Spring Solutions: Wide Receivers

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It’s been a good run for Notre Dame at wide receiver. For a school that many think struggles to bring in elite playmakers, there sure have been quite a few to make their way through South Bend lately. Starting with Chicago Cubs opening day starter Jeff Samardzija, continuing on to Biletnikoff Winner Golden Tate and first round draft pick Michael Floyd, there’s been no shortage of elite pass catching targets in the Irish offense, with Tyler Eifert joining that group on his way to being selected in the first or second round of the NFL Draft.

But for the first time in recent memory, there’s no elite threat at the position for Notre Dame. And while the depth chart finally has the type of balance Brian Kelly and company would like to see at the position, the offense will need to identify and develop the next great receiver, with a few candidates that look like they have a chance to become one.

Let’s take a look at the Irish depth chart at receiver entering the spring, and set some goals for a position group that needs to take another big step forward.

WIDE RECEIVER DEPTH CHART

TJ Jones, Sr.
Daniel Smith, Sr.
Luke Massa, Sr.
DaVaris Daniels, Jr.
Justin Ferguson, Soph.
Chris Brown, Soph.
Davonte Neal, Soph.
James Onwualu, Fr.
Corey Robinson, Fr.

SPRING OBJECTIVES

TJ Jones: Last season was a great step forward for Jones, who showed the type of playmaking ability and guts needed to be a frontline college wide receiver. After a sophomore season stuck in neutral, Jones played big his junior season and looks like a prime candidate to have a breakthrough senior year.

If we look at the trajectory of a Brian Kelly player, you see upperclassmen making the biggest impacts. There’s every reason to believe that Jones will have the trust of this coaching staff, and he could be to the wide receiver corps what Theo Riddick did to the running game in 2012.

For Jones, that means bringing the type of leadership Riddick showed last season. He’ll have that opportunity this spring when he’s working with a young position group, with a whopping five receivers that are going through their first spring practice.

Daniel Smith: There’s no day like today for Smith, who will either emerge this season or finish his eligibility elsewhere. (Smith technically saw time in all three of his seasons on campus, though battled injuries throughout.)

Smith’s stats may have been nonexistent, but he was the team’s best blocking wideout last year. While that was important in Notre Dame’s fairly conservative running attacked, that’s doubtful to mean much as the offense continues to evolve into an explosive passing attack.

With size that’s rare on the depth chart and a coaching staff that’s said all the right things about the local product, it’s time to prove Smith’s ready to lead.

Luke Massa: Massa was just starting to show himself last spring when an ACL injury ended his 2012 season before it started. But the converted quarterback has shown signs of promise at wide receiver, where he’s another big body with surprising athleticism.

We’ll find out if Massa is left behind by a young promising depth chart or if he’s able to find a niche in this offense. At 6-foot-4, 225-pounds, he’s got intriguing size.

DaVaris Daniels: It’s time to see if Daniels can be the next great Irish receiver. He’s certainly the leading candidate. After a promising debut season that was shortened with two significant injuries, Daniels looked solid against Alabama, though the offense was playing from behind.

Athletically, it’s all there for Daniels. After a year watching and a year learning, it’s time for Daniels to spend a year dominating. With no other true No. 1 wide receiver candidate on campus, the job is there for Daniels’ taking. We’ll find out this spring how serious he is about taking it.

Justin Ferguson: It didn’t take long for Ferguson to see the field. And when he did, he shared a number with Danny McCarthy. That drew the attention of the referees, and forced Ferguson to switch to No. 82, a jersey owned by injured tight end Alex Welch.

Ferguson had about the same impact as Welch did on the season, playing little after some early mop-up duty against Navy. But there’s hope that Ferguson makes an early impact this spring, with the strong and athletic youngster given an opportunity to fight for a job on the outside of the formation.

Chris Brown: There’s little doubt about Brown’s speed, which we saw on display as he streaked past the Oklahoma secondary and changed the game with a deep completion. But this spring, Brown will be tasked with making his game multidimensional.

The want-to is there for the rising sophomore. The record-settling prep triple jumper is skipping Big East track season to focus on football, understanding that a job is there for him if he takes advantage. Brown’s also got work to do in the weight room, where the skinny rising sophomore needs to add some bulk.

Davonte Neal: When Neal was given the starting punt return job, many expected that the diminutive freshman was just too slippery to keep off the field. But Neal’s impact was negligible in 2012, with the punt return game never getting started and Neal stuck behind Robby Toma at the slot receiver position.

