Santa Louis Nix III

Nix shows wisdom in returning to Notre Dame

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You could forgive Louis Nix for capitalizing on the hard work he’s put in as a football player. Committing to Notre Dame with the program in the middle of a coaching transition, the high school senior from a hard knock neighborhood and an oversized family, brought a preternatural maturity and wisdom that belies his jokester persona that’s turned him into one of the most beloved players on the Irish roster.

That maturity helped him pick Notre Dame, even without knowing the team’s defensive scheme or plans at head coach.

“I don’t believe it was a risk,” Nix said of committing to Notre Dame without a head coach in place. “You don’t come to college for a coach. I wasn’t coming to college because of a Nick Saban or a Brian Kelly or anything. I came for the school.”

That Nix found his match in South Bend, Indiana is one of the wonderful things about college football. That he’s been able to immerse himself into a school and a culture as remarkably different from the one he grew up in should be part of any recruiting pitch Notre Dame coaches give.

Yet it hasn’t been easy for Nix. He spent his first year at college reshaping who he was on both the inside and the outside, transforming a body that pushed upwards to almost 370 pounds, and training himself to be disciplined in an academic structure unlike anything he ever experienced growing up. Nix’s tremendous sense of humor and flair for life helped him as a Film, Television and Theater major, as he created online personas and viral YouTube videos.

But the work he’s done on the field — turning himself into one of the most immovable and athletic nose guards in the country — has been a tremendous credit to Nix, and has given him the opportunity to even consider the NFL after just two seasons of competition on the field. And while the allure of playing at the next level was a serious consideration, the decision to return to school was one Nix made even without hearing from the league, pulling the trigger preemptively — not unlike his choice to head north for college three years ago.

“It’s like the recruiting process,” Nix said of the uncertainty. “People want to know when you’re going to commit, where you’re going to sign, and once you do it, it’s a huge weight off your shoulders.”

For Nix, there were a variety of factors that played into the decision. But one large one was Senior Day. It’s a moment that can transcend sport, a rite of passage where an athlete and his parents meet on the field, taking a minute to acknowledge the road that it took to get there. And it was a moment that was too special for Nix and especially his mother, Stephanie Wingfield, to pass up.

“She called me every day like ‘I can’t wait to walk on the field with you for Senior Day,'” Nix said yesterday. “In high school, she didn’t get to do Senior Day with me. She barely made it to any of my games. She didn’t do the Senior Day in high school and she cried. That was a big one for me.”

That’s because Wingfield had bills to pay and mouths to feed, supporting Nix and his ten siblings, working that evening at her job in a hospital cafeteria.

“She just had to work all the time,” Nix said. “I couldn’t afford to let her take off and she couldn’t afford to take off. And she cried when it happened and she was kind of mad at me. She really wanted to be there and I walked on the field by myself and people were like, ‘Where are his parents?’ She didn’t like stuff like that.”

“This will give her the opportunity to come up and do that for once. And be happy.”

Special moments like that are enough to defer a dream that could immediately end any double-shifts for Nix’s mother, and take them out of a cramped home that’s bursting at the seams.

“We’ve been surviving this far. We’ll be okay, I guess,” Nix said.

Returning for another season will also allow Nix to get his degree, giving him a fallback plan in case things don’t work out in the NFL. It’s a big reason why Nix chose Notre Dame in the first place, and a big reason why the junior will go from one of the biggest reclamation projects on the Irish roster to one of the finest players in the country.

“When I got here I was one of those guys in the back, just trying to make it — you know, out of shape,” Nix said. “At the same time, I didn’t give up on myself and no one gave up on me. I get better as time goes by. Hopefully I’m a better person, better man, and better player next year.”

 

 

Restocking the roster: Wide Receivers

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Some believe that the best way to look at recruiting is in two-year increments. As programs rebuild and rosters turn over, covering the needs of a football team over two recruiting cycles  allows a coaching staff to balance its roster.

That balance is critical to the health of a program. And it’s not just the work of a rebuilding coach. As we saw in Brian Kelly’s sixth season, injuries, attrition and scheme change impacted the defense, especially in the secondary.

Another position set to deal with major change is wide receiver. Gone is All-American Will Fuller, departing South Bend after three years, scoring 29 touchdowns over the past two seasons. He’ll look to run his way into the first round of the NFL Draft. Also gone are veterans Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle, putting the Irish in an unenviable position, needing to replace the team’s three leading receivers.

Reinforcements aren’t just on the way, they’re already on campus. While there’s not a ton of production to see, the recruiting stockpile has created a chance to reload for Mike Denbrock’s troop. So let’s take a look at the additions and subtractions on the roster, analyzing the two-year recruiting run as we restock the receiving corps.

