Practice video: Over-analyzing everything edition

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Our friends at UND.com have put out two new videos filled with practice footage from an eventful Wednesday session that gave an open look to the media and fans. There’s been thousands of words across the net dedicated to practice reports, but I figured I’d chime in with my own 1,300 or so and breakdown the footage the guys at UND.com gave us.

With things being intentionally kept under wraps as the Irish prep for the regular season, it’s still fun to try and go frame by frame hoping to pick up some morsel that could enlighten all of us in the days before the snaps starting counting for real.

Let’s get rolling through this footage and give you a way over-analyzed look at what you’re seeing.

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0:08Jack Nolan is back. All is right in the UND.com world.

0:47Zeke Motta looks like he’s ready for a breakout season. While it’s tough to tell if this is actually him making a great break on the ball, Motta has all the physical traits necessary to put together an excellent season.

0:52 — That’s freshman wideout Chris Brown (2) running away from Cam McDaniel (33) on the underneath route. He looks mighty skinny, but those rumors of Brown’s elite speed don’t appear to be recruiting propaganda.

0:56 — We’re into the rodeo drill portion of the program. We’ll focus on this more down the page, but I’ll point out a few nice plays.

1:02 — Yes, that was quarterback Andrew Hendrix taking the handoff and running through the gauntlet, evading the tackle of Ishaq Williams.

1:04 — Unfortunately, that was also Hendrix trying to force a ball late into Tyler Eifert. Bennett Jackson makes a nice play for an easy interception. Fast-forward a month and it won’t just be Brian Kelly turning purple if we see that again.

1:18 — In four years, I think I saw two good plays by Darius Fleming dropping back into pass coverage. In his first week in an Irish uniform, talented freshman Romeo Okwara (45) is showing some serious talent in space, making a nice play on Cierre Wood.

1:20 — Freshman Justin Ferguson (15) beats corner Jalen Brown (21) with a nifty catch… caught on camera from both angles.

1:33 — That’s talented freshman Davonte Neal (19) making the catch from Gunner Kiel on the speed out. I’m very excited to see what the lightning-bug freshman can do this season.

1:38 — Quarterback Everett Golson hits Wood on a nice throw. It looks like Cierre made a cut and would’ve been tough to catch after that play.

1:40 — Golson puts another throw in a tight window. Not sure it would’ve counted as a catch or been the correct read, but there was plenty of zip on the ball and it should’ve been caught.

1:44 — Senior Zack Martin (70) teaches freshman Sheldon Day (91) a few things about pass rushing.

1:58 — Brian Kelly can say all he wants about Louis Nix (9) and Kona Schwenke running even for the starting nose tackle job. I don’t believe him. Nix is an absolute beast, as seen here.

2:03 — Not sure who made the pretty throw, but John Goodman (81) gets open behind the coverage for a big gainer on a deep flag route.

2:10 — All-American linebacker Manti Te’o shows some improvement in his pass drops, getting a hand on a ball headed towards an open Davaris Daniels (10).

2:14Chris Brown gets plenty of good blocking as he breaks loose on a quick screen pass.

2:21 — Walk-on outside linebacker Connor Little (93) (from St. Paul’s Hill-Murray high school) lays a big stick on quarterback Gunner Kiel.

2:24Jarrett Grace (59) holds his own in coverage against Will Mahone (32).

2:30 — That’s Daniel Smith (87) making a catch for the cameras. Will that happen this season? Only time will tell.

2:33 — Nightmare revisited: Golson throws a screen pass into the hands of a waiting defensive lineman. The only good news? It was Kapron Lewis-Moore (89), not a Michigan defender.

2:40 — Want to know why my money is on Golson winning the job? This play right here. Great presence in the pocket to buy time and then find an open receiver.

2:55 — Don’t be surprised to see Cierre Wood run for six-yards a carry this season. (At least.) With great depth behind him to keep him fresh, Wood — no finesse back right now at 6-foot, 215-pounds — could be a load for defenses.

3:10 — Team huddle breaks down with a “Count on Me.”

