Specialization brings additional challenges to recruiting

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As we dig deeper into the talented class that Brian Kelly and his staff reeled in, some trends are starting to emerge in a group widely accepted to be among the best in the nation. We will spend the next few weeks talking about the 24 athletes that comprise the class of 2013, but athlete specialization is an interesting topic Chuck Martin and UND.com’s Jack Nolan touched on during the Signing Day webcast.

For college coaches, dealing with a new breed of athlete is nothing new. As the world of sports gets more competitive and selective, athletes are coming into college more ready than ever, being trained at a younger age for sport-specific skills. This is hardly limited to the world of football.

Youth hockey has changed drastically over the past 15-20 years, with junior leagues and development programs changing the game. The same has happened in basketball, where AAU has disrupted the system forever. While sports like baseball have always dealt with the professional ranks closing in on players out of high school, college football — long one of the most traditional traditional from a development standpoint — is now facing an influx of change as well.

With the recruiting industry playing a more prominent role in the world of college football, the summer months have now been taken over by combines and camps, a development not dissimilar to the early days of AAU basketball. With Nike’s foray into the world with The Opening, ESPN, Rivals and 247 staking their claims, and more and more All-Star games taking place in December, football is turning into a twelve-month endeavor, a big change from even ten years ago.

That brings with it new challenges for football coaches. And after building a career on evaluating athletes that may only work on football skills from August to November, identifying the changes that come from specialization is key.

“It’s big business. There are a lot of families who get in there at a young age,” offensive coordinator Chuck Martin told UND.com. But I’m more for them playing multiple sports and maybe not training as hard at a younger age and let them keep playing and keep competing.

“It seems like kids are specializing earlier and earlier, and with specialization they are training for that particular sport at a very young age. It’s a different time that it was even a decade ago.”

You can see that preference when you take a look at the 2013 recruiting class. Even down to the offensive linemen, there is a great group of athletic versatility in the class, with most of this class playing multiple sports — very successfully — in high school. A guy like Torii Hunter Jr. plans on continuing his baseball career at Notre Dame. But a five-star defensive lineman like Eddie Vanderdoes also spends his spring with the baseball team, staring for his high school team, coached by his father.

When and if the Irish football players return to the Bookstore Basketball world, the offensive line class could put together a deadly squad, with Hunter Bivin, Mike McGlinchey and Colin McGovern all with the athleticism that’s put them on the basketball court in high school. (Team them with wide receiver Corey Robinson and there’s a handful for any competition.)

There are state champions in track and field in this recruiting class. There are lacrosse players. There are basketball and soccer and baseball players. And it all speaks to the aim of the Notre Dame staff to find competitors and athletes, football players that are used to excelling in game situations, not necessarily putting up elite times in the shuttle run or looking good in gym clothes at a combine.

“The more you can compete, the more you are in competitive situations, the better you get at competing,” Martin said. “If you specialize and you train younger, you’re probably going to have a better physical product by the time you get to college, but they might be a little less aware of what’s going on on the field. So we as coaches probably have to coach them a little more than the kid that always played multiple sports and has been in that athletic, competitive arena over and over and over again before they reach college.”

Listening to the interviews recorded for Signing Day and talking and listening to people inside the program, this recruiting class stressed athleticism, toughness, and competitiveness. We heard Kelly reference the winning percentage of this incoming class. Also mentioned was the ability to get to recruits and mold them before bad habits were formed. While athletes like Devin Butler and Rashad Kinlaw may not have wowed recruiting services like Rivals, they did show elite athleticism and physical ability — things this staff believes they can use to mold into proper players.

Notre Dame certainly isn’t alone in this philosophy. Pete Carroll has talked about this quite a bit at USC, when he targeted athletes over football players, unearthing below-the-radar talent to go along with five-star blue-chippers.

As recruiting continues to evolve, it’s clear that Notre Dame’s staff understands the need to do the same thing.

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 87 (theoretically) Jafar Armstrong, receiver

Rivals.com
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Listed Measurements: 6-foot, 170 pounds
2017-18 year, eligibility: Freshman with four years of eligibility remaining
Depth chart: Armstrong joins a crowded receiver corps headlined by juniors Equanimeous St. Brown and Miles Boykin and sophomore Chase Claypool. If the Irish are shallow at any of the three positions, it is behind Boykin and sophomore Javon McKinley at the W-receiver position, otherwise known as the boundary receiver. Armstrong could fill in those ranks, or his speed could be utilized at the X position, the field receiver, a la last year’s usage of now-sophomore Kevin Stepherson. In offensive coordinator Chip Long’s up-tempo scheme, it is likely Armstrong is asked to learn both positions.
Recruiting: A rivals.com three-star recruit, Armstrong was committed to his home-state Missouri before a visit to Notre Dame the weekend before National Signing Day. Shortly after leaving South Bend, the No. 3 recruit in Missouri de-committed and did not hold the suspense long, announcing his Irish intentions the same night.

