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.

***

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.

 

 

Mid-week reading: On Wimbush; NCAA $$$; A look back at Te’o

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A litany of links typically makes for good Friday fodder. A week’s worth of the internet can help any reader through an unproductive end of the week. Unfortunately, spring practice’s rhythms are inconsistent, unlike summer’s constant nothingness and fall’s non-stop charge.

Hey, who said you can’t take a long lunch on a Wednesday, anyways?

MORE WIMBUSH AND WHITFIELD
Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples joined Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush out in San Diego two weeks ago during spring break, watching as Wimbush listened to private quarterbacks coach George Whitfield’s instructions. Staples, per usual, tells a good story, slipping some nuggets of information within it where you may not even notice.

Many around this space have asked who foots the bill when a college quarterback seeks out Whitfield’s tutelage. Per Staples, Wimbush’s mother paid for the week.

Throughout the story, Wimbush emphasizes the importance of a Notre Dame degree, going so far as to point to former Irish quarterbacks Everett Golson and Malik Zaire acquiring their diplomas before departing Notre Dame. None of us know Wimbush’s academic progress—now approaching his second summer school session, Wimbush is likely ahead of the usual second-semester sophomore’s credit pace—but this tidbit may prove pertinent in nine months time. Considering what its pertinence would say about a bigger picture, Irish fans should certainly hope it is of note.

To this memory, the classic image relayed from Golson’s time with Whitfield was Golson throwing over brooms held by staffers, mimicking the long limbs of charging defensive linemen. Those fictional pass rushers have become a bit more realistic in nature, now apparently represented with outstretched tennis rackets.

NCAA GIVING NOTRE DAME NEARLY $1 MILLION
In what has been described as a “one-time supplemental distribution,” the NCAA is dispersing $200 million among its members. The amount each school receives is determined by the total number of full scholarships it gives to student-athletes, with each partial scholarship contributing its appropriate fraction toward that total figure.

Notre Dame will receive $984,724 thanks to giving out 299.20 scholarships in 2013-14. Some context behind that latter number: The football team takes up 85 scholarships. The men’s basketball team is allowed 13, and the women’s basketball team gets 15. The remaining 186.20 are split among the other 20 varsity sports (counting men’s and women’s teams separately in rowing, swimming and diving, and track and field).

Other notable schools:
Ohio State receives the most, more than $1.3 million, thanks to its 403.98 scholarships.
USC’s 279.06 scholarships equates to $918,440.
Michigan’s 353.18 scholarships will yield close to $1.2 million.

All these dollars must be spent it ways aiding the student-athletes. Schools cannot put the funds toward items like stadium construction or coaches’ salaries. Rather, the NCAA indicated the money is for “the direct benefit of the student-athlete and their academic success, life skills, career success, health and safety and student-athlete focused diversity and inclusion initiatives.”

All expenditures must be approved by the NCAA. The money comes from an endowment that had reportedly come to exceed $360 million.

REMEMBER THE TE’O DRAFT HOOPLA?
The below video does not necessarily reveal anything we do not already know about former Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o, despite its ponderous title. It does, however, make a good point.

Aside from a sporadic comment deep in the morass of these pages, not much is said about the Lennay Kekua situation anymore. At the time, it was the most talked about item anywhere, let alone in Notre Dame corners. Personally, a former co-worker at the Los Angeles Times called late one night that week four-plus years ago. He and I had not spoken in close to two years, and we haven’t spoken since. But the Te’o/Kekua story prompted him to seek an understanding of what in the world was going on.

In some irish.nbcsports.com history, the day after that story broke—it broke on Jan. 16, 2013, so I am referring to Jan. 17—still holds the record for most views to this particular site.

Good for Te’o to have successfully moved past that saga. These days, every comment former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer makes is scrutinized. He is even criticized for not having excellent timing with Jonas Gray, of all people. Looking back on Te’o, it should be remembered the most dramatic stories, one seemingly crafted perfectly for the internet, fade into the cobwebs of time.

[Here, a link in case the intended embed below fails.]

PHIL STEELE’S PROJECTED AP TOP 10
Enough with the past. Let’s project the future.

Phil Steele, of the revered Phil Steele’s College Football Preview, projected August’s Associated Press Top 10. Steele has accounted for voters’ tendencies rather accurately in years past, so it is not an entirely fruitless exercise. Then again, he is projecting the results of the first of many polls with no actual consequence.

