Paul Longo

Weekend Notes: Recruiting, Freshmen, Schedules and odds

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As mentioned yesterday, it’s a recruiting reunion on campus this weekend for the class of ’13. With a group of promising 2014 recruits as well as a handful of uncommitted prospects in this recruiting cycle, South Bend (local weather high-80s and sunny as we speak) is getting the once over from top prospects Mackensie Alexander and Alex Anzalone, as a large group of committed players do their best to grow their recruiting class.

For the first time, that committed group includes Jaylon Smith. As one of the nation’s top players, Smith will carry a little bit of clout this weekend, and plans to make his own sales pitch to Alexander and Anzalone, according to Trent Adams of IrishSportsDaily.com.

“I’ve been talking to Alex Anzalone a lot and I know he’s really looking forward to this visit, hopefully I can convince him to line up next to me for the next four years,” Smith told ISD. “I know that MacKensie Alexander also decided to visit and he could be a big-time player for us at cornerback. I know we already have a solid foundation on defense in this class, but these two guys could really help us solidify ourselves as one of the top defensive classes in the nation.”

News will likely trickle out of campus until reporters can catch up with prospects after they leave, but it’s a big weekend on campus for the future of the Irish football program.

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The weekend also marks the beginning for the Irish freshman class. While Gunner Kiel and Sheldon Day got an early semester on their classmates, 14 true freshmen will arrive this weekend to get a jump start on school while getting their first taste of Notre Dame football with strength and conditioning coach Paul Longo.

It’s easy to focus on players like Chris Brown and Davonte Neal, two newcomers that might have a chance to break into the mix at wide receiver. But Austin Collinsworth‘s injury has made the safety position one to watch as well, with CJ Prosise, Elijah Shumate, and John Turner all getting a shot to get into the mix. Also worth watching will be Chris Badger, who spent a spring with the Irish two years ago before missing time on his Mormon mission. Even after walking away from the game for two seasons, Badger will likely have a jump start physically.

One freshman that’s ready for the grind is running back Will Mahone. While the depth chart won’t likely include the Ohio native near the top, Mahone’s ready for the scrutiny that comes with playing for Notre Dame and head coach Brian Kelly.

As ESPN’s Matt Fortuna found out, so is Mahone’s mother Celia.

“I can’t wait till he gets in William’s face,” Celia Mahone told ESPN. “I said, ‘What are you going to do?’ He said, ‘Nothing.’ I said, ‘That’s right.'”

Last year, Troy Niklas was a freshman that surprised early and found his way into the early mix. There will likely be someone that flies below the radar and does the same thing this year.

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Notre Dame usually keeps their future schedules on lock down until the entire slate is ready to announce. While most of the attention has been on BCS meetings taking place in Chicago, Brian Hamilton of the Chicago Tribune caught up with Jack Swarbrick, who added a little clarity to the future Irish schedules.

“I think 2013 is done, but I’m not sure,” Swarbrick told Hamilton. “I know I’ve got a hole in one year, but I don’t know if it’s ’13 or ’14 or ’15. But we’re in really good shape. Right now, we have three holes through ’17.”

Let’s help Swarbrick out, who is currently dedicating most of his hard drive to navigating the tricky postseason equation.

In 2013, all 12 games appear to be accounted for, with the Irish likely still nailing down a date in Colorado Springs to play Air Force. The 2014 slate looks like it has a hole in it, with Arizona State and Northwestern on the schedule, as well as Rice, Temple and a potential neutral site game with Syracuse in the Meadowlands. In 2015 and 2016 the Irish are set to open the season with Texas, a formidable opener that’ll likely be one of the country’s premier games. Depending on how the Irish use their announced games against fellow independent BYU, the 2016 schedule is full with 2015 looking one short and 2017 as well.

The news that Army and Notre Dame were looking to slot something for the near future wasn’t surprising, and it’ll likely fill one of the holes Swarbrick was talking about. But when Irish fans wonder why Notre Dame has trouble fitting in a game with a Big Ten opponent like Wisconsin, consider how far out this kind of thing gets done, and then realize that limited non-conference slots in the Badgers’ schedule makes finding a match difficult.

