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Weekend notes: Shembo, Hiestand, Heuerman, and more

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Brian Kelly met with the media after practice today, with the biggest piece of news being an injury to linebacker Prince Shembo. Spotted wearing a boot on his left foot, Kelly didn’t seem overly concerned about a slight case of turf toe, which will keep him off the field for a handful of days.

An injury to any of the outside linebackers on the roster would put the Irish in a precarious situation, but right now it lets Ishaq Williams get a taste of the starting job. Williams has been an interesting test case this spring, with both Kelly and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco mentioning the changes in Williams’ energy level during practice.

“He’s getting there. He’s getting there. The light is starting to go on,” Kelly said. “There were a couple of instances today where there were some one-on-one match-ups between Troy Niklas and Ishaq Williams… Pretty exciting stuff. He’s getting there. He’s got to do it consistently, but we know what he’s capable of when it all starts to come together.”

You can see the exchange in UND.com’s video (embedded right below here), and the smile that comes to Kelly’s face shows you just how impressive both Williams and Niklas are as athletes.

There’s no reason to think Shembo’s injury is a serious one, but it sounds like Justin Utupo would be a guy that could potentially flex out to the ‘cat’ linebacker position, as it wouldn’t make any sense to shift Niklas back to defense after spending the spring and offseason transitioning.

Here’s the Kelly’s entire exchange with the press from earlier.

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The early returns on new offensive line coach Harry Hiestand are excellent. While the early returns on every new assistant coach are usually good, Hiestand has immediately shown himself an impressive recruiter and someone the players have latched onto from the get-go.

As someone that was extremely excited about the Ed Warinner hire when it happened, I expected the loss of Warinner to Ohio State be something that hurt the Irish offense. But from snooping around people close to the program, and just listening to some of the players and their reactions to Hiestand, it’s clear that the fit is a good one and the transition has been ultimately positive — almost addition by subtraction according to some.

Pete Sampson at IrishIllustrated.com has a great article showing just how much allegiance Hiestand’s players show him, with former All-Pro center Olin Kreutz visiting South Bend this week to spend time on the field with the Irish offensive line.

Chris Watt walked into the film room and stumbled across a legend.

Deep inside the Gug watching videos of Notre Dame’s offensive line was former Chicago Bear Olin Kreutz, a six-time Pro Bowl center. For a Chicagoland senior who grew up driving to Bears training camps, the introduction offered a shot of star power and insight into Harry Hiestand.

“I was definitely surprised,” Watt said. “How much he really wants to come back and help (Hiestand) and cares about him says a lot.”

Kreutz attended Notre Dame’s practice Wednesday morning and stayed after to work with the line on technique. In the afternoon the 13-year NFL star planned to watch tape with Hiestand, breaking down a group Notre Dame’s new line coach has drilled for just five practices.

Kreutz and Hiestand spent five years together with the Bears, which included a Super Bowl run in 2006. He attended a spring practice at Tennessee last year when Hiestand worked in Knoxville, driving more than eight hours to get there.

We’ll ultimately know how well Hiestand does with this line after watching it work next fall, but if Kreutz is any indication, Hiestand’s players stay tremendously loyal to him.

***

After a week where the Irish recruiting class made staggering in-roads, Notre Dame is entertaining one of the nation’s top tight ends, with Naples, Florida’s Mike Heuerman on campus this weekend. The line for Heuerman’s signature is pretty distinguished, and if the Irish are going to win out, they’ll need to beat schools like LSU, Miami, Florida State, and Ohio State, where Heuerman’s brother Jeff plays tight end for for Urban Meyer.

That said, the Irish sales pitch is pretty impressive, with Jake Brown getting a great quote from Heuerman on new offensive coordinator Chuck Martin‘s sales pitch.

“I was on the phone with Coach Martin,” Heuerman told Brown. “He was telling me, ‘When you’re here to watch practice this is our every day practice. When you see what we’re doing with the tight ends you’ll definitely be stunned and almost blown away and you’ve got to understand we’re not doing this Thursday and Friday because Mike Heuerman will be in town. This is what we do every single practice and this is what we plan on doing in the games.’”

