Brian Kelly podium

Taking a closer look at the Irish recruiting machine

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It’s fun to look back at the early worries about Brian Kelly. After being hired by Jack Swarbrick to take over the Irish football program, Kelly was immediately tagged with the “small time” label, with his work on the field at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan, and Cincinnati not actually the biggest question for some people. Could the new Irish head coach coexist in a recruiting world that would now feature some of the biggest fish in college football’s ocean?

Retaining only Tony Alford from Charlie Weis’ coaching staff, Kelly stuck with the familiar after taking the Notre Dame job, bringing with him coaches that worked alongside him on his way up the coaching ladder. While Weis plucked high-profile names from his Rolodex when he assembled his staff, Kelly’s crew had largely been anonymous, filled for the most part with coaches that hadn’t worked on a major stage but had plenty of experience working under the Irish’s new head coach. Deciding to go up against the heavyweights on the national stage with guys like Bob Diaco, Chuck Martin, Mike Elston, and Mike Denbrock, it’s been a pleasant surprise to most fans that this Irish coaching staff hasn’t flinched.

While the on-the-field product still will determine Brian Kelly’s legacy at Notre Dame, he’s exceeded just about all expectations in his first three recruiting classes, with a fourth group almost three-quarters full with seven months until signing day.

It’s too early to reach a true conclusion on the work that Kelly and his staff have done rebuilding the Irish roster, especially without a single Kelly recruit taking a snap as an upperclassman. And Charlie Weis’ work as a paper champion when it came to gathering faxes from highly-rated recruits shows you that topping Rivals.com’s rankings doesn’t determine your success. Yet entering season three of his tenure at Notre Dame, the work Kelly is doing on the recruiting trail, especially on the defensive side of the ball, has been undeniably impressive.

Let’s take a quick look at a few factors that have helped Kelly and his staff build this recruiting machine.

SETTING A PROTOTYPE

Kelly has helped Irish fans understand his recruiting system by breaking down the type of athletes he’s looking for. While the Notre Dame staff certainly profiles recruits for a certain position, they break down prospects into three distinct groupings: Skill, Big Skill and Power.

(A quick primer on how this versatility helps: Troy Niklas, once a linebacker now a tight end, is a perfect example of big skill. George Atkinson, assumed a wide receiver, but now a rising star at running back, fits Kelly’s mold of skill. And Brad Carrico and Bruce Heggie, two guys that started at Notre Dame along the defensive line, now find themselves in the mix at offensive line. That’s the versatility of recruiting power players.)

After watching the Irish flip-flop defensive identities throughout the Weis years, and put together a roster filled with tweeners and mismatched parts, Kelly has defined a prototype for what he’s looking for at position groupings, regardless of whether or not a recruit garners four-stars from a recruiting service.

Looking for a perfect example? Take Michigan linebacker Joe Bolden. While he was good enough to earn offers from the Wolverines and Penn State while garnering a Top 250 ranking by Rivals, the Irish coaching staff was shockingly candid when they turned down the 6-foot-3, 230-pound outside linebacker for being too small.

“Notre Dame told me they wanted a 6-foot-4 linebacker and that I am not their guy,” Bolden told the Detroit News. “I’m not upset if I don’t fit your profile, I was just surprised about height, because I have always believed that it’s not the size of the dog, but it’s the dog’s bite.”

Apologies to Bolden’s back of the t-shirt philosophy, but Kelly’s staff has successful rebuilt the Irish defense because they’ve stuck with the plan and found players that physically fit their scheme. Targeting larger athletes that fit the system — guys like Stephon Tuitt, Ishaq Williams, Ben Councell, Niklas, Jarrett Grace, Carrico and Tony Springmann — give you an idea of what the Irish are looking for along the edges of their defense, while allowing for positional flexibility. Anthony Rabasa, at 6-foot-3, 240, and Justin Utupo, at 6-foot-1, 258, are now inside linebackers, even though they profiled as defensive ends by most recruiting services. Staying within the parameters of their position profiles, while targeting the athletes the Irish need to achieve success in their system, has quickly benefited a defense that too often was undersized and outmanned under Charlie Weis.

WIDENING THE NET

Put simply, Notre Dame has put way more scholarship offers on the table than any other time in the modern era.

After being selective with scholarship offers under Willingham and Weis, Kelly and company have spread a wider net when trying to reel in the best prospects in the country. Along with dispelling the myth that the Irish couldn’t compete most of the best players in the country, the Irish coaching staff has streamlined the process of identifying and offering elite prospects.

