James Onwualu

Five recruits enroll at Notre Dame early


Notre Dame begins the spring semester today. With that brings the start of five recruits’ football careers with the Irish. Offensive lineman Steve Elmer, tight end Mike Heuerman, wide receiver James Onwualu, wide receiver Corey Robinson and quarterback Malik Zaire all moved into their dorms over the weekend, becoming the first members of one of the top recruiting classes in the country to enroll at Notre Dame.

Graduating early from high school and enrolling early at a college allows a recruit to take part in spring practice, a nice jump-start to a college football career. For players like TJ Jones, it helped them find immediate playing time. For quarterbacks like Everett Golson and Gunner Kiel, it was a first look at a very different level of football, and still required a redshirt season.

As the five freshman get acquainted with dorm life, the academic pressures that come with Notre Dame, and the requirements of strength coach Paul Longo, they’ll likely be jumping into the proverbial deep end from day one.

Want to know what’s on most of these guys’ mind? It sure isn’t football… yet.

“Shout out to Steve Elmer for saving me from sitting alone at breakfast on my first day,” Onwualu tweeted this morning.

Here’s a quick look at the five early enrollees (it was set to be six until linebacker Alex Anzalone’s late defection to Florida), and their immediate future with the Irish:

Steve Elmer

The return of Zack Martin likely ended any shot of Elmer playing as a true freshman. But with injuries ending the career of Brad Carrico, and unknowns surrounding guys like Matt Hegarty and Tate Nichols, Elmer could work his way into the two deep pretty quickly, especially with Ronnie Stanley coming back from elbow surgery.

Elmer might physically be ready for play at the collegiate level. Talking to people that watched him at the Army All-American game, they were impressed by the improvements he made in the last calendar year, and Elmer looked like one of the most college-ready linemen in San Antonio.

Still, there’s little need at tackle with both Martin and Christian Lombard returning to their starting spots, and it might be best for Harry Hiestand’s prized pupil to spend the fall watching and learning. But that’ll likely be determined after 15 spring practices.

Mike Heuerman

Bringing in a top tight end recruit was a priority, especially after leaving the position empty in the last recruiting cycle. But with Tyler Eifert heading to the NFL and Jake Golic graduating, the depth chart looks ripe for a guy like Heuerman to make a push for playing time.

Troy Niklas looks to have the starting tight end job locked down for 2013. And Alex Welch should be ready to return come spring after an ACL injury robbed him of the 2012 season. Ben Koyack’s season has to be deemed a disappointment, as the sophomore struggled with a few drops early in the year and lost his place in the rotation to Niklas. And if Heuerman can put enough heft on his body to hold up to the pounding of the position, there’s room for him to fight his way up Scott Booker’s depth chart quickly.

James Onwualu

Where Onwualu ends up on the football field might be the biggest question among the freshman. Spending time as both a running back and receiver at Cretin-Derham Hall, Onwualu might end up on the defensive side of the ball before his time in South Bend in over.

After talking to CDH head coach Mike Scanlan, I wouldn’t be surprised if Brian Kelly and company gave Onwualu a look on defensive this spring, with the wide receiver depth chart only losing John Goodman and Robby Toma. But Onwualu might be too good with the football to move to defense, and his improvement during his senior season was one of the biggest leaps forward Scanlan had seen in a long time.

Corey Robinson

It looks like Brian Kelly and Chuck Martin might have a shiny new toy in Robinson, a red zone threat from the moment he steps foot on campus. At 6-foot-5 and likely growing, Robinson wowed those watching in San Antonio with his athleticism, good hands, and better than expected route running and speed.

After coming out of nowhere to receive an Irish scholarship offer, the son of NBA Hall of Famer David Robinson gives the Irish a raw athlete, yet one that looks far more polished than expected. Still, transitioning to an offense far more complex than the one he ran in high school could prove to be a challenge, and ultimately how quickly Robinson grasps things off the field will play a factor in how quickly he finds his way onto the field.

Malik Zaire

While the quarterback position looks mighty crowded with Everett Golson holding a pretty firm grasp on the starting job heading into spring practice, Zaire is the type of talent that could shake things up. A southpaw with a smooth throwing stroke, Zaire really impressed on the combine circuit, earning his way to the top of the Elite 11 competition and gaining a ton of fans on the nation stage.

Quarterback coach Yogi Roth, who helps run the Elite 11 camp and now works for the Pac-12 Network, had a chance to work with the last three Notre Dame quarterback signees, Golson, Kiel and Zaire. He liked Zaire more than the others, and it wasn’t even close for him.

