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Irish coaching staff goes the distance for recruits

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It’s no secret that Notre Dame recruits nationally. That’s one of the benefits that comes along with one of the longest-standing brand names in college football. But a footprint that large also has its challenges. And for the Irish coaching staff, that’s the work that comes from reaching far and wide to find football players.

While Brian Kelly‘s staff has done a nice job of signing the top player in the state of Indiana the past few three seasons, to compete with the best teams in the country, the Irish coaching staff covers a lot of miles to find the very best players that fit the unique mold necessary to thrive at Notre Dame.

With a recruiting class that finished ranked No. 3 in the country, it’s clear Kelly and his coaches and support staff, led by recruiting coordinator Tony Alford, have done a great job with that. So much so that the team at Rivals.com named both Alford and Mike Denbrock two of the top 25 recruiters in the country this year.

Here’s what they had to say on Alford:

Alford came to South Bend with strong recruiting credentials, and he delivered on that promise in the 2013 class by going into Florida and plucking two of the state’s top ball carriers. The big prize was five-star Greg Bryant, who was not even listing Notre Dame at the beginning of the fall but committed immediately following his official visit to South Bend. Alford was also responsible for complementing the Bryant pickup with four-star Cocoa, Fla., running back Tarean Folston.

And here’s the write-up on Denbrock, who year after year continues to shut-up the skeptics that wondered whether or not the former Willingham assistant could hang on the West Coast.

The last big story on National Signing Day was Notre Dame landing five-star defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes over UCLA and Alabama. It was Denbrock who was responsible for bringing Vanderdoes into the fold, and this was not his first five-star West Coast pickup in the class. Earlier, he landed former USC five-star safety commit Max Redfield out of Mission Viejo, Calif., in what was more than a mild upset. The Irish’s passing game coordinator complemented his five-star recruiting efforts by being the lead in landing four-star wide receiver William Fuller out of Philadelphia.

It’s hardly a two man show for the Irish on the recruiting trail. Chuck Martin has gotten off to a quick start as a recruiter on the highest level of college football and was instrumental in pulling Gunner Kiel away from LSU. Kerry Cooks has done a nice job. So has Mike Elston. It’s hard to think about Bob Diaco and recruiting without thinking about the work he did to land Ishaq Williams. And while Scott Booker, Bobby Elliott and Harry Hiestand just started their time as assistants on the Irish staff, all three had a nice recruiting season.

Yahoo Sports’ put together a tremendous study that puts into context the distance Notre Dame coaches go to land their recruits. They charted the distance from campus each recruit will travel to enroll at their school of choice. Of the top five recruiting classes in the country, only Alabama came within 8,000 miles of Notre Dame.

The Irish headed into states like California, Arizona, Texas, Florida, and Georgia to pull elite players, adding that to their strongholds in the Midwest and East Coast. That kind of work widens Notre Dame’s already significant net, and shows you all the effort that it takes to compete with the elite programs in the country.

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)

 

2015-16 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.