QUOTE(S)
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly specifically mentioned Armstrong’s speed in connection with the X-position on National Signing Day.

“We played a lot of young players on the offensive side of the ball, in particular at the wide receiver position [in 2016],” Kelly said. “Jafar Armstrong out of Bishop Miege High School is somebody that now adds some size and speed to that position that makes it very intriguing for us. We think Jafar is somebody that could possibly be that X-receiver that gives you that deep threat, a guy that can really push the field vertically for us. He was a nice addition to this class.”

Kelly also clarified why Armstrong was such a late addition to the class. Without mentioning former Irish commit Jordan Pouncey by name, Kelly indicated the effect Pouncey’s de-committment in Deceomber had on the recruiting process.

“When we were looking at the receiver position, [Armstrong] was on our radar from day one,” Kelly said. “We just weren’t going to take [three receivers]. When we had somebody de-commit, he was the first guy we went after. We could have gone either way on that. Jafar was somebody that we wanted from the very beginning. We just from a numbers game weren’t going to be able to take [three]. That was an easy one for us to get back into.”

The consensus three-star Pouncey eventually signed with Texas.

WHAT WE SAID WHEN ARMSTRONG’S NATIONAL LETTER OF INTENT ARRIVED
Armstrong flipped to Notre Dame over the weekend, ending a commitment to Missouri. His large frame and strong hands should provide new receivers coach Del Alexander a solid foundation with which to work.”

2017 OUTLOOK
This fall, Alexander will have 10 receivers at his disposal (11 if counting sophomore receiver-turned-running back Deon McIntosh), not to mention the couple of tight ends (namely, junior Alizé Mack and early-enrolled freshman Brock Wright) who could line up in the receiver position in specific situations. It is hard to envision all of those players seeing worthwhile snaps in the Irish offense.

With that in mind, a season preserving eligibility appears to be Armstrong’s most likely path. He and fellow incoming freshman Michael Young are obviously the most inexperienced of the grouping.

For that matter, few—if any—of the 10 receiver options come across as placeholders. Each one brings a tangible skillset to the field. Thus, there are no candidates prime for Armstrong to move ahead of in his first few months on campus.

Unless it is decided Armstrong is needed on special teams—a distinct possibility given how special teams coordinator Brian Polian lamented his lack of options this spring—a season learning the offense is his most likely outcome for 2017.

DOWN THE ROAD
Armstrong’s speed makes for tantalizing long-term projections. St. Brown may head to the NFL after this season, but even if he doesn’t, 2018 will be his last at Notre Dame (barring unfortunate injury). Kelly’s first instinct was to project Armstrong for that, the X, position.

It is not outlandish to expect Armstrong to present a playmaking target on the wide side of the field for the latter half of his career. Even if rarely leading to a connection, the mere threat of a receiver blazing past a secondary forces a defense to adjust its coverage. Armstrong could present such a concern, much as former Irish receiver Chris Brown did throughout his career. Brown affected games much more than his career statistics may indicate (104 catches for 1,410 yards and six touchdowns in 51 career games with 31 starts).

That is not to say Armstrong will not put up numbers in coming years. It is just to say those will not be the only metrics of his success or failure.


Aside from the five early enrollees, the numbers are not yet known for the Irish freshmen class. That is one of the admitted drawbacks to organizing this summer-long series numerically. But a little bit of educated guessing can garner estimates for those numbers, and those estimates can allow the series to proceed without pause.

How are those estimates crafted? The first step is to take a look at certain NCAA rules. When it comes to an “end,” the NCAA limits them to Nos. 80-99. Looking at the Irish roster, this leaves only so many likely options for Armstrong, hence slotting him at No.87.

Jafar Armstrong very well may not wear No. 87, but it is possible, and, frankly, it should be close.


