Recruiting rankings only part of the puzzle

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It’s been five years since Notre Dame had a recruiting class that was in the running for the top group in the country. That year, beyond any expectation considering the Irish’s horrific 3-9 season, Charlie Weis and company reeled in a class headlined by five-star recruits Dayne Crist, Michael Floyd and Kyle Rudolph.

Like the Irish’s current class, Notre Dame signed 23 players, with all but four garnering four star ratings or higher. It was a class that was hailed as one of the best recruiting classes ever landed at Notre Dame. Yet for all the accolades the group received, some core inefficiencies ended up sinking Charlie Weis, and making Brian Kelly’s job a whole lot tougher.

As we begin to analyze the final group Notre Dame signs next Wednesday, it’s important to look back at the 2008 class to see if we can learn any lessons, especially when it comes to roster management.

In retrospect, it’s easy to see where Charlie Weis failed. While he brought record production to the Irish offense as a recruiter and almost cherry-picked statistically dominant wide receivers, Weis struggled to find players along the defensive front, failing to fill some massive holes along the offensive line (which he inherited from Ty Willingham), and struggling to find enough pieces in the secondary, a situation Kelly and his staff had to rectify by recruiting an astounding amount of safeties over the past two seasons.

For the sake of the exercise, let’s take a closer look at the 2008 recruiting class, breaking it down into a few key groupings:

STAR PLAYERS

Michael Floyd, WR: Floyd walked onto campus as a productive player and left with the school’s record book. A first round wide receiver taken 13th overall.

BUILDING BLOCKS

Robert Blanton, DB: Blanton was a productive contributor, seeing the field early and starting at field corner before being drafted by the Minnesota Vikings.

Braxston Cave, C: Cave played out his eligibility this season, being selected for the Senior Bowl. He was a three-year starter at center.

Darius Fleming, LB: Never as productive as initially hoped, Fleming was a tweener position wise, and his development wasn’t helped by flip-flopping schemes. Still drafted by 49ers.

Ethan Johnson, DE: After spending his senior year of high school rehabbing an injury, a redshirt season would have done Johnson well. But he played early and often, one of the few 3-4 ends the Irish had.

Kapron Lewis-Moore, DE: After growing into his body, KLM became a rock solid defensive end, starting four seasons and finishing his career as a captain of a 12-1 team.

Trevor Robinson, OG: He never turned into the elite tackle prospect many thought the Irish signed, but Robinson played a lot of football for the Irish.

Kyle Rudolph, TE: He may have been the first tight end off the NFL Draft board, but Rudolph never played to his recruiting stature at Notre Dame, leaving after three seasons.

Jamoris Slaughter, DB: Injuries kept him from being even more productive. If Slaughter isn’t granted a sixth season, he’ll still have exceeding expectations, garnering only three-stars as a recruit.

Sean Cwynar, DT: Undersized for a two-gap player, Cwynar still had a productive career, splitting time during his junior and senior season before passing on a fifth-year to pursue a career in business.

UPS AND DOWNS

Dayne Crist, QB: Crist never played up to the lofty expectations people had for him. But two major knee injuries probably had a lot to do with that.

Steve Filer, LB: Another touted Chicago linebacker that could never quite breakthrough. Four-star elite prospects should be more than special teams demons.

Mike Golic, Jr., OL: If you had told a ND fan in October 2012 that Golic would spend 15 games in the starting lineup he’d have called you nuts. A productive career for the lowest rated recruit of the class.

John Goodman, WR: He never became the down field, vertical threat many expected, following in the footsteps of Jeff Samardzija. But Goodman had a nice fifth year, making some big plays.

Jonas Gray, RB: An incredible senior season turned a disappointing career into a final season of triumph. Gray’s knee injury kept him on the Miami Dolphin’s shelf this season.

NON-FACTORS AND WASHOUTS

Lane Clelland, OL: Clelland looked the part of an elite recruit, yet he couldn’t dent the two-deep. A spring practice experiment to try DE short circuited quickly as well.

Joseph Fauria, TE: Ah, what might have been. Fauria, who transferred to UCLA after a disciplinary issue at Notre Dame, had 12 touchdown catches this season. Imagine the TE depth chart with him in the mix.

Dan McCarthy, DB: A neck injury during his senior season might have delayed McCarthy’s development. But he never turned into the late-bloomer his brother did. Looked the part of an elite safety.

Anthony McDonald, LB: Injuries and Manti Te’o kept McDonald off the field. Reunited with Charlie Weis this season at Kansas, McDonald played in eight games this season.

Brandon Newman, DT: Struggled to crack the two-deep at nose tackle for the Irish, Newman played his fifth year at Ball State, collecting 30 tackles with five TFLs. Did give us Trick Shot Monday.

David Posluszny, LB: The younger brother of former Penn State All-American Paul, Poz didn’t have the size to make it as an inside linebacker. Never collected five tackles in a season.

Deion Walker, WR: An elite wide receiver recruit that never made it onto the field, Walker’s physical skills never matched his own assessment of them. Caught 59 passes for UMass this season.

Hafis Williams, DT: Not big enough to play nose guard, nor fast enough to play end, Williams was surpassed by the youth recruited by Brian Kelly and played only a bit role for the Irish.

***

A swing and miss rate of eight players out of 23 isn’t great, especially considering injuries weren’t really the problem for the bottom section of this grouping. Add to that the underachieving performances from elite guys. Take a look at the staggering amount of Top 100 guys the Irish had on the roster from that class:

RIVALS TOP 100 PLAYERS

No. 20 — Kyle Rudolph
No. 25 — Dayne Crist
No. 27 — Michael Floyd
No. 32 — Ethan Johnson
No. 37 — Trevor Robinson
No. 72 — Jonas Gray
No. 89 — Darius Fleming

Of that group, only Floyd played to his ranking, with Fleming probably coming closest after that. As I mentioned earlier this week, Rudolph certainly had the talent, but he never played up to that level in his three seasons in South Bend.

***

We will find out soon enough if this 2013 recruiting class is the premiere group of talent that many think it is or an underachieving group of prospects. Playing to its favor are the roster holes it fills. Signing a large group of offensive line prospects helps replenish a position grouping that’s dangerously thin. Bringing in two tight ends will help ease the talent loss of Rudolph and Tyler Eifert. Doing the same thing at running back will add high-end talent to an open positional race.

That the Irish are still chasing guys like Eddie Vanderdoes and Kylie Fitts lets you know that Kelly and company understand the need to restock power players up front, even with depth at an all-time high. Conversely, keeping an eye on the inside linebacker position now that Manti Te’o is gone is important, as the loss of an elite player like Alex Anzalone is tough, especially because he was filling a big position of need.

For six more days, recruits will be sized up by rankings and stars. Classes will be assessed by quantity and quality, as determined by analysts who largely have never coached a game or truly scouted the sport. So while we all (understandably) get wrapped up in the Signing Day sweepstakes that has become a February college football holiday, it’s worth a reminder that finding five-star prospects is just part of the equation.

 

 

 

 

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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