If you listened to Kelly’s presser from above, it’s pretty clear the Irish are going to be playing two tight ends a lot of the time, with Eifert likely detached from the line and a physical mismatch with a cornerback. While Eifert is listed as a TE, he might as well be a jumbo-WR, and the battle to play the traditional tight end position is a three-man race between Ben Koyack, Troy Niklas, and Alex Welch, with Jake Golic also in the mix.

The switch of Niklas to the offensive side of the ball was a head-scratcher for some — especially when they turned down an elite TE recruit in Taylor McNamara. But when you consider they needed someone physically ready to be an in-line blocker first and a pass catcher second, it explains why you go to someone as physically impressive as Niklas, who is essentially an slightly undersized, more athletic left tackle.

***

Finally, Notre Dame welcomed five walk-ons to the football program this spring. I’ve already spotted a few of these guys in the UND videos, but here are the official roster listings:

  • No. 67: Kevin Carr, DE | 6-7, 325 | junior (Nashville, Tenn./Montgomery Bell Academy)
  • No. 17: Charlie Fiessinger, QB | 6-1, 185 | sophomore (Mason, Ohio/Moeller)
  • No. 63: Grant Patton, DE | 6-6, 256 | senior (Louisville, Ky./Saint Xavier)
  • No. 94: Dominic Romeo, DE | 6-6, 245 | junior (Turlock, Calif./Pitman)
  • No. 84: Andre Smith, WR | 6-2, 190 | sophomore (Davie, Fla./North Broward Prep)

One walk-on that’s also making some noise in camp is Minnesotan Connor Little, who is in the rotation at the ‘dog’ linebacker with Ben Councell and Danny Spond. Little, a six-foot-three, 225-pound freshman was a recruited walk-on from Hill-Murray High School in St. Paul, and had some opportunities to play Ivy League football before choosing Notre Dame.

 

 

How did Mike Elko fare against past Irish opponents?

TALLAHASSEE, FL - OCTOBER 18:  Karlos Williams #9 of the Florida State Seminoles scores the touchdown that would win the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during their game at Doak Campbell Stadium on October 18, 2014 in Tallahassee, Florida.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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Former Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder took over at that position before the 2014 season. Former Wake Forest defensive coordinator, and now VanGorder’s successor at Notre Dame, Mike Elko took over in Winston-Salem at the same time. Since then, the two programs faced common opponents nine times.

With the lone exception of Army, all these games featured ACC opponents. When it comes to talent, Wake Forest tends to be outmatched in the ACC. Recruits from 2011 to 2016 suited up for the Deacons in the 2014-16 seasons. During those six recruiting cycles, Wake Forest never finished higher than No. 10 in the conference according to rivals.com’s rankings. In 2012 and 2014, the Deacons finished at the bottom of the conference in recruiting.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, finished behind an ACC team a total of 10 times over those six years. Florida State outpaced the Irish five times, the exception being Notre Dame’s No. 3-ranked class in 2013 following its national championship game appearance. Clemson finished ahead of the Irish four times (2014 joining 2013 as the outliers), and Miami rounds the listing off with its No. 9-finish in 2012, compared to Notre Dame’s No. 20.

The point being, VanGorder and the Irish could anticipate having a stronger and deeper roster in at least six of the games discussed below. Elko and Wake Forest may have been able to make that argument—and it would be a debatable one—just once, when they faced Duke this past September.

Before comparing the two units’ successes and failures in those nine—actually, 18—contests, let’s establish two points of clarification. Notre Dame and North Carolina State played in a literal hurricane this past October. Comparing that game to any other will accomplish nothing. Furthermore, before anyone starts griping about that afternoon’s play-calling, this is an exercise discussing defensive performances, not offensive. The run:pass distribution of Oct. 1, 2016, bears no significance here.

Secondly, the other two games the Irish played fitting this criteria but after VanGorder’s dismissal—Syracuse and Army—are included below. Only so much of the scheme changed mid-season, and the personnel did not.

