Carlo Calabrese

Kelly sheds light on key personnel decisions

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Brian Kelly held an impromptu conference call with reporters this morning, likely hoping to clear his docket before Signing Day next week. While we’ll get into some of his explanation about his flirtation with the Philadelphia Eagles and his thoughts on the Manti Te’o hoax, he reveal a few interesting thoughts on some personnel decisions.

For those wondering what the future of the linebacker position looks like, Kelly strongly hinted that the plans for the spring and beyond include both Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox. That’s pretty interesting news with scholarship numbers tight as the Irish head down the home stretch solidifying a recruiting class that could swell to 25 (or more).

Kelly announced that Fox and fellow defensive starter Bennett Jackson would be out for the spring with shoulder surgeries, each performed in the days following the BCS Championship game.

“We feel all of these guys that had the shoulder surgeries are going to be back for us,” Kelly said, when mentioning Fox, Jackson, and potentially some other undisclosed players. “They probably won’t participate for us in the spring, they’ll be in a non-contact situation, but we feel really good about the things we had to cleanup. We don’t see any long-term issues with any of our returning players.”

While Kelly wouldn’t commit to any returning fifth year players until the dust settles on Signing Day, he did talk about the battle to replace Manti Te’o at the ‘Mike’ linebacker position, singling out both fifth-year candidates and youngster Jarrett Grace.

“I think we’ve got three guys that are capable of playing inside that have a lot of experience,” Kelly said. I think you’ve got to throw Calabrese and Fox and Grace in as the front-runners to be involved in that inside linebacker position.

“As you know Kendall Moore has got some experience as well and we’ve got a host of young players that want to be included. That will be the fun part. Those three guys I would say lead right now.”

It’s hard to imagine Kelly not welcoming back two of the three players he’s considering frontrunners for two starting job, especially with both Calabrese and Fox working out with the team and prepping for next season.

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Also spending time with the team is Jamoris Slaughter, whose future with the team is still up in the air, as the university is appealing for a sixth-season of competition. Notre Dame’s compliance officer Jen Vining-Smith is on the case, though when Notre Dame hears is still unclear.

“We’re still in the process with the NCAA relative to his appeal for an additional season of competition. We’re hopeful that we’ll hear something before the conclusion of recruiting,” Kelly said. “Obviously it’s one of those things that everyone wants to know. I know I want to know, the media wants to know, certainly Jamoris wants to know. We just don’t have an answer at this point.”

With his teammates taking to Twitter to try and start #FreeSlaughter trending, one safety the Irish will certainly welcome back from a season-ending injury is Austin Collinsworth. After shoulder and back surgeries sidelined Collinsworth last season, expect to see Collinsworth make an appearance sometime this spring, though Kelly isn’t exactly sure of what the timeline will be just yet.

With Collinsworth back in the mix, you’ve got a guy that will potentially take Zeke Motta’s place as the quarterback of the secondary. While Matthias Farley certainly learned a ton this season as he was thrown into the fire, the staff is extremely high on Collinsworth’s ability, and the number of talented safeties on the roster will give the defense a lot of versatility.

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Lastly, it was some good news / bad news along the offensive line. Kelly feels optimistic about the future of Matt Hegarty, who suffered a mysterious ailment that was revealed to be a stroke over the media session down in Miami.

“We think we’re going to get clearance on him pretty soon,” Kelly said of Hegarty. “The procedure went extremely well. He’s adapting to the medication. We feel really confident there.”

On the flip-side of that coin is Tate Nichols, who has struggled with injuries since arriving on campus. The bruising 6-foot-8, 320-pound tackle might not be physically able to compete for the Irish, after a difficult knee injury took him off the field this season.

“Tate Nichols on the other hand is not as confident that he’ll be able to return to action,” Kelly said. “We’re in conversation about that being a medical situation with Tate.”

The loss of Nichols is a tough one, especially with his size and athleticism looking so promising for the Irish as they hoped to have a right tackle road-grader type. His absence will also make numbers awfully tight this spring, with the Irish down to possibly eight scholarship linemen until reinforcements come this summer.

If you’re looking for a hint on what the future holds for Nichols, check back after Signing Day. With so many top prospects still interested in the Irish, expect Notre Dame to accept a commitment now to replace Nichols scholarship next fall.

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One last battle to watch? Who replaces Braxston Cave at center. It appears that Kelly and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand are down to three candidates this spring, Hegarty, Nick Martin and redshirt freshman Mark Harrell.

“I think at the center position we’ve got to look at a couple of different options,” Kelly said. “Certainly Hegarty has had some experience there. We’re going to look at Martin. And I think Mark Harrell did a very nice job for us in the championship game preparation.

“Those three guys I think will get the first look at it in terms of the center position.”

How did Mike Elko fare against past Irish opponents?

TALLAHASSEE, FL - OCTOBER 18:  Karlos Williams #9 of the Florida State Seminoles scores the touchdown that would win the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during their game at Doak Campbell Stadium on October 18, 2014 in Tallahassee, Florida.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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Former Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder took over at that position before the 2014 season. Former Wake Forest defensive coordinator, and now VanGorder’s successor at Notre Dame, Mike Elko took over in Winston-Salem at the same time. Since then, the two programs faced common opponents nine times.