With a depth chart chocked full of talent in front of him, Zaire will likely watch and learn this season, saving a year of eligibility while the position sorts itself out. The likelihood of a major program holding onto five scholarship quarterbacks without a transfer isn’t high. And when the dust settles, Zaire could find himself in the running for playing time sooner than later.

Even amidst chaos, Kelly expecting USC’s best

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Rocky Hayes, Blaise Taylor

USC head coach Steve Sarkisian was fired on Monday, with interim head coach Clay Helton taking the reins of the Trojan program during tumultuous times. Helton will be the fourth different USC head coach to face Notre Dame in as many years, illustrative of the chaos that’s shaken up Heritage Hall in the years since Pete Carroll left for the NFL.

All eyes are on the SC program, with heat on athletic director Pat Haden and the ensuing media circus that only Los Angeles can provide. But Brian Kelly doesn’t expect anything but their best when USC boards a plane to take on the Irish in South Bend.

While the majority of Notre Dame’s focus will be inward this week, Kelly did take the time on Sunday and Monday to talk with his team about the changes atop the Trojan program, and how they’ll likely impact the battle for the Jeweled Shillelagh.

“We talked about there would be an interim coach, and what that means,” Kelly said. “Teams come together under those circumstances and they’re going to play their very best. And I just reminded them of that.”

While nobody on this Notre Dame roster has experienced a coaching change, they’ve seen their share of scrutiny. The Irish managed to spring an upset not many saw coming against LSU last year in the Music City Bowl after a humiliating defeat against the Trojans and amidst the chaos of a quarterbacking controversy. And just last week, we saw Charlie Strong’s team spring an upset against arch rival Oklahoma when just about everybody left the Longhorns for dead.

“I think you look at the way Texas responded this past weekend with a lot of media scrutiny,” Kelly said Tuesday. “I expect USC to respond the same way, so we’re going to have to play extremely well.”

Outside of the head coaching departure, it’s difficult to know if there’ll be any significant difference between a team lead by Sarkisian or the one that Helton will lead into battle. The offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach has been at USC for six years, and has already held the title of interim head coach when he led the Trojans to a 2013 Las Vegas Bowl title after Lane Kiffin was fired and Ed Orgeron left the program after he wasn’t given the full time position.

Helton will likely call plays, a role he partially handled even when Sarkisian was on the sideline. The defense will still be run by Justin Wilcox. And more importantly, the game plan will be executed by a group of players that are among the most talented in the country.

“They have some of the finest athletes in the country. I’ve recruited a lot of them, and they have an immense amount of pride for their program and personal pride,” Kelly said. “So they will come out with that here at Notre Dame, there is no question about that.”

Irish add commitment from CB Donte Vaughn

Donte Vaughn

Notre Dame’s recruiting class grew on Monday. And in adding 6-foot-3 Memphis cornerback Donte Vaughn, it grew considerably.

The Irish added another jumbo-sized skill player in Vaughn, beating out a slew of SEC offers for the intriguing cover man. Vaughn picked Notre Dame over offers from Auburn, LSU, Miami, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Tennessee and Texas A&M among others.

He made the announcement on Monday, his 18th birthday:

It remains to be seen if Vaughn can run like a true cornerback. But his length certainly gives him a skill-set that doesn’t currently exist on the Notre Dame roster.

Interestingly enough, Vaughn’s commitment comes a cycle after Brian VanGorder made news by going after out-of-profile coverman Shaun Crawford, immediately offering the 5-foot-9 cornerback after taking over for Bob Diaco, who passed because of Crawford’s size. An ACL injury cut short Crawford’s freshman season before it got started, but not before Crawford already proved he’ll be a valuable piece of the Irish secondary for years to come.

Vaughn is another freaky athlete in a class that already features British Columbia’s Chase Claypool. With a safety depth chart that’s likely turning over quite a bit in the next two seasons, Vaughn can clearly shift over if that’s needed, though Notre Dame adding length like Vaughn clearly points to some of the shifting trends after Richard Sherman went from an average wide receiver to one of the best cornerbacks in football, and Vaughn will be asked to play on the outside.

Vaughn is the 15th member of Notre Dame’s 2016 signing class. He is the fifth defensive back, joining safeties D.J. Morgan, Jalen Elliott and Spencer Perry along with cornerback Julian Love. The Irish project to take one more.

With Notre Dame expecting another huge recruiting weekend with USC coming to town, it’ll be very interesting to see how the Irish staff close out this recruiting class.