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Lastly, if you want to start losing money on Notre Dame football early, our friends at One Foot Down have you covered. The Golden Nugget released 111 college football lines this week, and here are the Irish games that are taking action:

Navy vs. Notre Dame (-13.5)

Notre Dame at Michigan State (-3)

Michigan at Notre Dame (-1)

Miami vs. Notre Dame (-9.5)

Stanford at Notre Dame (-5)

BYU at Notre Dame (-9)

Notre Dame at Oklahoma (-11)

Pittsburgh at Notre Dame (-12.5)

Notre Dame at Boston College (+12)

Notre Dame at USC (-13)

 

 

 

Restocking the roster: Offensive Line

Notre Dame offensive line
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When Notre Dame takes the field this spring, there’ll be two very large holes in the offensive line that need filling. All-American left tackle Ronnie Stanley is gone. As is captain Nick Martin at center. Both three-year starters leave Harry Hiestand with some big decisions to make in the coming months as the Irish look to fill those key positions and still field a unit with the ability to dominate in the trenches.

The Irish have had incredible stability at left tackle, with Stanley sliding in seamlessly after four seasons of Zack Martin. Perhaps the best six-year run in the program’s storied history at the position, Stanley will likely join Martin as a first-rounder, back-to-back starters at a key spot that often dictates the play of one of the most important units on the field.

Replacing Nick Martin could prove equally tricky. Rising junior Sam Mustipher served as Martin’s backup in 2015, filing in capably for Martin after an ankle sprain took him off the field briefly against UMass. But Mustipher will face a challenge this spring from rising sophomore Tristen Hoge, the first true center recruited by Hiestand and Brian Kelly since they arrived in South Bend.

Kelly talked about 2017 being a big cycle on the recruiting trail for restocking the offensive line. You can see why when you look at the depth, particularly at tackle. Let’s look at the work that’s been done the previous two classes as Notre Dame continues to be one of the premier programs recruiting in the trenches.

 

DEPARTURES
Ronnie Stanley
, Sr. (39 starts)
Nick Martin, Grad Student (37 starts)
Mark Harrell, Sr* (No Starts, fifth-year available)

*Harrell’s departure is not confirmed, though expected.  

2015-16 ADDITIONS
Tristen Hoge
, C
Trevor Ruhland
, G
Jerry Tillery
, T
Parker Boudreaux
, G
Tommy Kraemer
, T
Liam Eichenberg
, T

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Hunter Bivin, T
Quenton Nelson, LG
Sam Mustipher, C
Steve Elmer, RG
Mike McGlinchey, RT

Alex Bars, T
Colin McGovern,* G/T
Tristen Hoge*, C
John Montelus*, G
Jimmy Byrne*, G
Trevor Ruhland*, G

*Has an additional year of eligibility remaining. 

ANALYSIS:
It’ll be a fascinating spring up front for the offensive line. We’ll get our first look at potential replacements and see if the Irish staff values a veteran presence (as it has done in the past) or puts former blue-chip recruits in position to become multi-year starters.

For now, I’m putting last season’s backups in line to ascend to starting spots. That’s not to say I think that’s what’ll happen. Hunter Bivin may have been Stanley’s backup last season, but as long as Alex Bars is fully recovered from his broken ankle, I think he’s the best bet to step into that job. Sharing reps at guard—not a natural spot for Bars to begin with—was more about getting him some experience, with the aim to move him into the lineup in 2016. That allows Bivin to be a key swing reserve, capable of playing on either the right or left side.

At center, the decision is less clear cut—especially since we’ve yet to see Tristen Hoge play a snap of football. Size and strength is a genuine concern at the point of attack for Hoge, not necessarily the biggest guy hitting campus. But it sounds like he’s had a nice first season from a developmental standpoint, and if he’s a true technician at the position, he could be a rare four-year starter at center if he’s able to pull ahead of Mustipher this spring.

On paper, the other three starting jobs don’t seem to be in question. Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey are ready to step to the forefront. Concerns about Steve Elmer’s buy-in will certainly be answered by spring, there’s little chance he’ll be on the field in March if he’s not going to be around in August. I’m of the mind that Elmer’s too good of a character guy to leave the program, even if his life doesn’t revolve around football 24/7. Now it’s time for him to clean up some of the flaws in his game, the only starter from last season who held back the Irish from being a truly elite group.

Depth isn’t necessarily a concern, but there isn’t a ton of it at tackle. That happens when you move a guy like Jerry Tillery to defensive line and lose a player like Stanley with a year of eligibility remaining. That could force the Irish to cross-train someone like Colin McGovern, a veteran who can swing inside or out if needed. McGovern seems to be a guy who would start in a lot of other programs, but has struggled to crack a two-deep that’s now filled with former blue-chip recruits, all of them essentially handpicked by Hiestand and Kelly.