Part of Neal’s modest season was a product of scheme. The Irish spent most of their time in a base offense with two-tight ends, blocking Neal’s path onto the field. And Kelly and special teams coordinator Scott Booker seemed complacent with making fair catches in the punt return game, though Neal showed both his aggressiveness — and youthful inexperience — when he tried to make something happen in the National Championship game.

With Toma gone and the slot position up for grabs, the spring is Neal’s time to seize control of a starting job.

James Onwualu: For an early enrolled freshman, merely learning what it takes to play at the college level is reason enough to jump start a college career. But expect Onwualu, the first football player from Cretin-Derham Hall to graduate early and participate in spring football, to have more lofty ideals.

There’s a size and physicality to Onwualu’s game that’ll likely translate nicely to Brian Kelly’s offense. There’s also no shortage of confident. If he can get his game caught up to the speed of the game, expect Onwualu to try and find a niche in the offense early, and establish himself as one of the young players on this team that will do anything to see the field.

Corey Robinson: With a still growing frame, Robinson might be able to bring a literal meaning to the term “growing pains.” But on the football field the San Antonio native also has plenty of work, with the small school late bloomer likely learning more about football in his first few months on campus than he had in his lifetime.

The biggest question we’ll have answered this spring is whether or not Robinson has the speed and quickness to break in at wideout. If he does, he immediately gives the Irish a unique weapon and someone that can be utilized immediately in the red zone.

Notre Dame’s successful early signing period now begets early visit questions

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Notre Dame used the first early signing period to its advantage, but in many respects, succeeding in that initial foray was by default. The Irish already had strong relationships with the recruiting class of 2018 when the NCAA finally agreed upon setting a 72-hour window for December. No other recruiting changes went into effect in the cycle, so the only shift was getting the paperwork ready and the grades verified six weeks earlier than usual.

“When you are presented with a new rule that gives you — go ahead, sign them early — and you’ve done all that work, that’s kind of a lay-up,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said on National Signing Day, Feb. 7. “The real work now begins with the early visits.”

A bit before finally nailing down the December early signing period, the NCAA also approved official visits for high school juniors in April, May and June. Previously, a recruit could not take an official visit until September of his senior year in high school.

For a program with a national reach in recruiting — pulling in multiple prospects from both coasts in the cycle of 2018, for example — it can be difficult to get a player to visit for a home game amidst his own football season. When it is possible, it is often a rushed trip. The recruit plays a high school game Friday night, flies to South Bend, possibly via Chicago, early Saturday morning and then departs mid-day Sunday to get back home in time for the school week.

Notre Dame can now instead slate that official visit for the summer, perhaps around a camp environment or the Blue-Gold Game (April 21).

In years to come, this expedited timing could have a greater effect on recruiting than the early signing period does.

“How we handle the back end of it, the back end being when are those visits going to start, when do you start them, when do you end them,” Kelly said, “That’s really what we’re trying to figure out at this point relative to tweaking and how that’s going to work.”

Theoretically, earlier visits could lead to earlier commitments, increasing the likelihood of more signings in December than in February, further de-emphasizing the traditional National Signing Day.

Amid all those changes, though, recruits are still allowed only five official visits and only one to each school. Of course, a recruit can make multiple unofficial visits, paying for those out of his and his family’s own pocket, but Notre Dame can pay for only one. As much as getting a recruit on campus earlier in the process should bode well for any program, it becomes a double-edged sword: Is it better to get a player on campus early and make that impression before other schools have the opportunity, or is it better to showcase a primetime game against a rival?

Irish recruiting coordinator Brian Polian suggested allowing two official visits per school, although remaining at only five total, on National Signing Day.

“Why not let a young man make two official visits to one institution? Because if somebody says to us, from far distance, I want to come make a visit to your place in the spring, well, ideally you want them to see a game atmosphere, as well,” Polian said. “There’s nothing like Notre Dame Stadium and this campus on a game weekend.

“Now we’re going to have to get into some strategic decisions about when do we want young men to take visits.”

Perhaps in time the NCAA will consider that adjustment, but it will not be for the cycle of 2019.

While when a player visits may impact the recruitment, Polian does not much care about when they commit, as long as they do. Notre Dame signed five prospects on National Signing Day who had not previously committed publicly, making it appear to be a strong finish to the class. Then again, the Irish also signed 21 players in the early signing period and received a 22nd commitment less than a week afterward.

