Projecting the freshmen

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A funny thing happens each winter. As the focus of hard core fans turns from football to recruiting, the attention of that group tends to shift from the players already on board to the inevitable recruits that tend to get away.

Rare is the recruiting class that doesn’t suffer defections. And after a disappointing 8-5 season, Brian Kelly’s recruiting class certainly suffered its share of disappointments. But as the 2012 season approaches, that sting is replaced by the realization that Notre Dame added some really intriguing football players.

Here’s a quick look at the freshman class along with a glance into my crystal ball as we project how this group will contribute this season.

Chris Badger, S: Badger has finally returned to Notre Dame after spending spring practice with the Irish two years ago. Retaining his rookie eligibility after his Mormon mission took him away from football, Badger’s added maturity, not to mention 15 practices with the defensive staff in 2010, should give him a bit of a leg up.
Projection: He may not work his way into the two-deep, but expect Badger, a physical player with a good feel for the game, to be everywhere on special teams.

Nicky Baratti, S: The former Texas all-purpose weapon is making the transition to playing defense after spending his high school days as an offensive star. But early returns on Baratti have been positive, and the 6-foot-1, 206-pounder has good size and looks the part. Whether he plays will likely depend on how quickly Baratti grasps the defense.
Projection: The freshman safety depth chart has thinned itself with CJ Prosise and Elijah Shumate switching positions. But in an ideal world, Baratti spends the season learning, saving a year of eligibility, a la Harrison Smith.

Chris Brown, WR: Most people assumed Brian Kelly’s gushing review of Brown on Signing Day was a way to help Irish fans cope with the loss of Deontay Greenberry. But after a week of practice, it’s clear that Brown is living up to the hype. At 6-foot-2, 172-pounds, he’s not fully developed, but Brown has the ability to blow the top off a defense and looks surprisingly smooth running intermediate routes as well.
Projection: It’s tough to judge Brown’s ability on his glowing UND.com practice report videos, but I’ll go out on a limb and say that the freshman will lead the Irish in yards-per-catch.

Scott Daly, LS: It’s clear that the Irish coaching staff haven’t been all that satisfied with their long snapping game since they came to South Bend. After almost signing competition for Jordan Cowart two years ago, the Irish offered Daly and accepted his commitment. He’s not 6-foot-4 as advertised during recruiting (he’s 6-2), but at 245-pounds he’s big enough to hold up and handle both short and long snaps.
Projection: It wouldn’t surprise me to see Daly start to take snaps away from Cowart by season’s end. At the very least in the place-kicking game.

Sheldon Day, DE: Getting Day on campus during the spring was a huge help, letting the 6-foot-2, 286-pound Indianapolis native learn the ropes of college while also accelerating his timeline, now a necessity without Aaron Lynch. Day might not have the height you’d associate with a Brian Kelly 3-4 defensive end, but he’s a physical presence that should contribute.
Projection: Expect to see plenty of Day from the outset. He’ll team with Chase Hounshell, Tony Springmann, and Justin Utupo as guys that’ll fill in behind Stephon Tuitt and Kapron Lewis-Moore.

Justin Ferguson, WR: Rarely does a recruit actually gain an inch in height when he gets to campus. But Ferguson surprised many when he measured in at 6-foot-2 and a well-put-together 196 pounds. The Florida native is a tricky prospect. Not quite a burner, not quite a size mismatch. That said, he had some elite offers that give you a sense that he might just be an impact player.
Projection: Probably the third-most ready to go freshman wideout, there’s some logic behind giving him the Davaris Daniels treatment. Then again, Ferguson might be too good to keep off the field.

Mark Harrell, OL: At this stage in Notre Dame’s program development, you don’t expect to see a freshman offensive lineman on the field. While early returns on Harrell have been promising, with the depth the Irish have on the interior of their line, a lot would have to go wrong to see the 6-foot-4, 287-pounder on the field. With veterans Chris Watt and Jake Golic likely manning the guard positions and Nick Martin and Connor Hanratty likely the next men in, Harrell will spend a lot of time with strength coach Paul Longo this season.
Projection: A season on the scout team and a saved year of eligibility for the promising newcomer.