The specifics of a scholarship offer have changed quite a bit in the past few years, with plenty of strings attached at schools with a lot less stringent academic standards than Notre Dame. Yet the Irish have been able to adapt to the times, target and offer players earlier and earlier, while also potentially taking fliers on elite players that might have been tough to get in a few years back if they waited until their senior season to chase them. While some of those borderline players might have bitten the Irish in the back side, the ability to get in the game earlier and earlier with recruits has helped the Irish as they fish in deeper waters.

There is no exact tally for scholarship offers released by schools. Yet the Irish had more than 150 scholarship “offers” on the table before inking a class of 17 recruits. Some of those offers weren’t obviously commitable. But with recruits pushing the timeline up earlier and earlier, identifying and building a relationship with your targets is imperative, especially in a game where a 20 percent conversion rate is pretty good.

PLAYING THE GAME

After getting burned by blue-chip recruits like Omar Hunter, Arrelious Benn, and Chris Donald, Charlie Weis drew a line in the sand about “committed recruits” taking visits to other schools. “If you’re looking, we’re looking,” Weis said, hoping that threat would keep highly-touted 17- and 18-year old football recruits from weighing their options. (It didn’t.)

After 20 years in college football, Kelly immediately understood the recruiting game at Notre Dame. No recruit was final until they signed their letter-of-intent. That meant recruiting — and holding on to — elite prospects until the end. The Irish have won their share (Stephon Tuitt, Gunner Kiel) and lost their share (Ronald Darby, Deontay Greenberry), but they’re recruiting at a relentless pace, unafraid of stepping on any toes as they pursue recruits that fit their system and show interest in learning more about Notre Dame.

Last recruiting class, Notre Dame was unable to swing a highly touted cornerback recruit like Brian Poole at the last minute. But work like that is why quarterbacks Everett Golson is on the Irish roster, and after being burnt by defections during the Weis era, Kelly and his staff have taken a proactive approach to recruiting talented players.

The story of Bob Diaco sitting outside Ishaq Williams’ Brooklyn home at 4:30 in the morning isn’t just lip service. This coaching staff, with excellent recruits like Tony Alford, Mike Elston, Mike Denbrock, Chuck Martin, and now Scott Booker, has a relentless motor and understands a recruiting game that’s gotten more and more ruthless.

FINDING RKGs

The term RKG — Right Kinda Guy — is the type of coachspeak that can drive people crazy. Yet as the Irish build their ’13 recruiting class, there’s been a remarkable focus on finding players that fit the profile of what Notre Dame is looking for. After swinging for the fences in the ’12 class and missing on a few big-name, 50/50 targets like Darby, Greenberry, and Tee Shepard, this recruiting class has seen the Irish refine their approach, finding high quality people that also happen to be very good football players.

Other recruits are taking notice.

“Coming out here, you get a feel for the kind of guys they’re recruiting,” Top 100 recruit Jordan Sherit told Rivals.com at The Opening. “They’re not recruiting the guys that are out here messing around, trying to be goof balls getting in trouble, they’re recruiting guys who are great players, but even better people. For me, if those kind of guys can be my teammates, that’s a testament to the school and the coaches, so that just makes them look even better in my eyes.”

To be certain, the best people aren’t always the best football players. But the Irish staff has built this ’13 recruiting class with early commitments like James Onwualu — high character players that might not be five-star players, but certainly are befitting of scholarship offers. Blending character guys that fit the system with guys like Steve Elmer, Jaylon Smith, and Alex Anzalone, and it’s easy to see why this recruiting class has already surged to 17 commitments.

Spring positions to watch for revelations: DL & WR

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 05: Jerry Tillery #99 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish tackles Jerrod Heard #13 of the Texas Longhorns for a loss of yards during the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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If quarterback, rover and the early enrollees could be Notre Dame fans’ springtime Christmas thrills, what positions present as potential spots of coal?

Three former Irish players were invited to next week’s NFL Combine in Indianapolis: quarterback DeShone Kizer, defensive tackle Jarron Jones and defensive end Isaac Rochell. Losing two consistent defensive linemen leaves this year’s unit with some questions. Jones and Rochell combined for 100 tackles, 18 for loss and three sacks last season. Notre Dame’s returning defensive linemen combined to total 111 tackles and only 5.5 tackles for loss. To be clear, sacks are not included in that latter list because no returning defensive linemen recorded one. Among the returnees, junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37 tackles, three for loss) and senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26, 0.5) contributed solidly alongside the two NFL prospects.