“If you’ve got a really good class and they’ve been committed for a while, who cares when they said yes?” Polian said. “It’s as though the answers that you get at the end dictate your class.”

‘Accelerated’ start creates bright outlook for Notre Dame’s 2019 recruiting cycle

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Thanks to signing 21 prospects during December’s early signing period, Notre Dame’s coaching staff began looking ahead to the 2019 recruiting cycle sooner than it usually would. The Irish needed to focus on only a handful of remaining 2018 possibilities, thus taking the time usually spent checking in on verbal commits and devoting it toward the needs of the future.

“[The early signing period] really allows us to accelerate and reach out into ’19, ’20 and beyond,” head coach Brian Kelly said in December. “You always feel in recruiting that you’re a click behind. You’re always trying to get ahead of it. This is the first time you truly feel like you’re about to get ahead of it.”

When Kelly or another coach says something to the effect of being ahead of schedule, they mean in terms of evaluating, communicating and beginning the year-long wooing more than they mean securing verbal commitments. Nonetheless, Notre Dame already has three pledges in the class of 2019.

Consensus four-star quarterback Cade McNamara (Demonte Ranch High School; Reno, Nev.) made it the second-consecutive cycle in which a highly-touted quarterback was the first Irish commitment, following Phil Jurkovec’s lead. Consensus four-star defensive tackle Jacob Lacey (South Warren H.S.; Bowling Green, Ky.), pictured above, committed shortly after McNamara, both in July, and rivals.com three-star cornerback K.J. Wallace (Lovett; Atlanta) made it a trio in late January.

Moving forward, the class’s success or failure may largely be determined by the defensive line commitments joining Lacey, or lack thereof. It is already the driving emphasis, part of that head start provided by the early signing period, and the preliminary responses have Irish defensive line coach Mike Elston optimistic.

“I’ve been at Notre Dame now going on for nine years, and I haven’t had a stronger group of underclassmen that I’m recruiting than I have this year in 2019,” Elston said on Feb. 7. “This could be the best defensive line haul we’ve ever had here.

“A lot of it is because I’ve been able to put ’18 to bed and get moving on the ’19s, go visit in their schools all throughout January.”

The Irish hosted about 20 juniors for a day in late January, and among them were five of the reasons Elston is so bullish on the defensive line possibilities, including the committed Lacey.

Twitter: @JacobLacey6

Pictured, from left to right: Consensus four-star defensive end/outside linebacker Nana Osafo-Mensah (Nolan Catholic; Forth Worth, Texas); consensus four-star defensive end Joseph Anderson (Siegel; Murfreesboro, Tenn.); Elston; consensus four-star defensive tackle Mazi Smith (East Kentwood; Kentwood, Mich.); Lacey; and consensus four-star defensive end Hunter Spears (Sachse; Texas).

Obviously, it is early in the cycle, any relative success or failure in the 2018 season could prove to be influential, and the number of other variables is innumerable, but getting such a group on campus a full year before they need to put pen to figurative paper is a big step for any recruiting process.

Notre Dame will also need to focus on finding more running back talent. Pulling in two this class only replaces what was lost in the dismissals of current sophomore Deon McIntosh and current freshman C.J. Holmes. It does not create depth for the future, and with rising senior Dexter Williams entering his final season of eligibility, the Irish will need to find that depth immediately following 2018.

Similarly, one of the 2019 recruits will almost certainly be a punter, with Tyler Newsome entering his fifth and final year with Notre Dame.

Williams will be one of six rising seniors entering their final years of eligibility. Add them to Newsome and the eight other fifth-years on the roster, and that makes for an immediate 15 spots to fill in the class of 2019.

Obviously, 15 recruits would be a small class. The subsequent question is usually, “How many players will Notre Dame be able to sign in 2019?” That is not the question to ask. The question to ask is, “How many players will leave Notre Dame before August of 2019?”

The Irish roster, as it stands now, would have 89 players this fall, four more than the NCAA maximum. Presume the four who depart before this coming August are not rising seniors. (Any such player would be better served to wait a year, get his degree and transfer as a graduate with immediate eligibility.)

After the 2018 season, eight then-seniors would have one more year of eligibility available, but it is unlikely more than three or four are asked to return for a fifth year. In rough order of likelihood: quarterback Brandon Wimbush, cornerback Shaun Crawford, receiver Miles Boykin, offensive lineman Trevor Ruhland, tight end Alizé Mack, linebacker Asmar Bilal, receiver Chris Finke, defensive tackle Micah Dew-Treadway. If only three of those are asked to return, now 20 spots have theoretically opened up for the recruiting class of 2019.