Of Steele’s projected top-10, Notre Dame will face only No. 4 USC.

KENPOM’S TOO EARLY PRESEASON TOP 10
If you think Steele’s top 10 is too early, then skip this.

College basketball analytics master Ken Pomeroy put together his top 10 for next season, though any unexpected draft departures or transfers can certainly alter his calculations. After all, the season is not actually over yet.

Of certain Irish interest: No. 9 North Carolina, No. 8 Louisville and No. 6 Virginia. The last of those has already suffered a transfer which Pomeroy tweeted will “abruptly” end the Cavaliers’ time in his preseason top 10.

SPEAKING OF BASKETBALL, WELL DONE DENNIS, WHOEVER YOU ARE
Math is hard, so take this with a grain of salt, but I believe Dennis’ bracket of “Brey Brey’s Kids” will win the Inside the Irish March Madness pool. Dennis, your $984,724 is in the mail.

Don’t think that means there is no reason to watch the Final Four, though. Your host might be able to rise into the top half of the field, which would be good for his pride, and therefore the quality of writing in these parts.

It shouldn’t be too surprising my bracket flopped. This is a football page. Besides, by my eye, no one I actually know firsthand will finish higher than fourth. That is more of a relief than it should be.

Now is the time for Daelin Hayes to turn athleticism into pass rush threat

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This space has mentioned a few times the dearth of returning sacks among Notre Dame’s defensive line. It is a pertinent fact—no returning Irish defensive lineman recorded a sack in the 2016 season—but it fails to mention the flipside of that.

Most of Notre Dame’s defensive linemen had few, if any, opportunities to rush the passer in 2016. Perhaps at the top of the list of those who should bring down the opposing passer a few times this fall, sophomore Daelin Hayes has laid claim to a starting rush spot through five spring practices.

“The athleticism is what obviously stands out,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “He’s extremely athletic, he’s fit physically, 250 pounds and very strong.”

These facts are, after all, the reasons Hayes was a highly sought-after five-star recruit according to rivals.com.

“It’s the football knowledge, learning the techniques at the position in which he plays is really the piece,” Kelly continued. “It’s just learning right now for him. This is the time to do it, in spring ball.

“Squeezing down on a tight end when the back is away. Wrong-arming the puller. These are all football terms and schemes that are a bit new to him. We have to be patient with him. He’s an explosive athlete. There’s going to be some mistakes along the way, and I’m okay with that as long as he’s learning.”

Without much depth pushing for playing time behind him, Hayes will have the opportunity to make, and subsequently understand, those mistakes. Seniors Jay Hayes (no relation) and Andrew Trumbetti are mired in competition for the other end spot, while sophomores Julian Okwara, Adetokunbo Ogundeji and Khalid Kareem may have even more development ahead of them than Daelin Hayes does.

Incoming freshmen Kofi Wardlow and Jonathon MacCollister will join the fray in the summer, but for now, the younger Hayes has his chance to impress with his natural gifts while absorbing the intricacies of new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s defense.

Hayes is not a complete unknown. While Okwara made four tackles last season in 11 games and Kareem appeared in four games, Hayes saw action in every contest, finishing the season with 11 tackles, one pass breakup and one forced fumble.

“He’s an athlete,” defensive line coach Mike Elston said last week. “He’s on the edge in a two-point stance. He’s not a trained, put-your-hand-on-the-ground defensive end. He played running back in high school. He can see things better in a two-point and can diagnose quicker. He’s able to be more productive.”

It may be accurate to mention no returning Notre Dame defensive linemen tackled a quarterback for a loss last season, but it is more precise to also include the Irish have possibilities of changing that trend.

SPEAKING OF THE DEFENSIVE LINE
Notre Dame is nearly as thin at defensive tackle as it is at end. Junior Jerry Tillery leads the way with senior end-converted-to-tackle Jonathan Bonner lining up next to him thus far. Their reserves: Oft-concussed senior Daniel Cage, senior Pete Mokwuah and junior Micah Dew-Treadway with junior Elijah Taylor out for the spring with a foot injury.

Theoretically, junior Brandon Tiassum is also in the mix, and three freshmen (Kurt Hinish, Myron Tagovailo-Amosa and four-star Darnell Ewell) will join the group in the summer.