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Now, for our favorite video… Breaking down the Rodeo Drill!

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0:10Braxston Cave (52) vs. Kona Schwenke (96). Victory: Schwenke, who does a nice job pushing the runner (Everett Golson)  over the pylon.

0:15Chris Watt (66) vs. Manti Te’o. Victory: Watt, who does a nice job of controlling Te;o while Atkinson runs by him.

0:20Zack Martin (70) vs. Kapron Lewis-Moore. Winner: Martin, who does a great job of turning the defender and opening the hole.

0:25Alex Welch (82) vs. Danny Spond (13). Winner: Tough to call either guy a winner after both were seriously injured during practice.

0:30Mike Golic (57) vs. Louis Nix (9). Winner: Nix. There’s nowhere to push the stout defensive tackle, who clogs the hole effectively.

0:34Nick Martin (72) vs. Dan Fox (48). Winner: Martin. Nice rep by the youngster, who might find himself pushed forward in the rotation with Jordan Prestwood gone.

0:38Christian Lombard (74) vs. Sheldon Day (91). Winner: Day, who gets a great rep in by slipping Lombard and then planting the runner in the backfield. Impressive play by the freshman.

0:45Jake Golic (88) vs. Ben Councell (3o). Winner: Golic, with the assist of Neal motoring past the attempted arm-tackle of Councell.

0:49Matt Hegarty (77) vs. Tony Springmann (?). Winner: Hegarty, who got a handle on the tough-to-recognize defender, allowing Cierre Wood to dash through the hole.

0:53Connor Hanratty (65) vs. Carlo Calabrese (44). Winner: Hanratty, who buries Calabrese into the turf, allowing Golson to fly by.

0:59Tate Nichols (64) vs. Kapron Lewis-Moore (89). Winner: Nichols, who smothers Lewis-Moore as he forces the veteran defender into a backpedal.

1:03Ben Koyack (18) vs. Ishaq Williams (11). Winner: Williams, who does a great job standing Koyack up and taking down Hendrix, no easy task with a 250-pound tight end pushing you backwards.

1:08Alex Welch (84) vs. Romeo Okwara (45). Winner: Draw. But nice work by the freshman Okwara finishing the drill and taking down senior Robby Toma (9), to the applause of defensive coordinator Bob Diaco.

1:15Nick Martin vs. Jarrett Grace (59)Winner: Grace, who stands up Martin in the hole and dumps George Atkinson for a loss. Heckuva play.

1:25Christian Lombard vs. KLM. Winner: Draw. Nice work by KLM standing Lombard up in the hole, but he didn’t make the tackle. Tie goes to nobody.

1:30Mike Golic vs. Louis Nix. Winner: Nix, who gets bonus points for sporting the new Ireland cleats to practice. (Even more impressive considering the runner was Cierre Wood, who is hardly ever pinned in the backfield in this drill.)

1:34Connor Hanratty vs. Kevin Walsh (54). Winner: Hanratty, who got the walk-on linebacker into rollerskates as he drove him down the field.

1:40Zack Martin (70) vs. Sheldon Day. Winner: Martin, who shows the young pup a thing or two (understandably).

1:44Braxston Cave (52) vs. Kona Schwenke. Winner: Cave, who looked like a Greco-Roman star with his textbook leverage take-down of the big Hawaiian.

1:50Mark Harrell (75) vs. Tony Springmann (69). Winner: Harrell, who puts together a nice rep against Springmann, steering the back through the hole untouched.

1:54Bruce Heggie (51) vs. Kendall Moore (8). Winner: Heggie, who sprung a hole just big enough for Amir Carlisle (3). Carlisle looked pretty crisp and had a nice burst as he cut back and burned by.

1:59Ronnie Stanley (78) vs. Justin Utupo (53). Winner: The talented — and gigantic — freshman is too much for Utupo to handle.

2:04Troy Niklas (85) vs. Ishaq Williams (11). Winner: Draw. A ton of sheer force in a collision between two guys that used to wear the same practice jersey. Nice job by Niklas moving the pile and nice job by Williams holding on and taking down Hendrix.