2017’s Notre Dame 99-to-2
Friday at 4: Goodbye A-to-Z, hello 99-to-2 (May 12)
No. 99: Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle
No. 98: Andrew Trumbetti, defensive end
No. 97: Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle
No. 96: Pete Mokwuah, defensive tackle
No. 95 (theoretically): Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle
No. 94 (theoretically): Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle
No. 93: Jay Hayes, defensive end
No. 92 (theoretically): Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle
No. 91: Ade Ogundeji, defensive end
No. 90 (theoretically): Cole Kmet, tight end
No. 89: Brock Wright, tight end
No. 88: Javon McKinley, receiver

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 88 Javon McKinley, receiver

Rivals.com
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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-2, 220 pounds
2017-18 year, eligibility: Sophomore with three seasons of eligibility remaining including the 2017 season
Depth chart: McKinley spent this spring behind junior Miles Boykin at the W-receiver position, also known as the boundary receiver. In offensive coordinator Chip Long’s up-tempo scheme, though, receivers must learn multiple positions, so it may be more accurate to say McKinley is among a second-tier of options including the likes of juniors Chris Finke and C.J. Sanders, all behind a current starting group of Boykin, junior Equanimeous St. Brown and sophomore Chase Claypool.
Recruiting: A consensus four-star recruit and U.S. Army All-American

CAREER TO DATE
McKinley appeared in seven games last season but recorded no other statistics. A late-October broken leg cut his freshman campaign short and also kept him somewhat limited in spring practice. (Notre Dame’s official 2016 statistics list McKinley as having appeared in seven games, including the season finale against USC. Without finding footage of that game and watching every snap, it is quite possible that is a mistake and McKinley appeared in only six games. Frankly, there is no difference between six games and seven in this instance.)

QUOTE(S)
Whenever Irish coach Brian Kelly spoke of McKinley this spring, it was in reference to an injury, be that of his own and his recovery or of another receiver’s aggravation providing McKinley more chances to impress.

“He’s such a big kid, I think the red jersey should go on the guy that’s going against him,” Kelly said toward the end of spring in reference to McKinley’s non-contact designation. “He always gets the other guy hurt.

“He’s a good player. He just needs to get out there. He’s gotten behind a little bit, but he’s going to help us in the fall. He’s a good player.”

Earlier in spring practice, a hamstring issue limited St. Brown for a day or two. In his absence, McKinley indeed got out there and caught up a bit.

“It was a great opportunity for Javon in there,” Kelly said. “We think we can get him some more work as we progress.”

McKinley capitalizing on St. Brown’s absence shows the fluid nature of the receiver positions in Long’s offense. (For further explanation, see this discussion of the Irish receiver depth from early April.)

WHAT KEITH ARNOLD PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
I think McKinley’s too good to keep off the field. But I also think his freshman ceiling will be in line with the better of Brian Kelly’s young receivers, so I’m still going to put a cap on his season totals around 15-20 catches.

“If McKinley were the early enrollee, I think all of us would’ve been buzzing about him instead of Stepherson. And those 15 practices might be enough to give Stepherson the nod over McKinley, though the latter is far more game-ready from a physicality standpoint.

“Regardless, Notre Dame’s young receivers—Stepherson, McKinley and Chase Claypool—might be the most exciting incoming class at a position that I’ve seen in my time covering the Irish, so while it’s too early to say it, McKinley could be the best of the bunch.”

2017 OUTLOOK
Even without the leg injury, McKinley was going to fall far short of Keith’s optimistic projections. That is partly due to the Irish depth at receiver, including some breakout performances in 2016, and that is partly due to Keith pondering McKinley-to-Michael Floyd comparisons, at which point the scribe native to Minneapolis may have gotten distracted by Floyd’s unique skillset.

This season, that depth chart is still not going to do McKinley any favors. St. Brown, Claypool and Stepherson all showed magnificent flashes last season, and Boykin was the primary praised receiver throughout the spring.

Nonetheless, Keith’s optimism was based off McKinley’s sheer size, and it cannot be denied. It fits right alongside the likes of the presumptive starting trio, meaning McKinley should be able to fill in for either the boundary or the field receiver whenever needed. Do not look only for McKinley to match Keith’s year-ago projection of 15-20 catches, but also look for some of those to come in pivotal situations, providing first downs or breaking open stagnant drives.

DOWN THE ROAD
Projecting McKinley’s future is much like projecting his 2017, as no Irish receiver will be out of eligibility following the season, and only St. Brown looks the part of a possible NFL Draft entry following his junior year. Emphasis on possible.

That said, if McKinley can gain the coaches’ and Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s trust, the provided depth at the receiver position may be the easiest spot on the field to capitalize on it, theoretically to McKinley’s benefit.


