Sony Michel

Recruiting efforts slowly take focus

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With the Irish coming off a second consecutive 8-5 season, and a late season recruiting fade that saw elite recruits like Ronald Darby and Deontay Greenberry leave at the eleventh hour, Notre Dame’s recruiting philosophy changed.

The 2013 recruiting class that became one of the most decorated groups in the modern era wasn’t always that. It started modestly — with a collection of players that came straight from the profile Brian Kelly and company was looking for.

If the 2012 class tried to cherry pick players from across the country, the 2013 class decided to build a steady base before reaching wide. Anchored by the early commitment of Steve Elmer, the Irish plucked lower-profile names that fulfilled both needs and provided a great cultural fit. Jacob Matuska was a positional profile recruit, but a nice fit out of Bishop Hartley in Ohio. James Onwualu came from the familiar confines of Cretin-Derham Hall, but lacked the prestige of previous CDH recruits.

Hunter Bivin, Colin McGovern, Mike McGlinchey — all three linemen that fit the mold and continued to build a foundation for the class. Adding Malik Zaire, another profile player from a Catholic school in Ohio gave the class its quarterback. Adding Rashad Kinlaw and Corey Robinson, who had his lone offer from Notre Dame, continued building momentum and a lot of comfort. It was only after a dozen recruits, that the Irish landed Jaylon Smith, a true five-star, elite prospect.

And from there the floodgates opened.

Of course, helping matters was an undefeated regular season. That type of momentum can’t be discounted when you look at the names the Irish landed down the stretch. Cole Luke turned down Texas and Oklahoma to come to South Bend. Greg Bryant turned down everybody. Tarean Folston was one of the earliest targets on ND’s board. Max Redfield was the elite safety the Irish never landed. Durham Smythe walked away from a Texas commitment because he liked the way the Irish offense featured athletes like him. And Eddie Vanderdoes was the perfect recruit. An elite defense player that also stood up USC and chose Notre Dame on Signing Day.

There are some that look at the current Irish recruiting class and see a group that’s behind schedule. But that’s almost missing the point. Every group is built with a different footprint, necessitated by different circumstances. Coming off a national championship appearance and carrying more momentum into next season than any since Lou Holtz, the Irish coaching staff finds itself in a very envious position where patience is truly a virtue.

With the six commitments, you can still get an idea of what needs are pressing. Linebacker Greer Martini fills a hole that’ll come when Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese depart after the season. Wide receiver Justin Brent adds another intriguing skill possibility, and gets the Irish another elite talent out of Indianapolis. Jimmy Byrne and Sam Mustipher continue to build the depth on the interior of the offensive line. Andrew Trumbetti is the type of defender that Bob Diaco and Kelly seem to love — a long, strong big power/edge player.

The foundation of this class seems to be growing in a similar fashion. Meanwhile, we can only watch as the Irish take dead aim at elite recruits, building a case that’s far more persuasive than it’s ever been.

Recruits like running back Sony Michel spent time on campus, no doubt influenced by former teammate Michael Deeb. Blue-chip backs like Nathan Starks, at an elite feeder program (Bishop Gorman in Las Vegas), took in practice with his high school coach. Another big time prospect, Elijah Hood, has been hounded by the Irish staff. Freak athlete/jumbo tight-end/wide receiver Mark Andrews saw campus this weekend, and sees a perfect fit in Tyler Eifert. Josh Malone of Tennessee provides the Irish coaching staff with another opportunity to bag their white whale — an elite receiver that’s somehow evaded this group.

While previous coaching staffs turned the Blue-Gold weekend into a recruiting extravaganza, it’s worth noting that the Irish made their mark this year at the annual coaching clinic, where invited speakers often times had an elite recruiting joining them. Seeing guys like Bill Belichick, Marvin Lewis, and Marc Trestman is a lot more impressive than an intrasquad scrimmage.

Some wonder what effect the departure of Tim McDonnell will have on the Irish’s recruiting efforts. Behind the scenes, McDonnell served a critical role in coordinating the recruiting efforts for Kelly and coordinator Tony Alford. Yet it’s clear that Kelly is confident that there’ll be dozens of names lining up for a shot to join his staff. And he’s right.