Photo property of Matt Cashore.

 

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are

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Notre Dame will open spring practice in about two weeks. As always, the proceedings will be filled with positive reviews, optimistic outlooks, and an injury or two.

A quick look at each position group should lend a better understanding to those perspectives and effects, beginning with the group lacking many questions — the running backs. The biggest reason there is relative certainty around the running backs is there are just so few of them following the winter dismissals of rising junior Deon McIntosh and rising sophomore C.J. Holmes.

Spring Roster:
Rising senior Dexter Williams (pictured above)
Rising junior Tony Jones
Early-enrolled freshman Jahmir Smith
Rising junior Mick Assaf

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman C’Bo Flemister

No one received more praise last spring practice than Tony Jones. He had a successful 2017, but compared to that hype, it could have been considered under-performing. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Depth Chart Possibilities:
At some point, either Williams or Jones will be named the Irish starter. It is quite possible that will be a distinction without much difference, as the two could certainly complement each other well in offensive coordinator Chip Long’s system, which already prefers to use multiple running backs.

Human nature, though, dictates is more likely one back receives a majority of the carries.

Biggest Question:
If Williams lines up with the No. 1 offensive unit in the Blue-Gold Game (April 21) to conclude spring practice, that will be the first genuine and tangible evidence he has improved as a pass blocker. Despite his big-play speed and seeming-ease breaking tackles, Williams’ one-dimensional game rendered him as much a liability as an asset in 2017.

Even in the Citrus Bowl victory, Williams followed up back-to-back rushes for a combined 36 yards with a blown pass protection resulting in a 13-yard sack.

“You have to be able to protect the quarterback with all positions,” Long said Feb. 7. “That dictates a whole lot if you’re going to play a lot or just be a situational guy. It’s something you have to embrace, the physicality.

“… That’s really the main thing, other than protecting the ball, that’ll keep a back off the field in our offense.”

The best ability is availability, and both an ankle injury and a balky quad limited Williams in that respect in 2017. Little blame can be cast for the natural bruises of football. Nonetheless, he will need to “embrace the physicality” if he wants to become more than a situational back.

Otherwise, Jones will be the default option. He has already shown a knack for both pass blocking and catching, making him a three-down option. Notre Dame will always prefer that rather than tip its hand to a running play every time Williams enters the game.

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Obviously, Josh Adams carried the burden in the running game last season. Behind rising senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush and McIntosh, Williams was only the No. 4 rusher on the roster in yards and touchdowns, while Jones was No. 4 in carries and No. 5 in yards and scores.

Williams: 360 yards on 39 carries, a 9.2 average, with four touchdowns. Two catches for 13 yards and one score.
Jones: 232 yards on 44 carries, a 5.3 average, with three touchdowns. Six catches for 12 yards.
Notre Dame gets the letter: Jahmir Smith
Notre Dame gets the letter: C’Bo Flemister

Monday’s Leftovers: Geography, as much as academics, caps Notre Dame’s recruiting possibilites

Associated Press
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A year ago, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly acknowledged a practical ceiling on Irish recruiting efforts.

“Since I’ve been here, if you look at the average rankings, we’re anywhere from 5 to 15,” Kelly said on 2017’s National Signing Day, a day on which Notre Dame secured the No. 13 class in the country, per rivals.com. “We’re going to fall somewhere in that range because there’s a line there we can’t get over based upon what our distinctions are here. That line is going to keep us between 5 and 15.

“We know where we’re going to fall. We’re going to continue to recruit the right kind of kids here.”

Sure enough, the Irish once again fall into that spectrum in 2018, finishing No. 11 per rivals. Though Notre Dame has risen above that range once (No. 3 in 2013) and fallen below it once (No. 20 in 2012) during Kelly’s tenure, his overall analysis remains accurate.

The instinct has always been to cite University academic standards as the greatest hurdle to rising into the top five consistently, but another aspect should not be overlooked. In a recent mailbag, Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples pondered the factors keeping the Irish from becoming a perennial 10-win team.