If rising junior Julian Love puts together a third stellar season, he will have an NFL decision to make. His departure would immediately raise the operating figure to 21.

That becomes the floor for the size of the next recruiting class. Next offseason’s natural, and perhaps presumed, attrition can raise that total. Another year of 27 recruits is unlikely, but 24 or 25 would create what could be by then a familiar numbers crunch.

Notre Dame is right: The NCAA’s terrible precedent matters, but vacating wins does not

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No matter what the NCAA might say now, the Notre Dame defense held its own in the rain and slop against Stanford on Oct. 13, 2012. Whether und.com already notes the wins as vacated or not (it does), the Irish held Michigan State, Michigan and Miami without touchdowns in the three weeks leading up to that goal line stand. Notre Dame arrived in Miami with 12 wins and no losses that January, an undefeated top-ranked underdog in the national championship.

Vacating those 12 wins, and the nine in the following season, does not matter in any regard.

However, the NCAA established a new precedent Tuesday when it denied Notre Dame’s appeal to retain those wins in its records. That new standard could change how schools across the country handle controversy, allegations and educational fraud. That does matter.

Notre Dame President Fr. John Jenkins made his feelings clear after the NCAA denied the University’s appeal of vacated wins due to academic transgressions by a handful of players in 2012 and 2013. (AP Photo/Joe Raymond, File)

In his response to the ruling, Notre Dame President Fr. John Jenkins distinguished between his University and the NCAA.

“The NCAA is not, of course, an academic association with general responsibility for academic integrity at America’s colleges and universities,” he wrote.

Of course.

As an academic institution with general responsibility for academic integrity within its own buildings, when Notre Dame came across the academic transgressions involving nine student-athletes, it immediately suspended four of those players remaining on the 2014 roster, soon adding a fifth. It launched an internal investigation to gauge the scope of the situation, and handed the NCAA a completed understanding of what transpired largely at the hands of a student-trainer.

Some may argue that was the right thing to do, both on principle and in practice. After all, history showed cooperating institutions were granted some benefit of the doubt from the NCAA, only partly because that cooperation lessened the workload of an overworked, understaffed and fangless NCAA investigation department.

Hindsight does not argue Jenkins’ 2014 public deferral to the NCAA was the right maneuver.

“The University has decided that if the investigation determines that student-athletes would have been ineligible for past competitions, Notre Dame will voluntarily vacate any victories in which they participated,” he said then.

That was an unnecessary offering, and from a public relations viewpoint, it is now the greatest mistake made by the University in this process. That comment floats amid the internet’s cobwebs to be thrown back in Jenkins’ and Notre Dame’s face four years later. Doing so misses the more pertinent and meaningful pieces of the NCAA’s decision.

The NCAA opted to punish an institution when there was never any indication of involvement from anyone higher up than an undergraduate student. Per Tuesday’s announcement, “The appeals committee confirmed that at the time of the violations, the athletic training student was considered a university employee under NCAA rules.”

This is neither the space nor the time to launch into a debate regarding amateurism, but it is hard to understand the student-trainer being an employee but the student-athletes — the same ones she aided both illicitly in the classroom and medically in the football facilities — are not employees.

That questionable logic was joined by the NCAA pointing out, “In this case, the university acknowledged the academic misconduct impacted the eligibility of student-athletes and resulted in student-athletes competing while ineligible.”

Yes, Notre Dame did acknowledge that. The University went so far as to correct the past grades, deeming certain players retroactively ineligible. Notre Dame chose to do that. It could have followed the lead of other institutions, most dramatically North Carolina, and never granted the premise of falsehoods or academic missteps. North Carolina never declared any grades or classes fraudulent, and as a result, the NCAA Committee on Infractions deemed such judgements beyond its jurisdiction.

As a result, North Carolina emerged from a six-year investigation essentially unscathed, wins intact along with scholarships, staffers and players. If Notre Dame had not reevaluated ill-gotten grades, then the NCAA would not have, either, and those 21 wins would be safe.

With that in mind, why should any school, be it Notre Dame or North Carolina, Harvard or USC, West Point or Mount Union, “acknowledge” any academic fault in relation to its athletics?

That concerning piece of Tuesday’s appeal ruling did not escape Jenkins’ wrath.