With the lone exception of Army, all these games featured ACC opponents. When it comes to talent, Wake Forest tends to be outmatched in the ACC. Recruits from 2011 to 2016 suited up for the Deacons in the 2014-16 seasons. During those six recruiting cycles, Wake Forest never finished higher than No. 10 in the conference according to rivals.com’s rankings. In 2012 and 2014, the Deacons finished at the bottom of the conference in recruiting.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, finished behind an ACC team a total of 10 times over those six years. Florida State outpaced the Irish five times, the exception being Notre Dame’s No. 3-ranked class in 2013 following its national championship game appearance. Clemson finished ahead of the Irish four times (2014 joining 2013 as the outliers), and Miami rounds the listing off with its No. 9-finish in 2012, compared to Notre Dame’s No. 20.

The point being, VanGorder and the Irish could anticipate having a stronger and deeper roster in at least six of the games discussed below. Elko and Wake Forest may have been able to make that argument—and it would be a debatable one—just once, when they faced Duke this past September.

Before comparing the two units’ successes and failures in those nine—actually, 18—contests, let’s establish two points of clarification. Notre Dame and North Carolina State played in a literal hurricane this past October. Comparing that game to any other will accomplish nothing. Furthermore, before anyone starts griping about that afternoon’s play-calling, this is an exercise discussing defensive performances, not offensive. The run:pass distribution of Oct. 1, 2016, bears no significance here.

Secondly, the other two games the Irish played fitting this criteria but after VanGorder’s dismissal—Syracuse and Army—are included below. Only so much of the scheme changed mid-season, and the personnel did not.

If you are busy catching up from a long weekend and do not have the time to look at the numbers below, a quick summary for you: In five of the eight instances, Elko’s unit fared distinctly better than VanGorder’s in multiple notable statistical categories. However, the Deacons struggled with Army’s triple-option attack, and both 2014 Florida State and 2015 Clemson blew right through the aggressive defense far easier than they did against Notre Dame.

Presented in something resembling reverse chronological order: (more…)

Four-star WR Micah Jones chooses Irish; Rees may need to wait; Other late-week reading

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rivals.com
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A day may come when Notre Dame suffers a recruiting disappointment in the 2018 cycle, when a high school star spurns the Irish coaching staff for a foe, but it is not this day.

Rivals.com four-star receiver Micah Jones (Warren Township High School; Gurnee, Ill.) committed to Notre Dame on Friday, joining a class of now 10 recruits, including four who committed just this week.

Jones chose the Irish over offers from the likes of Iowa, Michigan State and Ole Miss, among others.

He is the first receiver among the 10 commitments and the seventh considered a four-star prospect. At 6-foot-5, 196 pounds, Jones should present a large target for whomever the Notre Dame quarterback is in the fall of 2018, most likely then-senior Brandon Wimbush.

Tom, Tommy or Thomas; Assistant Coach or Graduate Assistant?
Thomas Rees may need to wait a season before officially being a coach at Notre Dame. The legislation to approve a 10th assistant coach was expected to be voted on, passed and effective in April. A newly-added amendment may push the effective date to following the 2017 season. The amendment will be voted on immediately before the legislation itself is.

The delay makes sense. Most coaching hirings and firings occur in December and January. In theory, creating a one-timing hiring frenzy following spring football could leave many programs in the lurch. In practice, however, this is not anticipated.

“The majority of the FBS guys that I’ve talked with currently believe that 10th coach is going to come from within their own organization,” Todd Berry told the Associated Press. Berry is the executive director of the American Football Coaches Association and former coach at Army and Louisiana-Monroe. “Quality control, graduate assistants, analysts, or they’re planning on hiring somebody that’s out of work.”

A majority is not a unanimity, though, and that carousel will innately work to the disadvantage of the Group of 5 schools.

As for Rees, a graduate assistant can still work extensively with players. The most-pertinent difference between a graduate assistant and an assistant coach is the former cannot recruit. Given Notre Dame’s recent success on the recruiting trail—and the early commitment of class of 2018 consensus four-star quarterback Phil Jurkovec (Pine-Richland H.S.; Gibsonia, Pa.)—Rees may not be an absolute necessity in that regard this cycle.

A Kizer Appraisal
Former NFL scout Greg Gabriel took a look at former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer this week, largely paying the draft prospect compliments.

In calling Kizer “the most talented quarterback in this draft class,” Gabriel set a high ceiling for Kizer’s spring. Part of Gabriel’s positive assessment comes from acknowledging Kizer’s responsibilities as the Irish signal-caller.

“The spread offense that Kizer played in at Notre Dame is more sophisticated than many of the spread offenses we see elsewhere at the collegiate level. The Notre Dame offense is a whole-field read scheme in which the quarterback has to go through a progression that encompasses both sides of the field. He also can change the play and/or protections at the line of scrimmage. Given all that, Kizer was asked to do more than many spread quarterbacks are asked to do.”

