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.

Notre Dame adds another 2019 commitment out of Georgia

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Eight months from now, Notre Dame may be forced to sign a smaller recruiting class than usual thanks to the larger class this past recruiting cycle. If that expectation does indeed hold, this past week’s five commitments, including consensus three-star safety Kyle Hamilton’s (Marist High School; Atlanta) on Tuesday evening, will be a hefty portion of the class.

Hamilton becomes the second safety in the class, and in the week, following the Saturday pledge of rivals.com four-star Litchfield Ajavon (Episcopal H.S.; Alexandria, Va.). Hamilton’s list of finalists included Michigan, Georgia, Ohio State and Clemson, a grouping more telling than perhaps his recruiting ranking is.

Some of that expected potential may derive from Hamilton’s 6-foot-3 frame. Such length at safety would be a change for the Irish, currently without a safety taller than six-feet in the rotation. Even heralded incoming-freshman Derrik Allen, also out of Georgia, is listed at only 6-foot-1.

It is a coincidence those two Georgia recruits, one signed and one now verbally-committed, are both safeties. Add in the January commitment of rivals.com three-star cornerback K.J. Wallace (Lovett; Atlanta), and a third defensive back comes from the state, along with class of 2018 signees tight end Tommy Tremble and running back C’Bo Flemister. Five prospects from Georgia, presuming both Hamilton and Wallace do indeed sign with Notre Dame, is not a coincidence.

“My point being is that it’s such a fertile ground in recruiting, you just need to be in [Georgia], and there’s great football players in there,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said in December 2017, during the inaugural early signing period. “We’ve got so many players that we can talk about that came of there. It’s just having a presence and getting back into a very, very good recruiting area for us. We need to have a great presence there.”

No matter what state Hamilton comes from, he could find himself quickly in the mix at safety upon his arrival. Presuming health for the current safety depth chart, juniors Jalen Elliott and Devin Studstill will have one year of eligibility remaining apiece upon Hamilton’s enrollment. Junior Alohi Gilman will have two, thanks to spending the 2017 season sidelined following his transfer from Navy. Early-enrolled freshman Griffith and Allen will both have three more years, presuming both play in 2018.

Thus, Hamilton and Ajavon could find themselves backing up that last duo as soon as 2020.

Blue-Gold Game Leftovers: Notre Dame’s offensive ceiling is tantalizing, though also unlikely

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Immediately following the 2017 spring game, I walked by two much smarter, savvier and more veteran Notre Dame reporters on our way to post-game interviews. Our two minutes of exchange included them riffing on various hypothetical position changes that were eventually not seen come fall, including how much better of a guard than a tackle Tommy Kraemer could be. It should be noted, the junior began lining up at guard this spring.

My contribution to the conversation hinged entirely on repeating, “That offense just isn’t ready. It’s not close to ready.”

Of course, that assessment figured the spring game struggles were against a porous Irish defense, something freshly-arrived and since-departed defensive coordinator Mike Elko had already taken tangible steps toward fixing, far quicker than expected.

That evaluation also failed to recognize the potential of a running attack led by Josh Adams. Notre Dame knew it had a stalwart running back, and did not need to see more than eight carries for 39 yards and a touchdown from the lead back.

The point stood, though. The offense was not ready then or in November.

Driving away from this past Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game, the thought bouncing around my pickup’s two-seat cab was simple: This offense is unlikely to reach its ceiling, but if it did, it would be really, absurdly high-powered.

This time, that assessment offers some deference to first-year defensive coordinator Clark Lea’s ability to turn nine returning starters into another strong defense, perhaps superior to last year’s.

The praise of the offense must be hedged thanks to IF after IF after IF after IF. If senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush displays those mechanics and that accuracy against opposing defenses …
If senior running back Dexter Williams (pictured above) decides it is worthwhile to play, and play well, through pain …
If junior receiver Chase Claypool maintains the necessary emotional equilibrium …
If senior tight end Alizé Mack offers a consistent performance, even if not stellar, but stable …

In those four upperclassmen alone, the Irish have unique talents whom opposing defensive coordinators should lose sleep thinking about. They will determine how high this offense’s ceiling is, while the likes of senior receiver Miles Boykin, junior running back Tony Jones and sophomore tight end Cole Kmet will set the floor, along with what looks to be yet another overpowering offensive line (with Kraemer at right guard).

Obviously, the most-promising players always set the height of a vaulted the ceiling. As they perform against Michigan, Stanford and Virginia Tech will determine how the season ends. However, to pinpoint four like this is an extreme end of the spectrum.

Exiting last year’s Blue-Gold Game, it was clear Wimbush needed to learn much more of offensive coordinator Chip Long’s scheme. Aside from that, the only possible ways to increase the offense’s potency was to teach receiver Kevin Stepherson self-discipline and figure out why Mack could not make a gameday impact. The rest was essentially known, even if the running game’s potential was overlooked after the spring exhibition.

Entering this summer, the gap between the offense’s floor and its ceiling is a vast one. To have four question marks of this magnitude speaks to the possible volatility awaiting in the fall. Logically speaking, it is most likely two of the four above IFs become realities. In that case, it will be a good offense, but not the utterly threatening one conceivable. The odds are slim all four come to fruition, but crazier things have happened, especially when discussing the rapid development of 18- to 21-year-olds.

Without Adams following two All-American offensive linemen, this rendition of the Notre Dame offense may take a step backward, but the talent is there for it to actually improve, to carry the day if/when an experienced quarterback picks apart the defense (see: the Seminoles’ Deondre Francois).