Jarron Jones, DE: He may not be the Tuitt-sized monster his recruiting profile purported, but Jones has opened some eyes during fall training camp, and at 6-foot-5, 299-pounds, he’s bigger than just about any pre-Kelly era defensive recruit in recent memory. Jones’ profile roller-coastered a bit during the postseason All-Star game circuit, but he’s looking every bit the part of a key defensive cog in the years to come.
Projection: With depth at end not exactly flush, Jones could work his way into the rotation by midseason. But saving a year of eligibility would give the Irish some flexibility in case Stephon Tuitt finds himself playing on Sundays sooner than expected.

Gunner Kiel, QB: When the Irish flipped Kiel in dramatic fashion, Kelly and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin pulled a five-star rabbit out of its hat. (A rabbit that might have been LSU’s starting quarterback come September.) Kiel is everything you’d want in an elite prospect: Big, strong, and capable of running Kelly’s spread attack. While things might have been moving quickly this spring, early word is that Kiel is impressing the staff with his ability to grasp the offense, making Kelly’s comments about feeling comfortable with Kiel running the offense this year if needed less than lip service.
Projection: In a perfect world, Kiel makes his impact this season in the classroom. It’ll save a year of eligibility, and preserve another four years of interesting quarterbacking debates.

Will Mahone, RB: Mahone was billed as more thunder to KeiVarae Russell’s lighning at tailback, filling a big need on the roster after last season’s depth was shattered after Jonas Gray went down with a season-ending knee injury. Yet Mahone has looked quick in our brief glimpses during practice reports, with the 211-pound runner far from the bulldozer many thought the Irish were getting. With a crowded depth chart in front of him, Mahone’s first chance of showing fans his running style will likely wait until 2013.
Projection: Another redshirt year of eligibility preserved for the freshman class. (Don’t get down, Will. It worked out okay for Cierre Wood and Tyler Eifert.)

Davonte Neal, WR: Maybe it’s better that Neal isn’t wearing No. 3. At 5-foot-9, 171-pounds, the comparisons to Michael Floyd just aren’t there, with Neal giving up half a foot and over 50 pounds to the former Irish great. But while their methodology might be different, there’s reason to believe that the Irish have another game-breaking wide receiver in the diminutive freshman, with blazing speed and a great feel for the game likely putting Neal on the fast track.
Projection: Neal makes an immediate impact on the Irish offense, leading the wide receivers in catches during his rookie season. He also ends up the Irish punt returner.

Romeo Okwara, OLB: Just about everyone expected Okwara to walk onto campus as a typical work-in-progress. Given the “raw athlete” tag, the marvel of the 17-yr-old outside linebacker was that he was just growing into the player he’d become. Fast-forward to the first days in camp, and it’s clear that Okwara is much more than a diamond in the rough. At 6-foot-4, 239-pounds, the youngster just might be too good to stay off the field.
Projection: It all depends on Danny Spond’s health. If the junior linebacker is healthy, Okwara can spend this season growing bigger and stronger. If not, expect to see him getting reps at the Dog linebacker position.

CJ Prosise, OLB/S: Not too often does one of your starting kick returners also moonlight as an outside linebacker. But that’s where the Irish find themselves with Prosise, who has slid down into the box after Spond’s injury. At 6-foot-2, 208-pounds, Prosise is well-developed for a freshman, and while he doesn’t profile as a Dog linebacker, he could easily fill the role of the ‘Star,’ a position Jamoris Slaughter frequented last year.
Projection: More than a few things would have to go wrong to see Prosise taking snaps with the defense this early in his career. Still, expect the freshman to make a splash on special teams, possibly even in the return game next to George Atkinson.