If you are busy catching up from a long weekend and do not have the time to look at the numbers below, a quick summary for you: In five of the eight instances, Elko’s unit fared distinctly better than VanGorder’s in multiple notable statistical categories. However, the Deacons struggled with Army’s triple-option attack, and both 2014 Florida State and 2015 Clemson blew right through the aggressive defense far easier than they did against Notre Dame.

Presented in something resembling reverse chronological order: (more…)

Four-star WR Micah Jones chooses Irish; Rees may need to wait; Other late-week reading

jones
rivals.com
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A day may come when Notre Dame suffers a recruiting disappointment in the 2018 cycle, when a high school star spurns the Irish coaching staff for a foe, but it is not this day.

Rivals.com four-star receiver Micah Jones (Warren Township High School; Gurnee, Ill.) committed to Notre Dame on Friday, joining a class of now 10 recruits, including four who committed just this week.

Jones chose the Irish over offers from the likes of Iowa, Michigan State and Ole Miss, among others.

He is the first receiver among the 10 commitments and the seventh considered a four-star prospect. At 6-foot-5, 196 pounds, Jones should present a large target for whomever the Notre Dame quarterback is in the fall of 2018, most likely then-senior Brandon Wimbush.

Tom, Tommy or Thomas; Assistant Coach or Graduate Assistant?
Thomas Rees may need to wait a season before officially being a coach at Notre Dame. The legislation to approve a 10th assistant coach was expected to be voted on, passed and effective in April. A newly-added amendment may push the effective date to following the 2017 season. The amendment will be voted on immediately before the legislation itself is.

The delay makes sense. Most coaching hirings and firings occur in December and January. In theory, creating a one-timing hiring frenzy following spring football could leave many programs in the lurch. In practice, however, this is not anticipated.

“The majority of the FBS guys that I’ve talked with currently believe that 10th coach is going to come from within their own organization,” Todd Berry told the Associated Press. Berry is the executive director of the American Football Coaches Association and former coach at Army and Louisiana-Monroe. “Quality control, graduate assistants, analysts, or they’re planning on hiring somebody that’s out of work.”

A majority is not a unanimity, though, and that carousel will innately work to the disadvantage of the Group of 5 schools.

As for Rees, a graduate assistant can still work extensively with players. The most-pertinent difference between a graduate assistant and an assistant coach is the former cannot recruit. Given Notre Dame’s recent success on the recruiting trail—and the early commitment of class of 2018 consensus four-star quarterback Phil Jurkovec (Pine-Richland H.S.; Gibsonia, Pa.)—Rees may not be an absolute necessity in that regard this cycle.

A Kizer Appraisal
Former NFL scout Greg Gabriel took a look at former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer this week, largely paying the draft prospect compliments.

In calling Kizer “the most talented quarterback in this draft class,” Gabriel set a high ceiling for Kizer’s spring. Part of Gabriel’s positive assessment comes from acknowledging Kizer’s responsibilities as the Irish signal-caller.

“The spread offense that Kizer played in at Notre Dame is more sophisticated than many of the spread offenses we see elsewhere at the collegiate level. The Notre Dame offense is a whole-field read scheme in which the quarterback has to go through a progression that encompasses both sides of the field. He also can change the play and/or protections at the line of scrimmage. Given all that, Kizer was asked to do more than many spread quarterbacks are asked to do.”

Gabriel also reflected on the dynamic differences for Kizer in 2015 and 2016 and what may have elicited some of his seeming stagnation.

“There was the unnecessary quarterback controversy at Notre Dame, and the offensive line wasn’t as experienced or as talented and the receivers were mostly first-year starters.”

As much as Gabriel raves about Kizer, he would be the first to tell you anything beyond individual player evaluation is a waste of air this early in the draft process. Mock drafts may be fun, but they are not much beyond that.

Take the fates of Tony Romo and Jimmy Garoppolo, for example. Few, if any, in the NFL expect them to dress for the Cowboys and Patriots, respectively, again. Where they end up could directly impact Kizer’s draft placement.

Jaylon Smith May Be Back to Form
Former Notre Dame and current Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith posted yet another encouraging video to Twitter. This one shows Smith really might be game-ready right now and, if not, almost certainly will be by the fall. Should there be any difficulty with the embedded video below, here is a link straight to it.