That could not be said in 2017.

OTHER QUICK TAKEAWAYS FROM THE BLUE-GOLD GAME:
Much of this will be discussed in greater length in the coming two weeks, but …
— The interior of the offensive line — fifth-year left guard Alex Bars, fifth-year center Sam Mustipher and Kraemer at right guard — is quite a physically-imposing trio. Some defensive ends may find success against first-year starter and junior left tackle Liam Eichenberg, especially early in the season, but the inside trio should at least create massive holes for the Irish running game.

— Ideally Long can deploy Mack and Kmet together, but the spring performance of the latter certainly eases the concerns about the maturation and consistency of the former.

Notre Dame may need an unexpected influx of production from senior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery if the fifth-year tackle he is intended to line up alongside, Jonathan Bonner, does not recover fully from a wrist injury suffered in the beginning of 2017. (Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune via AP)

— Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly insists fifth-year defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner’s fitness will not be overly-effected by the wrist injury that kept him out of most of spring practice and all of the Blue-Gold Game.

“He’s been doing everything (in weight-lifting) but at lighter weight, and now he’s only a couple of weeks away from being full-go,” Kelly said Saturday. “He was already physically really gifted, so we don’t think that’s going to be a big curve for him, and he’ll be able to start training aggressively when we get back here in June.”

Consider this scribe skeptical. Not only is Kelly often overly-optimistic about injury effects and timetables, but to think missing six months of strength and conditioning will not be noticeable along the defensive interior is idealistic at best. Bonner’s 2017 emergence was a direct result of the arrival of strength and conditioning coordinator Matt Balis.

Without more of that work, the Irish will need to turn to sophomore Kurt Hinish for an increase in snaps, perhaps pushing toward 50 per game with Bonner offering 20-30 and senior Micah Dew-Treadway filling in the balance. Hinish appears to be up to the task, which is necessary, because classmate Darnell Ewell is not.

Notre Dame gains commitments of four-star defensive end and three-star offensive tackle

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At this rate, Notre Dame might fill its 2019 recruiting class by the time the school year ends. With a Sunday morning commitment of a consensus four-star defensive end followed by a Monday evening pledge from a consensus three-star offensive tackle, the Irish class has grown from three recruits to seven in just four days.

The No. 238 prospect in the country and No. 28 at defensive end, per rivals.com, Howard Cross III (St. Joseph High School; Montvale, N.J.) announced his commitment via Twitter shortly after leaving campus from a visit for the Blue-Gold Game, choosing the Irish over offers from Michigan, North Carolina State and Virginia Tech, among others.

“I could tell [current Notre Dame players] really loved the school,” Cross said to Blue & Gold Illustrated. “It was really, really big to talk to them. When I was going to all the colleges, that was the main thing I wanted to do. I wanted to get the perspective of the players.”

Cross joins consensus four-star defensive end Hunter Spears (Sachse H.S.; Texas) as half of the four defensive linemen already in the Irish recruiting class. As always, no collegiate defensive line can be deep enough. Considering the previous two recruiting classes have yielded a total of two defensive ends — Kofi Wardlow and Justin Ademilola — opportunity should be aplenty for Cross and Spears early in their careers.

The defensive end duo will likely spend a not-insignificant portion of their collegiate career practices butting heads with Andrew Kristofic (Pine-Richland; Gibsonia, Pa.). If the high school of Pine-Richland jumps off the figurative page to Notre Dame recruitniks, that is because Kristofic has much experience protecting high school teammate and incoming Irish freshman quarterback Phil Jurkovec.

He chose Notre Dame, and new offensive line coach Jeff Quinn, rather than offers from a lengthy list including Clemson, Georgia and Ohio State.

“The combination that their school is able to provide being one of the very best schools in the entire country academically and one of the very athletically stands out,” Kristofic said to Blue & Gold Illustrated. “I think they have the best combination of those two things on top of being a school that is known for being able to produce such great offensive linemen is something that no other schools really have the combination of all those.

“When you can put together all the things that they can there, it’s certainly not something you can overlook or take for granted.”

The beginning of this influx of commitments came with the Friday decision of consensus four-star offensive tackle John Olmstead (St. Joseph; Metuchen, N.J.), the only other offensive lineman in the class to this point. Of the seven recruits committed to the Irish, five are four-star talents.

Former Notre Dame defensive lineman, Kona Schwenke, dies at 25

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Former Notre Dame defensive lineman Kona Schwenke, 25, reportedly died in his sleep Sunday morning. The cause of death has not yet been confirmed.

Schwenke spent four seasons along the Irish defensive front, culminating in a 23-tackle senior season, in 2013. Attrition along the defensive line in his first two seasons forced Schwenke into playing time, costing him a likely fifth-year with much greater production. He played in 31 games total, making 30 tackles.

Part of a Hawaiian surge in Notre Dame recruiting, Schwenke joined the likes of receiver Robby Toma and linebacker Manti Te’o in coming from the island in 2009 and 2010. The first two committed during Charlie Weis’ tenure, but Schwenke made the leap at the very beginning of Irish head coach Brian Kelly’s career, one of the first recruits to commit to Kelly at Notre Dame. Since then, sophomore defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa has renewed the trend.

Schwenke graduated in 2014 with a degree in anthropology. He then signed with the practice squad of the Kansas City Chiefs, moving around four different NFL franchises chasing his dream. Earlier this month he took part in a scouting event, The Spring League, gaining some notice when he forced Heisman-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel into a fumble.

Former Irish teammates took to social media Sunday afternoon celebrating Schwenke’s life and friendship.