“Another major reason is a lack of a local recruiting base,” Staples wrote. “No program has a stronger national reach than Notre Dame, but that still doesn’t make recruiting nationally easy. It’s much easier to have hundreds of quality prospects within driving distances.”

That dynamic is a part of why the Irish are better positioned to reap rewards from high school juniors now being able to take official visits in April, May and June. Those time periods are less hectic for most high schoolers, so a long-distance trip may fit into the calendar with a bit less stress. Obviously, only time will tell the true impact of that new change.

Looking at both this past year’s recruiting rankings and the last nine years of rankings underscores and supports Staples’ point.

Rivals considered 33 prospects to be five-star recruits in 2018. Only seven schools managed to sign multiple such players: Georgia (8), Clemson (6), USC (5), Alabama (3), Ohio State (3), Penn State (2), and Miami (2). To speak more broadly, four schools in the Deep South, two in the Ohio-Pennsylvania corridor and one in California, all talent-rich areas, especially compared to Indiana, Illinois and Michigan.

If combining the total signees of both four- and five-star rankings by rivals, Notre Dame signed 12 such prospects. Only 11 schools signed more, including six of the above seven. (Clemson equaled the Irish haul, though its even split between four- and five-star recruits stands out compared to Notre Dame’s 12 four-stars.) The additional five: Oklahoma, Texas, Florida State, Auburn and Florida. In other words, two schools tapping into Texas, two schools within Florida and one more in the Deep South.

If looking at the last nine years of recruiting, the span of Kelly’s time in South Bend, only eight programs have consistently out-recruited the Irish, all but one mentioned already. LSU finished with the No. 13 recruiting class in 2018, lowering its nine-year average placement to 8.0. The Tigers are one of five SEC teams in that group of eight, joining Florida State, Ohio State and USC.

Sense a theme?

It will always be hard enough for Notre Dame to find high-caliber players likely to succeed at a strong academic institution in the Midwest. That task is even harder knowing how far away those players typically are to start with.

Other programs face a similar challenge, and few handle it as well. Consider the 2018 recruiting classes of Stanford, Michigan and Michigan State, for familiar context.

Stanford finished with 4 four-stars in rivals’ No. 63 class. The Wolverines pulled in 7 four-stars as part of the No. 24 class, while the Spartans signed 5 four-stars in the No. 26 grouping.

The Blue-Chip Ratio
Finishing within Kelly’s range has not stopped Notre Dame from consistently having one of the most-talented rosters in the country. If abiding by rivals rankings for consistency, 45 of the 89 players currently on the Irish roster (including incoming freshmen) were four- or five-star recruits.

A commonly-cited metric of a roster’s talent is the so-called “Blue-Chip Ratio.” Essentially, a national championship caliber team will have at least 50 percent of its roster consisting of former four- or five-star prospects. Entering 2017, Notre Dame was one of only 10 such teams in the country.

As should be expected, the other nine included six programs from the Deep South, Ohio State, USC and, as an ode to Jim Harbaugh’s early recruiting successes, Michigan.

A Presidents Day Reminder
Notre Dame cannot officially claim any POTUS as an alum, but both Josiah Bartlet and James Marshall would like to argue otherwise.

INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
Notre Dame’s pending attrition actually intended to improve the roster
NCAA denies Notre Dame’s appeal, vacating 21 wins, including 12-0 in 2012
Notre Dame is right: The NCAA’s terrible precedent matters, but vacating wins does not
‘Accelerated’ start creates bright outlook for Notre Dame’s 2019 recruiting cycle
Notre Dame’s successful early signing period now begets early visit questions

OUTSIDE READING:
NCAA appeals committee upholds vacation of Notre Dame wins
A letter from the President on the NCAA Infractions Case
Irish set high expectations for Jurkovec
Elston ‘recruits’ Tillery, Bonner for one last ride
Giants release defensive end Ishaq Williams with a failed physical designation
Re-ranking the longest FBS coaching tenures from 1-to-230
Hip injury to keep Stanford QB K.J. Costello sidelined for much of spring drills

Notre Dame’s successful early signing period now begets early visit questions

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Notre Dame used the first early signing period to its advantage, but in many respects, succeeding in that initial foray was by default. The Irish already had strong relationships with the recruiting class of 2018 when the NCAA finally agreed upon setting a 72-hour window for December. No other recruiting changes went into effect in the cycle, so the only shift was getting the paperwork ready and the grades verified six weeks earlier than usual.