Gabriel also reflected on the dynamic differences for Kizer in 2015 and 2016 and what may have elicited some of his seeming stagnation.

“There was the unnecessary quarterback controversy at Notre Dame, and the offensive line wasn’t as experienced or as talented and the receivers were mostly first-year starters.”

As much as Gabriel raves about Kizer, he would be the first to tell you anything beyond individual player evaluation is a waste of air this early in the draft process. Mock drafts may be fun, but they are not much beyond that.

Take the fates of Tony Romo and Jimmy Garoppolo, for example. Few, if any, in the NFL expect them to dress for the Cowboys and Patriots, respectively, again. Where they end up could directly impact Kizer’s draft placement.

Jaylon Smith May Be Back to Form
Former Notre Dame and current Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith posted yet another encouraging video to Twitter. This one shows Smith really might be game-ready right now and, if not, almost certainly will be by the fall. Should there be any difficulty with the embedded video below, here is a link straight to it.

OL Mabry makes third commitment this week; WR Jones may follow Friday

mabry
rivals.com
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Two weeks ago, Irish coach Brian Kelly gave a non-answer of an answer to a question about a likely early signing period this coming December. Avoiding specifics, he indicated he thinks the effects of such a change will be seen on a case-by-case basis entirely dependent on the recruits.

“Some will, some won’t,” Kelly said. “…Each kid is going to have to react to it based upon also how their school is going to be dealing with it. Some will come off the board at the time.

“We’re expecting some to sign early, but I think our mindset is we’re going into it business as usual. We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

After this week, Notre Dame is going to have more year-long fights than anticipated. Consensus three-star offensive lineman recruit Cole Mabry (Brentwood High School; Brentwood, Tenn.) became the third prospect to offer a verbal commitment to the Irish coaching staff in less than 36 hours with his Wednesday decision. Mabry received the offer over the weekend, but waited a few days before making his decision public, lest emotions be dictating his thought process.

At 6-foot-6 and 255 pounds, Mabry will have time to add muscle to his frame, with four or five offensive tackles greeting him on the Notre Dame roster in the summer of 2018. That ability to mold his style and growth may have played a part in the Irish interest.

“They love my height and athleticism and how I play,” Mabry told rivals.com. “We got to break down film and go through things that they do that pair up with how I play now. They think I’ll be a great fit in their offense.”

Mabry is the ninth Notre Dame commitment in the class of 2018, though the first offensive lineman.

Judging by new Notre Dame director of football performance Matt Balis’s agenda for the Irish roster’s Valentine’s Day morning, Mabry will have much to look forward to in terms of strength and conditioning.

Rivals.com four-star receiver Micah Jones (Warren Township H.S.; Gurnee, Ill.) is scheduled to announce his verbal commitment this Friday at 4 p.m. ET. Along with Notre Dame, Jones is considering Iowa, Michigan State, Nebraska, Ole Miss, Illinois and Northwestern. He would be the first receiver in Notre Dame’s 2018 class. Naturally, whomever Jones commits to, the recruiting fight will last until at least December, and perhaps all the way to February.

Notre Dame adds two top defensive back commits; Elliott officially a ‘Husker

allen
rivals.com
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It’s early. It’s really, really early. Not in the day, though this post is scheduled for an a.m. hour. No, it is early in the 2018 recruiting cycle. Any piece of news, each commitment, everything should be taken with two grains of salt.

Nonetheless, Notre Dame—and more specifically, new Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko and defensive backs coach Todd Lyght—enjoyed Tuesday’s recruiting news when two consensus four-star coverage men committed to the Irish.

Safety Derrik Allen (Lassiter High School; Marietta, Ga.) and cornerback Kalon Gervin (Cass Tech; Detroit, Mich.) joined a class of now eight commitments, six of which play on the defensive side of the ball.

Gervin, the No. 11 cornerback in the class according to rivals.com, waited mere days after attending Notre Dame’s Junior Day over the weekend. Irish coach Brian Kelly and staff’s failure to land a recruit at Gervin’s position in the 2017 haul actually helped reel in the recruit with offers from Florida, LSU, Michigan and dozens others.

“The opportunity to play right away, they didn’t sign a cornerback this last class,” Gervin told Blue & Gold Illustrated helped sway him. “Also, the education is second-to-none. It speaks for itself.”

Allen, pictured at top, has leaned toward Notre Dame for months. The No. 3 safety in the country per Rivals, he chose the Irish over the likes of Alabama, Clemson and Florida State.

Elliott officially to Nebraska

The two highly-touted defensive backs will not have the chance to learn under the tutelage of Bob Elliott. Nebraska officially announced the hiring of the former Notre Dame safeties (2012-13) and linebackers (2014) coach. Elliott spent the last two seasons serving as a special assistant to Kelly, focusing largely on defending the triple-option attacks of Army, Navy and Georgia Tech.

Elliott rejoins former Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco in Lincoln. Diaco was hired as the Cornhuskers’ defensive coordinator in January.

The Lincoln Journal Star’s Brian Cristopherson reports Elliott will make a nice wage in eastern Nebraska.