2017’s Notre Dame 99-to-2
Friday at 4: Goodbye A-to-Z, hello 99-to-2 (May 12)
No. 99: Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle
No. 98: Andrew Trumbetti, defensive end
No. 97: Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle
No. 96: Pete Mokwuah, defensive tackle
No. 95 (theoretically): Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle
No. 94 (theoretically): Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle
No. 93: Jay Hayes, defensive end
No. 92 (theoretically): Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle
No. 91: Ade Ogundeji, defensive end
No. 90 (theoretically): Cole Kmet, tight end
No. 89: Brock Wright, tight end

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 89 Brock Wright, tight end

Rivals.com
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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-4 ½, 252 pounds
2017-18 year, eligibility: Early enrolled freshman with four seasons of eligibility remaining
Depth chart: Wright joined the deepest position on the Notre Dame roster at his first opportunity, and by doing so he inserted himself into the mix for playing time behind fifth-year senior Durham Smythe and junior Alizé Mack. Wright will have a legitimate chance to pass seniors Nic Weishar and Tyler Luatua, if he hasn’t already, for pass-catching opportunities this season. Classmate Cole Kmet will fill out the positional group this summer, but that simple delay will likely keep him on the sidelines in 2017.
Recruiting: A consensus four-star recruit, Wright was the top-ranked tight end in the country per rivals.com.

QUOTE(S)
Offensive coordinator Chip Long’s offense often calls for two tight ends, and his track record includes a predilection to include multiple tight ends in the passing game, not just the rushing game. With that in mind, Irish coach Brian Kelly forecast a possibility of Wright seeing playing time this season along with some of the upperclassmen.

“We can play four of those tight ends as receivers,” Kelly said this spring. “We think there’s great versatility. You know Durham Smythe has really made great strides. He’s been very impressive. I think Alizé and Nic Weishar and Brock Wright and all of those guys can all be on the field and you can detach them. You can’t say I’m not going to cover them when they have to the ability to impact what we’re doing.”

For his part, Long keeps in mind Wright’s youth but still sees the vast potential not far from realization.

“[He’s] figuring things out right now. He probably had his best practice the other day,” Long said the day before the Blue-Gold Game. “He’s been out of high school for four months, but he’s one of the hardest workers. …

“His potential is through the roof. He’s a great kid, great worker, been a lot of fun seeing him grow these last few weeks. His head was spinning the first part of spring ball, but I think he’s kind of settling in, going out there playing with more confidence. You can see it in the last couple practices.”

WHAT KEITH ARNOLD SAID UPON WRIGHT’S EARLY ENROLLMENT
Wright is a highly sought-after talent at tight end, a position that’ll welcome their entire depth chart back, and also Alizé [Mack], who missed last season after academic issues.”

2017 OUTLOOK
Wright’s early enrollment sets him on a fast track to playing time in 2017, even if behind both Smythe and Mack. It does not seem to be putting the cart before the horse to think Wright has already passed by Luatua and Weishar in the general offensive plan. Perhaps those two seniors could be utilized more in run-specific situations, but Wright should fit well into Long’s scheme.

This is where remembering Long’s history using tight ends is quite pertinent. Most notably, last season Memphis’ top two tight ends caught a combined 36 passes for 423 yards and five touchdowns with Long as offensive coordinator. For context, Irish tight ends last season totaled 12 catches for 159 yards and four scores.

Notre Dame’s grouping has much more talent than those statistics belie. When it comes to potency as a receiving threat, Wright may be second only to Mack. Smythe will remain ahead of the freshman due to his experience, and rightfully so, but Wright’s abilities should force him onto the field as the season progresses. Will he get into the end zone? That will be as much up to chance as anything else, but recording a few catches, perhaps even some first downs, would be a worthwhile contribution from the highly-touted tight end.

DOWN THE ROAD
If able to notch a few catches this season, Wright would give Long an idea of what he will have to work with in 2018. Smythe and Luatua will be gone next season, and it is hard to imagine Weishar earning an invitation back for a fifth year. At that point, Wright and Mack will be the top targets for Long’s two tight end system, and that is if Mack does not head to the NFL after this season.

In many respects, Wright’s nearly-assured primary role in 2018 is reason enough to expect imminent opportunities in 2017.


