 32 yards on eight carries; 4.0 yards per rush.

COMING QUESTIONS
Will Adams stay for his senior year and further his assault on the Notre Dame record books or will he head to the NFL Draft with a year of collegiate eligibility remaining? He very much should take the latter option. Running backs’ careers are not long due to the very nature of the position. For the second year in a row, that wear and tear proved itself on Adams. There is little chance he could put together an even better season in 2018.

Thus, this is his chance to go in the Draft’s first couple rounds. By every reasoning, Adams should take this opportunity.

When utilized, junior running back Dexter Williams has proven to be a viable threat for Notre Dame. He has not always been incorporated into the game plan, though, partly due to classmate Josh Adams’ rampant success. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

At that point, will Long be able to incorporate Williams into the two-back set? Those multiple running back formations were some of the most productive looks for the Irish offense, and they almost entirely came with Jones joining Adams. Between pass-catching and pass-blocking, Williams lagged behind those two significantly. For the threats presented in a two-back alignment to be real, though, he will need to broaden his skillset appropriately.

If Williams doesn’t, could a healthy Holmes plug into the system? As much praise as McIntosh received, and earned, this season, he will never be the answer in the Notre Dame backfield. Holmes may be.

With Wimbush again the presumed starter in 2018, the ground game will be featured for another fall. The offensive line is (almost certainly) losing two first-round Draft picks, but it has enough experience to hold its own moving forward. Which back emerges as the workhorse if Adams turns pro could be the biggest offensive question all spring and summer. Williams may present the most big-play potential, but Jones has already shown greater consistency overall.

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame was & is: Special Teams
Where Notre Dame was & is: Tight Ends

Monday’s Leftovers: Notre Dame lands second cornerback commitment

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Hardly a week shy of the early signing period, Notre Dame doubled its cornerback haul in the class of 2018 with Tariq Bracy’s commitment Sunday night.

A rivals.com three-star recruit, Bracy (Milpitas High School, Calif.) had long said the Irish led in his recruitment, having visited campus for Notre Dame’s 49-14 victory over USC on Oct. 21. Rivals rates Bracy as the No. 65 overall prospect in California.

“The coaches, they made me feel welcome,” Bracy said to Blue & Gold Illustrated. “They really wanted me to go down there. They like my skillset. The players, they were welcoming, too. It’s really the whole atmosphere about Notre Dame, and the academics, too.”

Bracy opted for the Irish over a number of schools on the west coast, including Utah, Cal and Washington State.

Notre Dame now has 18 commitments in the class, including consensus-three star cornerback Joseph Wilkins (North Fort Myers H.S., Fla.). All 18 are expected to sign National Letters of Intent during the inaugural early signing period Dec. 20-22. For that matter, it remains possible an additional commitment or two could join those ranks either before the three-day stretch or in the midst of it.

Irish coach Brian Kelly has said he would evaluate any commitment not signing during the December dates as not being genuinely committed to Notre Dame, still needing further recruitment.

— Bracy’s, and Wilkins’, commitment holds more value for the Irish than many of the other 16 in the class thus far. In the last recruiting cycle, Notre Dame failed to sign so much as one cornerback.

Neither Bracy nor Wilkins may start in 2018. They, in fact, almost certainly will not, but they will provide both depth and a possibility of a future at the position.

— Just as another reminder — it is listed twice on the legal pad providing today’s outline, after all — the early signing period runs from Dec. 20 to Dec. 22. There will still be a nationwide focus on National Signing Day, Feb. 7, as any recruits not yet signed will have even more of a share of the spotlight.

— Bowl games have little long-term evaluatory value. They do, however, provide a delightful stretch of mid-day and/or mid-week December distractions. As an example, consider the game-a-day outlook on the horizon …

Sat., Dec. 16: Middle Tennessee St. v. Arkansas State; 8 p.m. ET; a high-scoring affair, if nothing else.
Tues., Dec. 19: Akron vs. FAU; 7 p.m. ET; Lane Kiffin with a nation’s lonely eyes turned to him.
Wed., Dec. 20: Louisiana Tech vs. Southern Methodist; 8 p.m. ET.
Thurs., Dec. 21: Temple vs. Florida International; 8 p.m. ET; Notre Dame’s season-opening opponent is favored by seven.
Fri., Dec. 22: Central Michigan vs. Wyoming; 4 p.m. ET; Josh Allen’s farewell to college football.
Sat., Dec. 23: Texas Tech vs. South Florida; 12 p.m. ET; This very well may end up being the most-dramatic bowl game.
Sun., Dec. 24: Houston vs. Fresno St.; 8:30 p.m. ET.
Tues., Dec. 26: Kansas State vs. UCLA; 9 p.m. ET.
Wed., Dec. 27: Boston College vs. Iowa; 5:15 p.m. ET; Of the 10 Irish foes in bowl games, six are like the Eagles, underdogs.
Thurs., Dec. 28: Stanford vs. TCU; 9 p.m. ET; A healthy Bryce Love could erase the 2.5-point spread in the Horned Frogs favor.
Fri., Dec. 29: USC vs. Ohio State; 8:30 p.m. ET; As strongly as the Trojans finished the season, they are still touchdown underdogs in the Cotton Bowl.
Sat., Dec. 30: Wisconsin vs. Miami, 8 p.m. ET; Despite playing at home, literally so, the Hurricanes are nearly touchdown underdogs.
Mon., Jan. 1: Georgia vs. Oklahoma; 5 p.m. ET; Frankly, Notre Dame vs. LSU in the Citrus Bowl will be but an appetizer for an evening of outstanding college football.