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.

Tranquill continues work with safeties … for now

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Drue Tranquill will see time at the oft-spoken of rover position, just not yet. For now, Notre Dame needs the senior at safety to provide leadership and communication while the rest of his position group gets up to speed.

“We really have to figure out what the coordination is going to be at the safety position,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “How much does Drue play down at rover? How much does he play back [at safety]?”

Only sophomore Devin Studstill returns any starts to the safety position aside from Tranquill’s career total of 18. Studstill started nine games last season.

That void has kept Tranquill working mostly with the defensive backs in the spring’s first few practices, rather than joining the likes of junior Asmar Bilal in the rover grouping.

“We didn’t want to pull our most veteran player out of the back end of our defense with Drue,” Kelly said. “I think it was more about the hesitancy of losing a great communicator in the back end than about the teaching.”

The time will come, however, for Tranquill to move up. Juniors Nick Coleman and Ashton White have moved to safety from the corner position. With more reps, they will not need to rely on Tranquill’s guidance as much. The same goes for, at least in theory, sophomore Jalen Elliott.

“It’s not really a heavy load of teaching for those guys,” Kelly said. “They’re picking it up quite well. We really want to get a chance to see a lot of guys back there.”

Kelly seemed particularly bullish on Coleman’s prospects at the position, provided he embrace the needed physicality. At 6-foot, 187 pounds, Coleman’s build may have been more suited on the outside, but Notre Dame’s plethora of promising cornerbacks provided an impetus to test Coleman at safety.

“The big thing will be Nick’s continuous development in tackling,” Kelly said. “You have to tackle back there. His ball skills are really good. We’ve seen that he’s able to play the ball. He has athleticism.

“We just want to continue to build on his tackling skills. If we go through the spring and say, ‘Well, he’s tackling really well,’ we’ll feel pretty good about the move.”

At that point, Tranquill will likely join Bilal at the hybrid position, which is something of a trademark to new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Tranquill will be able to do what he does best: Pursue the ball.

“We all know what his strengths are,” Kelly said. “He’s a solid tackler. I don’t think there’s any safety in college football that wants to get matched up one-on-one with a skilled slot receiver. This would minimize that, when you play him close to the ball as a rover.

“And I think he’s pretty quick off the edge. I think we put him in a really good position in maximizing his skill set.”

Until then, Bilal will continue to be the frontrunner at rover, especially with the first four Irish opponents of 2017 presenting run-heavy offenses.

KELLY ON NICK WATKINS
Kelly was also asked about senior cornerback Nick Watkins, his fit into Elko’s defense and his return from injury.

“He’s very coachable, wants to learn, he’s pretty long,” Kelly said. “What I think Mike [Elko] does really well—and this is what I liked about my interactions with him—is, we all have strengths and weaknesses. He has a great eye of saying let’s take Nick’s strengths and let’s put him in a position where we can really utilize his strengths and put him in a position where maybe we’re not a right and left corner team, maybe we’re a short field/wide field team. Let’s apply him in that fashion.

“Nick’s long. He’s a little bit of a physical player. Let’s go to those strengths. He’s shown some of those attributes early on.”

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Kraemer, Eichenberg compete for RT spot, moving Bars inside, and Bivin to…

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Forty percent of the offensive line is essentially set in stone: fifth-year senior Mike McGlinchey at left tackle and senior Quenton Nelson at right guard.

The center position seems to be senior Sam Mustipher’s to lose.

That leaves the two starting spots on the right side of the line for a number of players—both young and experienced—to fight over.

Sophomores Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg have emerged as the frontrunners for the right tackle spot, moving senior Alex Bars inside to right guard. Bars started all 12 games last season at right tackle.

“Those two [Kraemer and Eichenberg] are the guys we have mapped out at right tackle, and they’re going to battle,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “Today Kraemer was there. Last two practices Eichenberg got a lot of the work. Eichenberg will go back there on Friday. They’re going to keep battling and splitting the action out there.”

Part of the reasoning in giving the two sophomores extended looks this spring is Notre Dame knows what it has in Bars when at right tackle.

“We would prefer to get him in at the guard position, but we know he can play the [tackle] position,” Kelly said.

A starting five of McGlinchey, the three seniors and either sophomore may seem to leave fifth-year lineman Hunter Bivin out in the cold. Not often is a player asked to return for a fifth year only to spend it on the bench. That is even more rare when considering the current Irish scholarship crunch.

Kelly compared Bivin’s role to that of Mark Harrell’s last year. Harrell appeared in all 12 games, starting two, and provided much needed depth and flexibility along the offensive line. Rather than have five backup offensive linemen, position coach Harry Hiestand relied on Harrell to provide support at multiple spots.