OL Mabry makes third commitment this week; WR Jones may follow Friday

mabry
rivals.com
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Two weeks ago, Irish coach Brian Kelly gave a non-answer of an answer to a question about a likely early signing period this coming December. Avoiding specifics, he indicated he thinks the effects of such a change will be seen on a case-by-case basis entirely dependent on the recruits.

“Some will, some won’t,” Kelly said. “…Each kid is going to have to react to it based upon also how their school is going to be dealing with it. Some will come off the board at the time.

“We’re expecting some to sign early, but I think our mindset is we’re going into it business as usual. We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

After this week, Notre Dame is going to have more year-long fights than anticipated. Consensus three-star offensive lineman recruit Cole Mabry (Brentwood High School; Brentwood, Tenn.) became the third prospect to offer a verbal commitment to the Irish coaching staff in less than 36 hours with his Wednesday decision. Mabry received the offer over the weekend, but waited a few days before making his decision public, lest emotions be dictating his thought process.

At 6-foot-6 and 255 pounds, Mabry will have time to add muscle to his frame, with four or five offensive tackles greeting him on the Notre Dame roster in the summer of 2018. That ability to mold his style and growth may have played a part in the Irish interest.

“They love my height and athleticism and how I play,” Mabry told rivals.com. “We got to break down film and go through things that they do that pair up with how I play now. They think I’ll be a great fit in their offense.”

Mabry is the ninth Notre Dame commitment in the class of 2018, though the first offensive lineman.

Judging by new Notre Dame director of football performance Matt Balis’s agenda for the Irish roster’s Valentine’s Day morning, Mabry will have much to look forward to in terms of strength and conditioning.

Rivals.com four-star receiver Micah Jones (Warren Township H.S.; Gurnee, Ill.) is scheduled to announce his verbal commitment this Friday at 4 p.m. ET. Along with Notre Dame, Jones is considering Iowa, Michigan State, Nebraska, Ole Miss, Illinois and Northwestern. He would be the first receiver in Notre Dame’s 2018 class. Naturally, whomever Jones commits to, the recruiting fight will last until at least December, and perhaps all the way to February.

Notre Dame adds two top defensive back commits; Elliott officially a ‘Husker

allen
rivals.com
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It’s early. It’s really, really early. Not in the day, though this post is scheduled for an a.m. hour. No, it is early in the 2018 recruiting cycle. Any piece of news, each commitment, everything should be taken with two grains of salt.

Nonetheless, Notre Dame—and more specifically, new Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko and defensive backs coach Todd Lyght—enjoyed Tuesday’s recruiting news when two consensus four-star coverage men committed to the Irish.

Safety Derrik Allen (Lassiter High School; Marietta, Ga.) and cornerback Kalon Gervin (Cass Tech; Detroit, Mich.) joined a class of now eight commitments, six of which play on the defensive side of the ball.

Gervin, the No. 11 cornerback in the class according to rivals.com, waited mere days after attending Notre Dame’s Junior Day over the weekend. Irish coach Brian Kelly and staff’s failure to land a recruit at Gervin’s position in the 2017 haul actually helped reel in the recruit with offers from Florida, LSU, Michigan and dozens others.

“The opportunity to play right away, they didn’t sign a cornerback this last class,” Gervin told Blue & Gold Illustrated helped sway him. “Also, the education is second-to-none. It speaks for itself.”

Allen, pictured at top, has leaned toward Notre Dame for months. The No. 3 safety in the country per Rivals, he chose the Irish over the likes of Alabama, Clemson and Florida State.

Elliott officially to Nebraska

The two highly-touted defensive backs will not have the chance to learn under the tutelage of Bob Elliott. Nebraska officially announced the hiring of the former Notre Dame safeties (2012-13) and linebackers (2014) coach. Elliott spent the last two seasons serving as a special assistant to Kelly, focusing largely on defending the triple-option attacks of Army, Navy and Georgia Tech.

Elliott rejoins former Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco in Lincoln. Diaco was hired as the Cornhuskers’ defensive coordinator in January.

The Lincoln Journal Star’s Brian Cristopherson reports Elliott will make a nice wage in eastern Nebraska.