“When you are presented with a new rule that gives you — go ahead, sign them early — and you’ve done all that work, that’s kind of a lay-up,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said on National Signing Day, Feb. 7. “The real work now begins with the early visits.”

A bit before finally nailing down the December early signing period, the NCAA also approved official visits for high school juniors in April, May and June. Previously, a recruit could not take an official visit until September of his senior year in high school.

For a program with a national reach in recruiting — pulling in multiple prospects from both coasts in the cycle of 2018, for example — it can be difficult to get a player to visit for a home game amidst his own football season. When it is possible, it is often a rushed trip. The recruit plays a high school game Friday night, flies to South Bend, possibly via Chicago, early Saturday morning and then departs mid-day Sunday to get back home in time for the school week.

Notre Dame can now instead slate that official visit for the summer, perhaps around a camp environment or the Blue-Gold Game (April 21).

In years to come, this expedited timing could have a greater effect on recruiting than the early signing period does.

“How we handle the back end of it, the back end being when are those visits going to start, when do you start them, when do you end them,” Kelly said, “That’s really what we’re trying to figure out at this point relative to tweaking and how that’s going to work.”

Theoretically, earlier visits could lead to earlier commitments, increasing the likelihood of more signings in December than in February, further de-emphasizing the traditional National Signing Day.

Amid all those changes, though, recruits are still allowed only five official visits and only one to each school. Of course, a recruit can make multiple unofficial visits, paying for those out of his and his family’s own pocket, but Notre Dame can pay for only one. As much as getting a recruit on campus earlier in the process should bode well for any program, it becomes a double-edged sword: Is it better to get a player on campus early and make that impression before other schools have the opportunity, or is it better to showcase a primetime game against a rival?

Irish recruiting coordinator Brian Polian suggested allowing two official visits per school, although remaining at only five total, on National Signing Day.

“Why not let a young man make two official visits to one institution? Because if somebody says to us, from far distance, I want to come make a visit to your place in the spring, well, ideally you want them to see a game atmosphere, as well,” Polian said. “There’s nothing like Notre Dame Stadium and this campus on a game weekend.

“Now we’re going to have to get into some strategic decisions about when do we want young men to take visits.”

Perhaps in time the NCAA will consider that adjustment, but it will not be for the cycle of 2019.

While when a player visits may impact the recruitment, Polian does not much care about when they commit, as long as they do. Notre Dame signed five prospects on National Signing Day who had not previously committed publicly, making it appear to be a strong finish to the class. Then again, the Irish also signed 21 players in the early signing period and received a 22nd commitment less than a week afterward.

“If you’ve got a really good class and they’ve been committed for a while, who cares when they said yes?” Polian said. “It’s as though the answers that you get at the end dictate your class.”

‘Accelerated’ start creates bright outlook for Notre Dame’s 2019 recruiting cycle

rivals.com
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Thanks to signing 21 prospects during December’s early signing period, Notre Dame’s coaching staff began looking ahead to the 2019 recruiting cycle sooner than it usually would. The Irish needed to focus on only a handful of remaining 2018 possibilities, thus taking the time usually spent checking in on verbal commits and devoting it toward the needs of the future.

“[The early signing period] really allows us to accelerate and reach out into ’19, ’20 and beyond,” head coach Brian Kelly said in December. “You always feel in recruiting that you’re a click behind. You’re always trying to get ahead of it. This is the first time you truly feel like you’re about to get ahead of it.”