“It’s reasonable to assume that Hunter Bivin’s going to be involved in this as well,” Kelly said. “We’ve just asked Hunter to take a seat right now. He’s done that for the team.

“We think Hunter is going to be a Mark Harrell for us. A guy that’s extremely valuable, can play a number of positions. We trust him, but we want to see these two young players [Kraemer and Eichenberg]. Hunter is a guy that can play right or left tackle for us. He’s going to be a valuable player for us as a swing guy.”

On that note, this space will refer to Bivin as a fifth-year lineman, as was done above, rather than as a guard or as a tackle, until further notice. In his case, the broader description may be the most accurate.

Spring break out west is fine, but Wimbush better be ready to run

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It will undoubtedly become a habit, at least for the next five-plus months. If Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush sneezes in front of a camera, it just might lead to an uptick in webmd.com traffic. His every football move will certainly be analyzed, nitpicked and discussed at length. Thus, Irish coach Brian Kelly being asked about Wimbush’s spring break should surprise no one.

Rather than find a Florida beach, Wimbush spent his spring break working with private quarterbacks coach George Whitfield in San Diego alongside a handful of other college passers. Kelly said there is value to such a spring break but stopped short of setting any lofty expectations of the effects.

“I have no problem with [Wimbush] working out with George Whitfield,” Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice, the first following spring break and the third of 14 leading into the Blue-Gold Game on April 22. “George doesn’t work on the specifics to the offense. George is really working on the quarterback and throwing the football, moving in the pocket. George is really good at keeping those quarterbacks active and moving.”

Whitfield is best-known around Notre Dame and among Irish fans for working with former Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson during Golson’s academic suspension in 2013. Whitfield and Golson spent 10 weeks together, thus granting time for extensive off-field activities such as film study. Far shorter, Wimbush’s time out west appears to have been spent primarily doing drills.

“In those situations, it’s a bullpen session,” Kelly said. “They’re keeping their arms loose, they’re keeping their feet loose. He’s just keeping them active.”

It is hard to construe that activity as a negative, but it obviously lacks certain aspects crucial to Wimbush’s 2017 season. With only five career pass attempts and seven career rushes, Wimbush’s inexperience looms large. Developing the necessary intangibles to account for that may be just as, if not more, important as fitting his throws into tight windows.

“When it comes to the playbook, to his teammates, to his coaches here, Brandon understands that when the rubber hits the road, those are the guys that matter the most,” Kelly said. “He knows when it’s time for Notre Dame football, where the focus is.”

Included in that playbook will be an expectation for Wimbush to carry the ball. To date, Wimbush’s biggest play and possibly only imprint on most Notre Dame fans’ memories is a 58-yard touchdown scamper against Massachusetts in 2015.

Link to 17-second YouTube video which has unfortunately disabled embedding

Note, the play is not exclusively-designed for Wimbush to run. Now a rising junior, then a fellow freshman, running back Josh Adams comes across Wimbush’s front for a possible handoff. Instead, Wimbush makes the correct read and keeps the ball. Why state so clearly it was the proper read? Adams has to evade a Texas defender even though he never had the ball.

Future option plays should present Wimbush with the possibility of throwing the ball, too.

“He’ll be a runner in the offense,” Kelly said. “Do we want him to carry the ball 20 times? No.”

“I don’t think you’ll have a situation where we’re calling quarterback power or singular runs. He’s going to have options: hand it off, throw the ball out on the perimeter. You’ll see more of that than you will prescribed quarterback runs. We had a little bit more of that last year with Kizer, but I think you’ll see that he has an option to get the ball out of his hands more so than just prescribed runs.”

Those option plays, in particular, will require Wimbush to have a thorough familiarity both with the Notre Dame playbook and with his teammates’ tendencies.

RITA LEE OR 52-53?
Staying consistent with his comments over the last two months, Kelly once again reiterated the biggest changes new offensive coordinator Chip Long will bring to the Irish playbook will be in its wording. Perhaps going to an extreme example to illustrate his thinking, Kelly pointed to the future.

“We’re going to win next year and Chip is going to be the greatest offensive coordinator in the country and he’s going to get a head job, right?” Kelly asked rhetorically. “Then I’m not going to introduce the Chip Long offense to the next offensive coordinator.”

“It has to have my culture in it … The culture of the offense is still the base offense that I have always run because I have to be able to carry that with me from year to year.”

Within that ellipsis, Kelly gave two examples of possible verbiage changes. Without knowing much more behind them, they do not mean too much out here in the cobwebs of the internet, but they do provide a quick glimpse at what Kelly has been referring to when discussing lexicon since hiring Long.