KeiVarae Russell, CB: With depth at cornerback not ideal, Brian Kelly moved Russell to cornerback for his first season in South Bend. While the Seattle talent was known mostly for his smooth dual-threat abilities out of the offensive backfield, Russell has been a quick study on the edges of Bob Diaco’s defense, working with Kerry Cooks to shore up any deficiencies in the secondary. Again, it’s hard to take clips from UND.com videos too seriously, but it’s clear that Russell is a great athlete with good football instincts.
Projection: It’d be great to save a year of eligibility for Russell this season, giving him a chance to stick at corner or shift back to offense when the numbers even out. But the 5-foot-11, 182-pound athlete might force his way onto the field.

Elijah Shumate: CB/S: With Danny McCarthy buckling up the third safety job, the move of Shumate to cornerback might have been to help get the talented freshman onto the field. As physically impressive as any freshman, putting Shumate at corner might simplify things enough for him to understand the mental game while putting his impressive skillset to work.
Projection: Might be the sleeper of this defensive class. I could see Shumate finding his way into some defensive packages, working close to the line of scrimmage or in the slot.

Ronnie Stanley, OT: The timeline on Stanley’s development moved up considerably with the departure of Jordan Prestwood. Now running as the second-string left tackle, the 6-foot-6, 304-pound freshman could move even closer to live action if rumors about an injury to Tate Nichols prove true. While the staff is high on Stanley’s future, it’s too much to ask any freshman to step in and protect the quarterback’s blind side.
Projection: A lot of travel squad appearances, but none on the field this season for Stanley.

John Turner, S: We haven’t heard much from Turner this fall, with the Indianapolis native working at a crowded position group as he transitions to college football. At 6-foot-2, 207-pounds, Turner certainly looks the part of an intimidating safety, but we’ll have to see how quickly he develops before making any judgments.
Projection: Lacking the elite offers of many of his classmates, Turner earned his scholarship offer after running a 4.5 forty at camp. Kelly has uncovered plenty of overlooked gems, and Turner might be another. At his size, Turner has the potential to be another great special teams contributor.

***

Following spring practice, will Notre Dame continue habitual progress?

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By no means is Irish coach Brian Kelly going to measure Alizé Mack’s progress by if the junior tight end makes his bed every morning. Mack’s mother might—mine would certainly factor it in—but when Kelly cited the need to start the day with hospital corners, he was simply trying to make a point.

“He’s taking care of business off the field, which invariably it always comes back to this,” Kelly said Wednesday. “If you’re taking care of work in the classroom and you’re starting the day right, making your bed—I’m just using that analogy—if you start the day right, it’s going to trend the right way and it’s trending the right way on the field for him.”

Mack is the most obvious example of a needed change in habits. When you miss a season due to academic issues, reconfiguring your priorities becomes a topic of conversation. His instance, though, serves as a readily-cited example of a more widespread concern. Of all the optimistic conversation and concerted change following last season’s 4-8 disappointment, Kelly’s preaching of good habits simultaneously appears as the most abstract aspect and the easiest understood.

“It starts with guys being aware of it first,” Kelly said following Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold Game on Saturday. “Then once they are aware that they need to have these good habits to be good football players, then you start to see it show itself in good run support angles. You see it offensively, guys always lined up properly. We had very few penalties today, and that’s a product of some of the habits that are being built on a day-to-day basis.”

It makes sense. If a receiver doesn’t realize he lined up a few feet closer to the sideline than desired, for example, then he will make that same mistake the next time, especially if he still makes a catch on the play. Next time, the defensive back may be more able to capitalize on the gift of less route uncertainty.

It is unrealistic to expect anyone, let alone a 19- or 20-year-old, to display this exacting discipline on the football field without practicing it throughout the rest of the day. Successfully cutting corners in one area of life convinces the psyche it can be done anywhere. Thus, Kelly has needed to harp on his charges about their off-field activities, including—but perhaps not seriously—making their beds.

“I think we ask our guys to do a number of different things on a day-to-day basis,” Kelly said. “First of all, understanding how habits carry over to what they do in the classroom and what they do on the football field.”

Kelly and his coaching staff have had four months to make this impression. The issue is, bad habits are hard to break. They’re usually more fun, anyway. As Kelly pointed out, the rewards of good habits are slow in coming. Delayed gratification, if you will.

