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.”

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