When Kelly or another coach says something to the effect of being ahead of schedule, they mean in terms of evaluating, communicating and beginning the year-long wooing more than they mean securing verbal commitments. Nonetheless, Notre Dame already has three pledges in the class of 2019.

Consensus four-star quarterback Cade McNamara (Demonte Ranch High School; Reno, Nev.) made it the second-consecutive cycle in which a highly-touted quarterback was the first Irish commitment, following Phil Jurkovec’s lead. Consensus four-star defensive tackle Jacob Lacey (South Warren H.S.; Bowling Green, Ky.), pictured above, committed shortly after McNamara, both in July, and rivals.com three-star cornerback K.J. Wallace (Lovett; Atlanta) made it a trio in late January.

Moving forward, the class’s success or failure may largely be determined by the defensive line commitments joining Lacey, or lack thereof. It is already the driving emphasis, part of that head start provided by the early signing period, and the preliminary responses have Irish defensive line coach Mike Elston optimistic.

“I’ve been at Notre Dame now going on for nine years, and I haven’t had a stronger group of underclassmen that I’m recruiting than I have this year in 2019,” Elston said on Feb. 7. “This could be the best defensive line haul we’ve ever had here.

“A lot of it is because I’ve been able to put ’18 to bed and get moving on the ’19s, go visit in their schools all throughout January.”

The Irish hosted about 20 juniors for a day in late January, and among them were five of the reasons Elston is so bullish on the defensive line possibilities, including the committed Lacey.

Twitter: @JacobLacey6

Pictured, from left to right: Consensus four-star defensive end/outside linebacker Nana Osafo-Mensah (Nolan Catholic; Forth Worth, Texas); consensus four-star defensive end Joseph Anderson (Siegel; Murfreesboro, Tenn.); Elston; consensus four-star defensive tackle Mazi Smith (East Kentwood; Kentwood, Mich.); Lacey; and consensus four-star defensive end Hunter Spears (Sachse; Texas).

Obviously, it is early in the cycle, any relative success or failure in the 2018 season could prove to be influential, and the number of other variables is innumerable, but getting such a group on campus a full year before they need to put pen to figurative paper is a big step for any recruiting process.

Notre Dame will also need to focus on finding more running back talent. Pulling in two this class only replaces what was lost in the dismissals of current sophomore Deon McIntosh and current freshman C.J. Holmes. It does not create depth for the future, and with rising senior Dexter Williams entering his final season of eligibility, the Irish will need to find that depth immediately following 2018.

Similarly, one of the 2019 recruits will almost certainly be a punter, with Tyler Newsome entering his fifth and final year with Notre Dame.

Williams will be one of six rising seniors entering their final years of eligibility. Add them to Newsome and the eight other fifth-years on the roster, and that makes for an immediate 15 spots to fill in the class of 2019.

Obviously, 15 recruits would be a small class. The subsequent question is usually, “How many players will Notre Dame be able to sign in 2019?” That is not the question to ask. The question to ask is, “How many players will leave Notre Dame before August of 2019?”

The Irish roster, as it stands now, would have 89 players this fall, four more than the NCAA maximum. Presume the four who depart before this coming August are not rising seniors. (Any such player would be better served to wait a year, get his degree and transfer as a graduate with immediate eligibility.)

After the 2018 season, eight then-seniors would have one more year of eligibility available, but it is unlikely more than three or four are asked to return for a fifth year. In rough order of likelihood: quarterback Brandon Wimbush, cornerback Shaun Crawford, receiver Miles Boykin, offensive lineman Trevor Ruhland, tight end Alizé Mack, linebacker Asmar Bilal, receiver Chris Finke, defensive tackle Micah Dew-Treadway. If only three of those are asked to return, now 20 spots have theoretically opened up for the recruiting class of 2019.

If rising junior Julian Love puts together a third stellar season, he will have an NFL decision to make. His departure would immediately raise the operating figure to 21.

That becomes the floor for the size of the next recruiting class. Next offseason’s natural, and perhaps presumed, attrition can raise that total. Another year of 27 recruits is unlikely, but 24 or 25 would create what could be by then a familiar numbers crunch.