“I think our guys understand that it takes time to build those habits, because some of them have bad habits, and to get rid of those bad habits, you really have to be creating good habits over a long period of time,” Kelly said. “That’s the process that is hard for these guys, because it takes time, and they want it to happen right away.

“Sometimes they forget and they just want to go out and play. If you go out and play, but you don’t do it the right way, it’s going to get you beat.”

This all sounds well and good, and some of the effects were evident Saturday. There were few penalties (none, in fact, according to the official statistics), the quarterbacks took advantage of the receiving corps’ size and missed their targets high. But soon comes the toughest time to continue this trend.

Kelly and his staff have worked on the Irish to internalize these lessons. Now, Kelly and his staff will cover the country in recruiting. In a few weeks, the players will scatter home for a break before returning for a summer session spent in the weight room and classroom. If they slip back into old habits, the last four months were spent fruitlessly.

Mack played well Saturday. The question has never been does he have physical talent. He undeniably does.

The question has been, is and will be: Did you make your bed today, Alizé?

What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

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Time spent on a traditional game wrap of a spring intrasquad exhibition seems misspent. Gold won Notre Dame’s annual Blue-Gold Game 27-14 led by rising sophomore quarterback Ian Book. The first-string defense (Gold) held the first-string offense to an average of 5.4 yards per play. For context’s sake: Last season Notre Dame gained an average of 6.1 yards per play and held opponents to 5.4.

With that abbreviated recap out of the way, what did Saturday’s pseudo-game environment show about the Irish? If the 20,147 in attendance paid attention, they had the chance to learn a few things:

Daelin Hayes will be ready to hit a quarterback in September
Notre Dame’s quarterbacks were off limits all spring. Bulls might charge when they see red, but the Irish defensive line has had to remember to ease up when they come across a quarterback’s red jersey. If sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes had forgotten that Saturday, Notre Dame might not have any quarterbacks left to play in the fall.

“At the end of the day, we’re on the same team,” Hayes said, dismissing any bitterness about the quarterbacks’ protections. “We have to keep our guys healthy. I wasn’t frustrated, but come September 2, you know.”

Officially, Hayes was credited with three sacks and another tackle for loss among his seven tackles. Admittedly, gauging sacks is tricky when the quarterback does not actually go to the ground. How many of Hayes’ three sacks and the defense’s 11 total would have been evaded if the defender needed to do more than touch the passer? That answer is highly subjective, but discounting Hayes’ numbers would miss the bigger picture.

“We showed [pressure] in as far as the quarterback wasn’t getting really comfortable, not having all day to throw back there,” Hayes said. “I think it’s been huge, buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

Senior end Jay Hayes (no relation) notched two sacks and sophomore end Ade Ogundeji came the closest to tackling a red jersey when he stripped junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush from behind. The defensive line has been expected to be a weak point for the Irish moving forward, but the spring performance indicates it has a chance at holding its own. These accomplishments bear further merit considering Notre Dame’s offensive line is widely-considered one of its few spots of expected quality.

RELATED READING: Now is the time for Daelin Hayes to turn athleticism into pass rush threat

“I think it’s pretty clear Daelin Hayes is going to be around the football and be a disruptive player for us,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “I’d have to watch the film, but it seemed like [sophomore end] Julian Okwara was a hard guy to block coming off the edge, as well.”

Ian Book provides some peace of mind
Book was not spectacular, but he was also far from incompetent or intimidated. In his first action on the field at Notre Dame Stadium, Book completed 18-of-25 passes for 271 yards and a touchdown, highlighted by a 58-yard connection with sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson. Meanwhile, junior Brandon Wimbush completed 22-of-32 passes for 303 yards.

Bluntly, one has not needed to follow Notre Dame for very long to fit that “long enough” qualification. Last season’s backup, Malik Zaire, saw competitive action against both Texas and Stanford. In 2015, DeShone Kizer came off the bench to start 11 games after Zaire suffered a season-ending ankle injury. (more…)

What Notre Dame players should you actually watch? Plus, catch up on reading

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If technology does its part, this will post as its typist meanders toward finding his credential for the Blue-Gold Game to conclude Notre Dame’s spring practice. If technology doesn’t do its part, well, then this will be lost to the cobwebs of the internet. Such as it goes.