Restocking the roster: Wide Receivers

Notre Dame v Florida State
Getty
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Some believe that the best way to look at recruiting is in two-year increments. As programs rebuild and rosters turn over, covering the needs of a football team over two recruiting cycles  allows a coaching staff to balance its roster.

That balance is critical to the health of a program. And it’s not just the work of a rebuilding coach. As we saw in Brian Kelly’s sixth season, injuries, attrition and scheme change impacted the defense, especially in the secondary.

Another position set to deal with major change is wide receiver. Gone is All-American Will Fuller, departing South Bend after three years, scoring 29 touchdowns over the past two seasons. He’ll look to run his way into the first round of the NFL Draft. Also gone are veterans Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle, putting the Irish in an unenviable position, needing to replace the team’s three leading receivers.

Reinforcements aren’t just on the way, they’re already on campus. While there’s not a ton of production to see, the recruiting stockpile has created a chance to reload for Mike Denbrock’s troop. So let’s take a look at the additions and subtractions on the roster, analyzing the two-year recruiting run as we restock the receiving corps.

DEPARTURES
Will Fuller
, Jr. (62 catches, 1,258 yards, 14 TDs)
Chris Brown, Sr. (48 catches, 597 yards, 4 TDs)
Amir Carlisle, GS (32 catches, 355 yards, 1 TD)
Jalen Guyton, Fr. (transfer)

 

2015-16 ADDITIONS
Equanimeous St. Brown

Miles Boykin*
CJ Sanders
Jalen Guyton
Chase Claypool*
Javon McKinley*
Kevin Stepherson*

 

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Corey Robinson, Sr.
Torii Hunter, Sr.*
Justin Brent, Jr.*
Corey Holmes, Jr.*
CJ Sanders, Soph.
Miles Boykin, Soph.*
Equanimeous St. Brown, Soph.
Kevin Stepherson, Fr.*

 

ANALYSIS
Brian Kelly expects St. Brown to step into Will Fuller’s shoes. If the Irish are able to pluck another sophomore from obscurity to the national spotlight, it’ll say quite a bit about the depth and productivity the Irish staff has built at the position. At 6-foot-5, St. Brown has a more tantalizing skill-set than Fuller—and he was a national recruit out of a Southern California powerhouse. But until we see St. Brown burn past defenders and make big plays, assuming the Irish won’t miss Fuller is a big leap of faith.

The next objective of the spring is getting Corey Robinson back on track. The rising senior had a forgettable junior season, ruined by injuries and some bruised confidence. A player who has shown flashes of brilliance during his three seasons in South Bend, the time is now for Robinson, not just as a performer but as an on-field leader.

Torii Hunter Jr. is also poised for a big season. After finding reps at slot receiver and possessing the versatility to see the field from multiple spots, Hunter needs to prove in 2016 that he’s not just a utility man but an everyday starter. His hands, smooth athleticism and speed should have him primed for a breakout. But Hunter might not want to stay in the slot if CJ Sanders is ready to take over. After a big freshman season on special teams, Sanders looks ready to make his move into the lineup, perhaps the purest slot receiver Brian Kelly has had since he arrived in South Bend.

The rest of the spring depth chart should have modest goals, though all face rather critical offseasons. Justin Brent is three years into his college career and the biggest headlines he’s made have been off the field. Whether he sticks at receiver or continues to work as a reserve running back remains to be seen. Corey Holmes is another upperclassman who we still can’t figure out. Will he ascend into the rotation with the top three veterans gone, or will he give way to some talented youngsters?

Miles Boykin earned praise last August, but it didn’t get him time on the field. He’ll enter spring with four years of eligibility, same as early-enrollee Kevin Stepherson. The Irish staff thinks Stepherson has the type of deep speed that they covet, capable of running past cornerbacks and stretching a defense. Boykin has size and physicality that could present intriguing options for an offense that’ll be less reliant on one man now that Fuller is gone.

Live Video Mailbag: 40-year decision, more BVG, freshmen and more

BVG
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We’ve done plenty of mailbags, but this is our first shot at a Live Video Mailbag. This should be a better way to answer more questions and hopefully interact with a few of you as we try to work off some of yesterday’s Super Bowl snacks.

Topics on the list: The 40-year decision, more Brian VanGorder talk, the incoming (and redshirt) freshmen and a whole lot more.

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