DEPARTURES
Will Fuller
, Jr. (62 catches, 1,258 yards, 14 TDs)
Chris Brown, Sr. (48 catches, 597 yards, 4 TDs)
Amir Carlisle, GS (32 catches, 355 yards, 1 TD)
Jalen Guyton, Fr. (transfer)

 

ADDITIONS
Equanimeous St. Brown

Miles Boykin*
CJ Sanders
Jalen Guyton
Chase Claypool*
Javon McKinley*
Kevin Stepherson*

 

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Corey Robinson, Sr.
Torii Hunter, Sr.*
Justin Brent, Jr.*
Corey Holmes, Jr.*
CJ Sanders, Soph.
Miles Boykin, Soph.*
Equanimeous St. Brown, Soph.
Kevin Stepherson, Fr.*

 

ANALYSIS
Brian Kelly expects St. Brown to step into Will Fuller’s shoes. If the Irish are able to pluck another sophomore from obscurity to the national spotlight, it’ll say quite a bit about the depth and productivity the Irish staff has built at the position. At 6-foot-5, St. Brown has a more tantalizing skill-set than Fuller—and he was a national recruit out of a Southern California powerhouse. But until we see St. Brown burn past defenders and make big plays, assuming the Irish won’t miss Fuller is a big leap of faith.

The next objective of the spring is getting Corey Robinson back on track. The rising senior had a forgettable junior season, ruined by injuries and some bruised confidence. A player who has shown flashes of brilliance during his three seasons in South Bend, the time is now for Robinson, not just as a performer but as an on-field leader.

Torii Hunter Jr. is also poised for a big season. After finding reps at slot receiver and possessing the versatility to see the field from multiple spots, Hunter needs to prove in 2016 that he’s not just a utility man but an everyday starter. His hands, smooth athleticism and speed should have him primed for a breakout. But Hunter might not want to stay in the slot if CJ Sanders is ready to take over. After a big freshman season on special teams, Sanders looks ready to make his move into the lineup, perhaps the purest slot receiver Brian Kelly has had since he arrived in South Bend.

The rest of the spring depth chart should have modest goals, though all face rather critical offseasons. Justin Brent is three years into his college career and the biggest headlines he’s made have been off the field. Whether he sticks at receiver or continues to work as a reserve running back remains to be seen. Corey Holmes is another upperclassman who we still can’t figure out. Will he ascend into the rotation with the top three veterans gone, or will he give way to some talented youngsters?

Miles Boykin earned praise last August, but it didn’t get him time on the field. He’ll enter spring with four years of eligibility, same as early-enrollee Kevin Stepherson. The Irish staff thinks Stepherson has the type of deep speed that they covet, capable of running past cornerbacks and stretching a defense. Boykin has size and physicality that could present intriguing options for an offense that’ll be less reliant on one man now that Fuller is gone.

Live Video Mailbag: 40-year decision, more BVG, freshmen and more

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We’ve done plenty of mailbags, but this is our first shot at a Live Video Mailbag. This should be a better way to answer more questions and hopefully interact with a few of you as we try to work off some of yesterday’s Super Bowl snacks.

Topics on the list: The 40-year decision, more Brian VanGorder talk, the incoming (and redshirt) freshmen and a whole lot more.

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Kelly and Swarbrick turn attention to science of injury prevention

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Amidst the chaos of their live Signing Day show, UND.com ran had a far-reaching interview with head coach Brian Kelly. It was conducted by his boss, athletic director Jack Swarbrick, and his former team captain, Joe Schmidt.

So while there was a little bit of talk about the 23 recruits who signed their national letters-of-intent, there was also a very illuminating exchange on an issue that’s really plagued the Irish the past few seasons: Injuries.

Football is a dangerous game. And for as long as people play it, there’ll be impactful injuries that take players off the field. But as Notre Dame settles into what looks like their longest run of stability since the Holtz era, the focus of Kelly and Swarbrick has moved past modernizing the team’s medical services, strength program and nutrition and onto the science of injury prevention.

Here’s what Kelly said about the efforts currently taking shape:

“I think the science piece is very important, because no longer is it just about strength and conditioning,  it’s about durability. It’s the ability to continue to play at an optimal level but also with the rigors of a college schedule, and particularly here at Notre Dame, how do we maximize the time but maximizing getting the most out of our student-athletes and not lose them?

“As you know, we’ve had a couple years here in a rough stretch of injuries. And how do we have an injury prevention protocol that brings in the very best science? You’ve done a great job of reaching out in getting us those kind of resources. so I think tapping into that is probably the next piece. As well as providing the resources for our student-athletes. Continuing to look at facilities. Continuing to give our student-athletes maybe that little edge. Because everybody’s got 85 scholarships.”

It’s clear that the issue is one that’s on the radar for not just Kelly, but the athletic administration. So it’ll be interesting to see some of the steps taken as the program begins investing time and additional resources to an issue that’s really hit the Irish hard the past few seasons.

There’s plenty of other good stuff in the 13-minute interview, so give it a watch.