This space has spent much of the past week discussing what to look for in the 12:30 p.m. ET exhibition. Worry about the big picture, not the individuals. Fret about the macro, not the micro.

RELATED READING: Focus on Notre Dame’s dueling new schemes, not the indivdual players
Blue-Gold Game primer with help from Notre Dame’s coordinators
Four defensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game
Four offensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game

But, if insistent on focusing on singular players, look to the inexperienced, the names you are unfamiliar with. The 15th and final practice of spring may be no more than a practice in reality, but it is in front of nearly 30,000 fans in Notre Dame Stadium. Some players do not have so much as that minimal experience.

“The Blue-Gold Game, specifically, is a time for us to emulate a game-like situation,” senior safety/linebacker/rover Drue Tranquill said. “Especially for guys like freshmen, second-semester guys coming in, it’s a great opportunity for them to get that game feeling, but also continue to take steps in the process to get better.”

The question on the tip of your tongue is a fair one. If you are unfamiliar with the names, how are you supposed to focus on those players? How are you to know who fits the appropriate tunnel vision version of perspective?

Let’s turn to Irish coach Brian Kelly’s mentions from Wednesday–primarily, sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara, sophomore long snapper John Shannon, senior kicker Sam Kohler, sophomore defensive end Khalid Kareem and sophomore safety Jalen Elliott.

Obviously, that is just a sampling. Less obviously, this post’s purpose may or may not be to link to previous reading material and remind you of the vague but pertinent purposes to today’s endeavor. It is neither be-all nor end-all. It is simply another opportunity to gauge what may come down the line.

But hey, how about a prediction? Per Kelly, the first-team offense and second-team defense will be in blue, against the first-team defense and second-team offense in white.

PREDICTION: Blue 37, White 21

HOW TO WATCH
As a recurring reminder, the Blue-Gold Game kicks off at 12:30 p.m. ET on Saturday and will be broadcast on NBC Sports Network, as well as streamed online at ndstream.nbcsports.com and on the NBC Sports app.

Friday at 4: Four offensive positions to watch in Notre Dame’s spring game

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There are two common ways of looking at the annual spring game.
It is the last action involving Notre Dame football readily available for public consumption until Sept. 2, 133 days away.
Or it is an exercise rife with contradiction exacerbated by hype, yielding little-to-no reliable intelligence.
Like much of life, the most accurate assessment falls somewhere between those two views.

If junior running back Dexter Williams breaks off two 50-yard-plus touchdown runs, does that mean he will have multiple big plays in 2017? Not at all. It does mean he will likely have more opportunities for them, though. Just like in spring’s previous 14 practices, the Irish coaches will take what they see and apply it moving forward.

The past—and as of Saturday evening, the Blue-Gold Game will qualify as the past—does not dictate the future, but it can influence one’s approach to it.

Aside from Williams (see the second item below for more on him and the running backs), what other players/positions could influence their future roles the most with their performance to close spring?

BIG PASSING TARGETS: Alizé Jones and Co.
In this instance, big is meant literally. Notre Dame has an embarrassment of riches of tall, long, physical tight ends and receivers. Junior Alizé Jones earns specific mention here due to his inaction last season. Irish fans and coaches alike have a better idea of sophomore receiver Chase Claypool and junior receiver Miles Boykin. They have 2016 film to look at.

Jones, however, sat out the season due to academic issues. His on-field performance largely remains a question mark, but if he combines this spring’s praise with his 6-foot-4 ½ frame holding 245 listed pounds, that could turn into an exclamation point.

“He’s a perfect fit,” new Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long said Friday. “That’s why I recruited him like crazy when I was at Arizona State. He’s a prototypical [tight end], a guy who can run, who can catch.

“The biggest thing about Alizé is he’s taking great pride in his blocking ability right now, his presence of being an end-line guy, his protection and his overall physicality. When you think like that, you’re going to become a better receiver.” (more…)