2017’s Notre Dame 99-to-2
Friday at 4: Goodbye A-to-Z, hello 99-to-2 (May 12)
No. 99: Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle
No. 98: Andrew Trumbetti, defensive end
No. 97: Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle
No. 96: Pete Mokwuah, defensive tackle
No. 95 (theoretically): Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle
No. 94 (theoretically): Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle
No. 93: Jay Hayes, defensive end
No. 92 (theoretically): Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle
No. 91: Ade Ogundeji, defensive end
No. 90 (theoretically): Cole Kmet, tight end

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 90 (theoretically) Cole Kmet, tight end

Rivals.com
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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-4, 235 pounds
2017-18 year, eligibility: Freshman yet to enroll
Depth chart: Tight end might be the deepest position on the Notre Dame roster, and, as a result, Kmet might be further down the Irish depth chart than any other player. Fifth-year Durham Smythe leads the group, with junior Alizé Mack right behind him, if behind at all. Then come seniors Nic Weishar and Tyler Luatua, both of whom may be soon passed by early enrollee freshman Brock Wright. Then, finally, slots in Kmet, if for no other reason than the obvious fact that he has yet to hit the college weight room or learn offensive coordinator Chip Long’s playbook.
Recruiting: Not only was Kmet a consensus four-star prospect, he was a consensus top-five tight end in the country. Rivals.com, for example, rated Kmet as the No. 3 tight end in the class of 2017.

QUOTE(S)
It was difficult for Irish coach Brian Kelly to discuss Kmet without including his classmate Wright during Kelly’s National Signing Day comments. Bringing in two tight ends of their potential in one class certainly stood out as an unlikely occurrence.

“Brock Wright [is] arguably one of the best, if not the best, tight ends in the country,” Kelly said. “But you’re not going to pass up an opportunity at a young man like Cole Kmet who thoroughly impressed us when we got a chance to see him in Irish Invasion.

“We think there can’t be a better tandem at the tight end position in a signing day today. We think we’ve got two tight ends coming in to obviously a very good situation already with Durham Smythe, Alizé [Mack], Nic Weishar, Tyler Luatua. We have great depth at that tight end position, and these two guys only add to it.

“I think you start and you look at the depth at that position, it really jumps out at you.”

WHAT WE SAID WHEN KMET’S NATIONAL LETTER OF INTENT ARRIVED
Kmet completes a duo of tight ends in this class along with early enrollee Brock Wright. Fittingly, Kmet will only burnish Notre Dame’s ‘Tight End U’ reputation. He has the length and athleticism to be a threat in the aerial attack while also contributing in blocking along the edge.”

2017 OUTLOOK
A situation in which Kmet plays in 2017 is nearly beyond fathoming. An injury crisis would have to tear through the Irish tight ends in order to make playing the sixth and most-inexperienced option a necessity.

Kmet’s odds of seeing action this season were further diminished when Wright not only enrolled early but also held his own in spring practice. It is not that Wright is far-and-away better than Kmet, it is that the head start will be most noticeable in their freshman campaign. If Notre Dame opts to play a freshman tight end, it will be Wright, not Kmet.

DOWN THE ROAD
Kmet’s future shines bright. Smythe and Luatua will be gone following 2017, and it is hard to imagine Weishar earning an invitation back for a fifth year. Mack will assuredly be the top target at the position in 2018, but Long has a track record of featuring tight ends. More than one will be needed.

That could mean only Mack and Wright are consistent contributors in 2018, but a third viable option could provide the ability to keep two fresh tight ends on the field whenever wanted.

Beyond that, Mack will have 2019 eligibility, but it seems unlikely he takes it. If he plays up to his palpable potential, it is more likely Mack heads to the NFL Draft as soon as possible—and that does not rule out after this season—than it is he stays around college for five years.

Kmet will get his chance. He comes in too highly-rated not to. It will just be a matter of time and patience.


Aside from the five early enrollees, the numbers are not yet known for the Irish freshmen class. That is one of the admitted drawbacks to organizing this summer-long series numerically. But a little bit of educated guessing can garner estimates for those numbers, and those estimates can allow the series to proceed without pause.

How are those estimates crafted? The first step is to take a look at certain NCAA rules. When it comes to an “end,” the NCAA limits them to Nos. 80-99. Looking at the Irish roster, this leaves only so many likely options for Kmet, hence slotting him at No. 90.

Cole Kmet very well may not wear No. 90, but it is possible, and, frankly, it should be close.


2017’s Notre Dame 99-to-2
Friday at 4: Goodbye A-to-Z, hello 99-to-2 (May 12)
No. 99: Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle
No. 98: Andrew Trumbetti, defensive end
No. 97: Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle
No. 96: Pete Mokwuah, defensive tackle
No. 95 (theoretically): Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle
No. 94 (theoretically): Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle
No. 93: Jay Hayes, defensive end
No. 92 (theoretically): Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle
No. 91: Ade Ogundeji, defensive end