This dearth of known and reliable linemen is a large part of why the potential transfer of Clemson graduate defensive tackle Scott Pagano is so intriguing. Pagano would immediately be a favorite to start, and if not that, at least rotate in heavily.

For now, though, Pagano remains a theoretical

By the end of spring practice, who already on campus will emerge alongside Tillery and Trumbetti in the Irish front? Senior ends Jay Hayes (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) and Jonathon Bonner (nine tackles) seem the most-likely candidates … aside from former four-star recruit and now rising sophomore Daelin Hayes. In his debut season, D. Hayes finished with 11 tackles.

Look for senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) to establish himself as Tillery’s immediate backup this spring, but that spot in the rotation will be up for competition all over again once four-star tackle Darnell Ewell (Lake Taylor High School; Norfolk, Va.) arrives on campus in the fall. His size and quickness should play right into new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s system.

Equanimeous and Who?
Not only did Notre Dame bring in a graduate transfer at receiver in former Michigan wideout Freddy Canteen, but it has also already received the commitments of two four-star receivers in the 2018 recruiting class. The continued emphasis on the position reflects the lack of bona fide game-breakers currently on the roster.

Junior Equanimeous St. Brown established himself as the top Irish threat in 2016, and he should shine only further with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush targeting him. Classmates often amplify each other’s success, simply due to the added shared reps innate to joining practice at the same time. With Torii Hunter, Jr., now pursuing a professional baseball career, who will prevent the secondary from focusing all its energies on St. Brown?

Canteen will not be with Notre Dame in the spring, as he does not graduate from Michigan until April. That will give a clear shot for the likes of juniors Chris Finke, C.J. Sanders and Miles Boykin, and sophomores Kevin Stepherson, Javon McKinley and Chase Claypool to establish themselves. Did that say “clear” shot? It should probably read, “a chance to separate from the crowd.”

If a genuine threat does not line up opposite St. Brown, his explosiveness will likely be greatly reduced by focused defensive scheming. Wimbush will need another target before 2018.

Of course, here is where one should acknowledge the millennia-tested fact: Coal under pressure becomes diamonds.

2016 Notre Dame’s win expectancy was 7.2
Sports Illustrated’s Chris Johnson named the Irish as his team most likely to dramatically improve its record in 2017. Johnson’s thinking is based, at least in part, on Notre Dame’s second-order win total having been 7.2 in 2016, compared to the four wins the Irish actually walked away with. That discrepancy was the largest in the country.

Second-order win totals reflect how many points a team should have scored and allowed based on offensive and defensive stats. In theory, this shines a light on how luck and chance factored into results. Naturally, losing seven games by one possession will often be reflected by a higher second-order win total.

“Notre Dame’s win-loss record belied a solid, if imperfect, squad that just couldn’t pull out close games…” Johnson writes. “The Irish may not get back into College Football Playoff contention in 2017, but they’re bound to post a few more Ws because of reversion to the mean.”

Admittedly, the small sample size of a football season reduces the applicability of metrics such as second- and third-order wins when compared to baseball and basketball.

Jones becomes Mack
A quick piece of housekeeping: Apparently junior tight end Alizé Jones has changed his name to Alizé Mack.

While Notre Dame’s roster may not reflect that change yet, it is reasonable to expect it will after its next update. The football program has consistently respected the intricacies of players’ name preferences. Tai-ler Jones becoming TJ Jones jumps to mind, for example.

Anyways, hopefully noting Mack’s name change here might reduce some confusion down the line. Probably not. How many readers possibly read to the actual bottom of an article? But hey, in good faith.

WR Lenzy makes 11th commitment, brings speed to Irish

lenzy
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At what point does an impressive recruiting roll become something more? When does it become a harbinger of things to come, even if not for a few seasons? How many notable commitments in a row establishes a class as special?

If the answer to any of the above is 11 commitments by the end of February, including five within two weeks, then Notre Dame is there following consensus four-star athlete Braden Lenzy’s announcement Thursday evening.

The Tigard High School (Portland, Ore) receiver/cornerback chose the Irish over offers from USC, Oregon and Michigan State, among a litany of others. In all, nine Pac-12 schools chased Lenzy—and a 10th, Washington, had shown interest—per rivals.com.