And maybe, just maybe, perhaps, possibly … Clemson graduate student transfer Scott Pagano could walk onto campus alongside those freshmen. Pagano visited Notre Dame the first week of March, and was due to look at Oklahoma and Arkansas the next two weekends, respectively. Instead, Pagano reportedly cancelled both of those visits Monday.

Pagano does still have a visit to Oregon scheduled for April 21. Until indicated otherwise, it may be prudent to presume Pagano hopes to land as close to his Hawaiian home as possible.

RELATED READING: 1 Day Until Spring Practice: A look at the defensive line

Recruiting success continues with OL Dirksen, class’s 12th commit

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Even in the doldrums of spring practice, Notre Dame’s recent recruiting success continues. Rivals.com three-star/scout.com four-star offensive lineman John Dirksen offered a verbal commitment to the Irish on Saturday, bringing the 2018 class to 12 commitments.

The 6-foot-5, 290-pounds Dirksen (Marion High School; Maria Stein, Ohio) joins consensus three-star prospect Cole Mabry (Brentwood H.S.; Brentwood, Tenn.) as the offensive linemen thus far among the 12. In three of the last four years, Notre Dame offensive line coach Harry Hiestand has pulled in four recruits, with 2015’s two (Trevor Ruhland, Tristen Hoge) as the exception. This recruiting cycle could again bring a limited offensive line haul, given the likely limits on the class’s size.

While any and all current class of 2018 team rankings should be taken with many grains of salt—there are 318 days between today and National Signing Day, after all—Dirksen’s commitment solidifies the Irish hold on the No. 3 class, per rivals.com. Other recruiting services place Notre Dame even higher.

Dirksen chose Hiestand and the Irish over offers from Michigan State, Iowa State and Boston College, among others.

 

Holmes out for spring; Jones & Jones shining

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Notre Dame’s spring continued over the weekend, and is all too often the case with football, that led to an injury. Early enrollee running back C.J. Holmes will probably miss the rest of spring practice due to a separated shoulder, Irish coach Brian Kelly announced following Saturday’s practice.

“We’ll get an MRI and know a little bit further on Monday once that calms down a little bit,” Kelly said. “We’ll get a picture of that and see. He had an open repair on that same shoulder his sophomore year in high school.”

Behind three backs, including two with experience, Holmes was unlikely to see playing time in the backfield in 2017.

Of those three backs, sophomore Tony Jones, Jr., is the unknown after preserving a year of eligibility last season. In limited practice viewing, however, Jones has only impressed. He has caught Kelly’s eye, as well.

“He’s 225 pounds, can catch the ball coming out of the backfield, [is] assignment correct, and can run elusively and can get into the second level,” Kelly said. “What does that equal? He’s a pretty good back.

“Obviously he was noticeable today in his play and he got some work with the first group as well. He wasn’t just getting second-team reps.”

Jones may be getting some first-unit exposure, but expect him to remain behind junior Josh Adams in the depth chart. Considering Jones’ style is somewhat comparable to Adams’, whereas junior Dexter Williams presents something of a change of pace, Williams should see more action than the sophomore, as well.

MORE PRAISE FOR ALIZE JONES
Junior tight end Alizé Jones—rather, Alizé Mack, per his Twitter account—has taken the lead in spring’s race of who reaps the most sound bite accolades. In complimenting Jones, who missed last season due to an academic suspension, Kelly also managed to laud new offensive coordinator Chip Long.

“I think Chip is doing a terrific job with [Jones],” Kelly said. “He’s got a good relationship. He knows how to rise him up when he needs to and scold him when he needs to. Alizé needs a little bit of that.

“He’s virtually un-coverable in certain areas of the field. I don’t care at any level. You can’t cover him. He just has that kind of talent. The one that I think stands out to me in the few days is he’s committed himself to being a blocker and playing physical. If he continues to do that, we’re going to find ourselves with a lot of tight ends on the field.”

Presumably, Jones would join graduate student tight end Durham Smythe in two tight end sets. It should be remembered, Long has historically shown a preference for such formations, and with Notre Dame’s plethora of options at the position, Long’s tendencies have no need to change. For that matter, Long had some praise for Jones this weekend, as well.

“Alizé can be as good as he wants to be,” Long said Friday. “…He’s growing up each and every day. Great joy to coach, and that whole group is. He doesn’t want to let that group down. There’s no question he can be as good as he wants to be.”