“If he wants to change Ringo Lucky protection to Ram and Lion protection, go right ahead. If he wants to change certain calls, for example, 52-53 protection is now Rita Lee.”

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Back from break, Irish commence hitting; DT Elijah Taylor out with LisFranc injury

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Notre Dame last wore pads in its 45-27 defeat at USC back on Nov. 26, a full 117 days ago. Suffice it to say, the Irish enjoyed the chance to don their shoulder pads and hit each other in Wednesday’s third spring practice, the first one since returning from spring break.

“What I liked about it more than anything else is there wasn’t a big drop off today,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “Usually you go two days and then you take a week off, and then you come back and put your pads on—it took us only a couple of periods to get back up to form. That was nice to see.”

Contrary to previous years in spring practice, and perhaps practice in general, Kelly emphasized tackling, especially tackling in the open-field, in Wednesday’s drills.

“[I] felt like we needed to make up for a little lost ground,” he said. “We got in tackling today for the first time. That’ll be an emphasis. We’ll tackle a lot this spring to make up for lost ground.”

The early and often physical nature of practice didn’t bother any of the players, per Kelly, but also per presumed common sense. While Notre Dame’s coaching staff changes and public questioning played out in broad view, the players spent 117 days in private waiting to unleash some of the frustrations of 2016’s disappointing season.

“Everybody to a man has been looking forward to this day,” Kelly said. “It was a pretty difficult offseason for them. They were looking forward to putting the pads on and getting out there. I think they exhibited that today.”

TAYLOR OUT FOR SPRING, AT LEAST
Junior defensive tackle Elijah Taylor was not in pads Wednesday. In the final practice before spring break, another player stepped on Taylor’s foot, Kelly said. The resulting LisFranc fracture will keep Taylor out of the remaining dozen spring practices and limit him until at least July. Taylor saw action in four games last season, finishing with three tackles, including one for a loss.

Notre Dame team surgeon Dr. Brian Ratigan already performed Taylor’s surgery.

“Typical LisFranc fractures, we’ve had good success with their repairs,” Kelly said. “…We’ll be able to train around the injury. Full range of motion moving around and doing things in June, probably full clearance sometime in July.”

Without Taylor, the interior of Notre Dame’s defensive line becomes even shallower, though that may have been hard to previously comprehend. Junior Jerry Tillery looks to be ready to start, and senior Jonathan Bonner has moved to the inside, rather than at end as he has been for most of his career. Behind them, the Irish present only question marks.

Kelly said he will look to junior Micah Dew-Treadway to step forward in Taylor’s absence.

“Micah Dew-Treadway has had a really good offseason for us,” Kelly said. “Changed his body, has been doing a really good job in all facets, in the class room and weight room. He’s somebody that had been ascending anyway prior to the injury.

Kelly indicated junior Brandon Tiassum also could be expected to see more work with Taylor sidelined.

Seniors Daniel Cage and Pete Mokwuah are in the mix, as well. Cage struggled with concussion issues last season after a promising 2015.

Notre Dame will need to wait until the freshmen arrive—perhaps also joined by Clemson graduate student transfer Scott Pagano, reportedly still taking official visits as he ponders his 2017 destination—for further reinforcements. Consensus four-star recruit Darnell Ewell would be the most likely candidate of the three expected arrivals to move up the depth chart right away.

In layman’s terms, a Lisfranc fracture occurs when a mid-foot bone connecting to a toe separates from the cluster of bones toward the heel. Note: This is stated here only to provide some context, nothing more. This particular scribe avoided most biology classes.

CLAYPOOL A RECEIVER AND THAT HE WILL STAY
Asked if he considered moving sophomore receiver Chase Claypool to defense, Kelly answered succinctly.

“We feel like we need his play on offense,” Kelly said. “He’ll continue to contribute on the special teams end of things, but we need his play on offense.”

KELLY ON KIZER’S NFL POTENTIAL
“I’ve had a number of conversations with GMs and coaches about [former Notre Dame quarterback] DeShone [Kizer], and my personal feeling is he has the biggest upside of all the quarterbacks. I don’t know that he’s prepared to come in and win a Super Bowl for you [this year]. Some may feel as though maybe one of the other quarterbacks are. I don’t know that firsthand. But I think, in time, he has the biggest upside of all the quarterbacks.

“I get it. It’s the NFL. Everybody’s under the same pressure of performing and needing somebody to come in right away, but I think he’s a guy that just needs some time. If he gets in the right situation, I think he’d be the guy to take.”

Kizer and eight other former Irish players will take part in a pro day tomorrow (Thursday) in front of some of those GMs and coaches.