Lenzy will fit the leading 2018 need voiced by Irish coach Brian Kelly three weeks ago on National Signing Day 2017.

“Elite speed on offense will be a primary goal for us,” Kelly said Feb. 1. “Guys that can change the game on one possession. I think we’ll see that… We want a couple of home run hitters. We don’t care if they’re Darren Sproles’s size. We’re going to come off the board in terms of profile. We want some guys that can change the game on offense with elite speed.”

At 6-foot, 175 pounds, Lenzy is taller than Sproles’s 5-foot-6, but it is still his speed that drew Notre Dame’s interest.

“They made it clear they want me to do kickoff return and use me as a deep threat across the field,” he told Irish Illustrated. “Just being kind of an athlete, similar to what I’ve been doing already in high school, just on a bigger scale with a quarterback that can throw it a lot farther.”

Presuming Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush is that arm in 2018, throwing great distances should not be an issue. Between Lenzy and fellow 2018 commit Micah Jones, covering those distances should be a reasonable request, as well.

Lenzy brings Notre Dame’s class of 2018 to 11, including eight four-stars according to Rivals’ rating system. Current scholarship projections indicate the class will not be a large one, meaning the Irish coaching staff has already garnered the commitments of more than half the class. Once again, though, Kelly’s sentiment regarding recruiting timing should be remembered.

“We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

SWARBRICK’S TAKE ON RECRUITING
Kelly credited Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick with much assistance in securing the country’s No. 13 recruiting class in 2017. A refresher on those comments:

“In a lot of instances, [Swarbrick] had to be there to support our football program and talk to recruits about where this program is and where it’s going,” Kelly said. “There are questions when a family comes on campus. He reminded them about the investment we were making in staff and what we were doing for the present and for the future.”

Swarbrick did not dispute the factual nature of any of that in an interview with the Indianapolis Star, but he did contest the need for praising what he saw as part of his job, one of the preferred parts of his job, at that.

“I can’t say anything about this year felt all that different,” Swarbrick told Star reporter Laken Litman. “Some asked questions about the future of the program and can we compete for a national championship. And I would talk about the elements of the program we were focused on improving.”

Swarbrick and Litman discussed a number of items in the second-half of the interview released by the Star, including Notre Dame’s facilities, a possible early signing period in football and if the Oct. 8, 2016, game against North Carolina State should have been played. Spoiler: No. Then why was it? Go check it out.

Swarbrick also told Litman he likes to write in his free time.

“I tend to think strategically with a pen in my hand.” Swarbrick added he is currently scribbling away on where he thinks college athletics are headed.

This scribe, for one, would be most interested in skimming those legal pads.

Will Wimbush, Elko and the early enrollees surprise in spring practice?

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 26: Fans congratulate Brandon Wimbush #12 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish after he ran for a 58 yard touchdown against the Massachusetts Minutemen at Notre Dame Stadium on September 26, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Umass 62-27.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Exactly 59 days from today, the Irish will take the field at Notre Dame Stadium. Sure, they will be playing against themselves, but nonetheless, it will be somewhat-competitive football played in gold helmets.

For timing context, exactly 59 days ago, you looked beneath the Christmas tree to learn if Santa Claus left you season tickets, socks or coal. I got socks. They had some of that extra cushioning, so I considered them a suitable treat.

Whether you care about my argyles or not (you don’t), for many the Blue-Gold Game and Christmas morning hold similar excitement. That fact is apparently why Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick does not concern himself when groups of alumni publicly lament his decisions, or lack thereof.

“I never worry about that,” Swarbirck told the Indianapolis Star in an exclusive interview you really should read. Go on, click the link, it will open in a new tab. You can come right back here when you are done.

“The hardest job in athletics is trying to generate passion in your program. If that sort of stuff bothers you, you can’t be the athletic director, head coach or the quarterback at Notre Dame.”

That very passion will undoubtedly lead to frame-by-frame discussions of video snippets from spring practice, parsing of each and every word Irish coach Brian Kelly says in quick interviews after those practices, and extreme pessimism and optimism about the 2017 season.

In the Christmas spirit, what toys could bring the must excitement during the spring unwrapping? Personally, the gift I was unsure of always brought the most joy. I would rather open an unexpected book than know about a charcoal-gray suit. In other words, at least for today, let’s look past the offensive line, the running backs and the inside linebackers. Instead, let’s look forward to learning about… (more…)

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…)