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.

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Friday at 4: 40-yard dashes and absurdity

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Of all the absurd things the football world often obsesses over, the 40-yard dash may be the most useless of them. Yes, it even beats out assigning star rankings to 16- and 17-year-olds, though not by much.

For now, let’s look past the rest of the inane Draft intricacies, such as former Irish defensive lineman Jarron Jones feeling pressured to increase his vertical jump by four inches. (He did, jumping to 24.5 inches in Notre Dame’s Pro Day on Thursday.) This scribe does not have an excess of time to spend discussing Jones’s outlandish wingspan if this piece is to post by its intended, though unnecessary, 4 p.m. ET deadline.

The 40-yard dash … No football play begins from a sprinter’s stance, yet it may be the factor most crucial to a low 40 time. Former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer posted a time of 4.83 seconds in the NFL Combine earlier this month. For context’s sake, Kizer ran .07 seconds slower than Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger did as a draft prospect in the 2004 combine.

Roethlisberger has had himself an excellent career, and his ability to shrug off 300-pound defensive linemen is a testament to his athleticism. Put Kizer and Roethlisberger in the open field together, though, and Kizer would presumably have outrun Roethlisberger at any point of the two-time Super Bowl champion’s career. In Indianapolis, however, Roethlisberger did a better job of getting his hips through his first couple strides of the heralded 40-yard dash.

Here, watch Kizer train for the 40, the most-hyped measurement of his combine.

“The ultimate goal is to have yourself in the best position to have your body weight back in those legs so you can create enough torque to get out as quickly as possible,” Kizer said. “A guy who is as long as I am, with long limbs that I have, I’ve got to make sure that my weight distribution is in the best position for me to get out and catch up to some of those quicker guys who are a little lower to the ground.”

What part of that sounds applicable to football? The 40 turns Kizer’s size (6-foot-4, 237 pounds) into a negative. He worries about the angle of his knees. After his throwing session at the Thursday Pro Day, Kizer summed up the draft evaluation process even more succinctly.

“This process is very different in the sense that the way you look productive in the combine and in a pro day is very different from what productivity actually looks like out on the field.”

Well put.

More pertinent to the actual game of football, Kizer’s completion percentage in the staged workout could have been higher.

Then again, he was throwing to the likes of former Irish receivers Corey Robinson and Amir Carlisle and former running back Jonas Gray. Reportedly, the only contact Gray and Kizer had before the session was Kizer emailing the former New England Patriot the planned series of routes.

The NFL Draft, where Gmail becomes a necessity.

Let’s do away with the 40. If we insist on keeping it, let’s do it twice, once from a standing start and once from a running start. Those would simulate actual football movements: A receiver getting off the line, and a ballcarrier breaking away and trying to outrun the defense.

Asking DeShone Kizer to mimic Usain Bolt is an exercise in futility, idiocy, absurdity.

Cue end of rant.

Why cite the Roethlisberger time? Many, including Sports Illustrated’s Chris Burke, have readily compared Kizer to Roethlisberger this spring.

The most notable line of that scouting report (scroll down to No. 32) may be its final one, echoing Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly’s sentiments from earlier this week.

“The mystery is whether he can regain his assertiveness,” Burke writes. “If so, he could turn out to be the 2017 class’s best QB. The team that drafts him will be taking a leap of faith.”

A leap. Not a dash.

For more Notre Dame Pro Day results, click here.

And with that, this just may make the 4 p.m. posting. You know what to do.

 

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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Bilal the first in at ‘versatile’ rover position, others likely to follow
2 Days Until Spring Practice: A look at the defensive backfield

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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