“We are deeply disappointed that the NCAA failed to recognize these critical points,” he wrote. “Yet we are committed to work with partner institutions to introduce NCAA legislation that will lead to more reasonable decisions — decisions that will support rather than discourage institutions that do their best to uncover and respond to academic dishonesty in accord with their respective honor codes.”

The NCAA wants to allow academic institutions autonomy. It is, in fact, inherent to the NCAA’s structure. Apparently the NCAA wants that autonomy to extend so far it grants the governing body willful and blissful ignorance.

That is a dangerous precedent, and if Notre Dame needs to vacate 21 wins, must add an asterisk of a talking point for Irish critics and supposedly diminish the luster of that 2012 undefeated regular season, so be it. That is a worthwhile cost to produce a conversation for consistency and accountability moving forward.

That should be the sought result, too. Unless Notre Dame wants to turn the full complement of its sports into glorified barnstorming exhibitions, it will not be departing the NCAA. It does, though, still have the influence to effect change. That change will not come through a prolonged court case. There is no forward-looking damage to the University to protect against.

The greatest actual damage done to the here-and-now is to a meaningless stat. Notre Dame is now two or three seasons, at least, away from challenging Michigan (or Boise State) for the lead in all-time winning percentage, rather than one game away. That is the most tangible and lasting effect — remember, this investigation resulted in no bowl ban or reduced scholarship allotment — of this fiasco felt by Notre Dame, and it deserves little more than someone reminding me of the sequence of punctuation needed to create that shrug response.

But now we know, next time Notre Dame or Stanford or Michigan or Boise State or University of Wisconsin-Whitewater has an academic issue the NCAA is concerned with, it should filibuster, deny the premise and change the topic. That warrants more than a shrug. It warrants every bit of worry from anyone still wanting to believe college athletics involve just some academics, as Jenkins and Notre Dame do.

NCAA denies Notre Dame’s appeal, vacating 21 wins, including 12-0 in 2012

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The NCAA denied Notre Dame’s appeal to maintain its 21 wins from 2012 and 2013, the NCAA announced Tuesday. The ruling stems from the academic violations of nine players during those seasons, eight of them with the assistance of a former student-athletic trainer.

Notre Dame’s argument hinged on there being no university involvement or knowledge of the academic misconduct. The NCAA does not dispute that wholesale, but since the student-trainer was considered a university employee under NCAA rules, that lumps the violations into a category usually resulting in vacated wins.

“We are deeply disappointed by and strongly disagree with the denial of the University’s appeal …,” Notre Dame President Fr. John Jenkins said in a statement. “Our concerns go beyond the particulars of our case and the record of two football seasons to the academic autonomy of our institutions, the integrity of college athletics, and the ability of the NCAA to achieve its fundamental purpose.”

As the academic violations came to light and were self-reported by Notre Dame in 2014, the Irish suspended five then-current players: DaVaris Daniels, Eilar Hardy, Kendall Moore, Ishaq Williams and KeiVarae Russell. The University also set to recalculating the appropriate grades from years past. In doing so, it rendered certain players retroactively ineligible.

“In the curious logic of the NCAA, however, it is precisely the application of our Honor Code that is the source of the vacation of wins penalty, for the recalculation of grades in 2014 led to three student-athletes being deemed ineligible retroactively,” Jenkins said. “To impose a severe penalty for this retroactive ineligibility establishes a dangerous precedent and turns the seminal concept of academic autonomy on its head.

“At its best, the NCAA’s decision in this case creates a randomness of outcome based solely on how an institution chooses to define its honor code; at worst, it creates an incentive for colleges and universities to change their honor codes to avoid sanctions like that imposed here.”

Jenkins claims the ruling by the NCAA is unprecedented since there was no broader institutional involvement or lack of control.

“There is no precedent in previous NCAA cases for the decision to add a discretionary penalty of vacation of team records in a case of student-student cheating involving a part-time student worker who had no role in academic advising,” Jenkins wrote. “… The Committee simply failed to provide any rationale why it viewed the student-worker as an institutional representative in our case.”

Such a view was actually amended out of the academic misconduct rules in 2016, meaning student-trainers would not be considered institutional representatives.

Vacating the 12 wins from 2012 and the nine from 2013 drops Notre Dame’s all-time win total to 885 from 906 and its all-time winning percentage to .724 from .729. The Irish still stand at No. 2 in winning percentage, behind only Michigan, but that top spot will no longer be at stake in the 2018 season opener against the Wolverines on Sept. 1.

Jenkins’ full statement can be read here.

The NCAA’s announcement denying the appeal can be read here.