Whatever changes take place behind the scenes, it’s clear that there’s truly a rhyme to the reasoning here, just as there has been for everything this staff has done.

Now everyone will have to simply show some patience as they pursue it.

 

 

Restocking the roster: Offensive Line

Notre Dame offensive line
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When Notre Dame takes the field this spring, there’ll be two very large holes in the offensive line that need filling. All-American left tackle Ronnie Stanley is gone. As is captain Nick Martin at center. Both three-year starters leave Harry Hiestand with some big decisions to make in the coming months as the Irish look to fill those key positions and still field a unit with the ability to dominate in the trenches.

The Irish have had incredible stability at left tackle, with Stanley sliding in seamlessly after four seasons of Zack Martin. Perhaps the best six-year run in the program’s storied history at the position, Stanley will likely join Martin as a first-rounder, back-to-back starters at a key spot that often dictates the play of one of the most important units on the field.

Replacing Nick Martin could prove equally tricky. Rising junior Sam Mustipher served as Martin’s backup in 2015, filing in capably for Martin after an ankle sprain took him off the field briefly against UMass. But Mustipher will face a challenge this spring from rising sophomore Tristen Hoge, the first true center recruited by Hiestand and Brian Kelly since they arrived in South Bend.

Kelly talked about 2017 being a big cycle on the recruiting trail for restocking the offensive line. You can see why when you look at the depth, particularly at tackle. Let’s look at the work that’s been done the previous two classes as Notre Dame continues to be one of the premier programs recruiting in the trenches.

 

DEPARTURES
Ronnie Stanley
, Sr. (39 starts)
Nick Martin, Grad Student (37 starts)
Mark Harrell, Sr* (No Starts, fifth-year available)

*Harrell’s departure is not confirmed, though expected.  

2015-16 ADDITIONS
Tristen Hoge
, C
Trevor Ruhland
, G
Jerry Tillery
, T
Parker Boudreaux
, G
Tommy Kraemer
, T
Liam Eichenberg
, T

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Hunter Bivin, T
Quenton Nelson, LG
Sam Mustipher, C
Steve Elmer, RG
Mike McGlinchey, RT

Alex Bars, T
Colin McGovern,* G/T
Tristen Hoge*, C
John Montelus*, G
Jimmy Byrne*, G
Trevor Ruhland*, G

*Has an additional year of eligibility remaining. 

ANALYSIS:
It’ll be a fascinating spring up front for the offensive line. We’ll get our first look at potential replacements and see if the Irish staff values a veteran presence (as it has done in the past) or puts former blue-chip recruits in position to become multi-year starters.

For now, I’m putting last season’s backups in line to ascend to starting spots. That’s not to say I think that’s what’ll happen. Hunter Bivin may have been Stanley’s backup last season, but as long as Alex Bars is fully recovered from his broken ankle, I think he’s the best bet to step into that job. Sharing reps at guard—not a natural spot for Bars to begin with—was more about getting him some experience, with the aim to move him into the lineup in 2016. That allows Bivin to be a key swing reserve, capable of playing on either the right or left side.

At center, the decision is less clear cut—especially since we’ve yet to see Tristen Hoge play a snap of football. Size and strength is a genuine concern at the point of attack for Hoge, not necessarily the biggest guy hitting campus. But it sounds like he’s had a nice first season from a developmental standpoint, and if he’s a true technician at the position, he could be a rare four-year starter at center if he’s able to pull ahead of Mustipher this spring.

On paper, the other three starting jobs don’t seem to be in question. Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey are ready to step to the forefront. Concerns about Steve Elmer’s buy-in will certainly be answered by spring, there’s little chance he’ll be on the field in March if he’s not going to be around in August. I’m of the mind that Elmer’s too good of a character guy to leave the program, even if his life doesn’t revolve around football 24/7. Now it’s time for him to clean up some of the flaws in his game, the only starter from last season who held back the Irish from being a truly elite group.

Depth isn’t necessarily a concern, but there isn’t a ton of it at tackle. That happens when you move a guy like Jerry Tillery to defensive line and lose a player like Stanley with a year of eligibility remaining. That could force the Irish to cross-train someone like Colin McGovern, a veteran who can swing inside or out if needed. McGovern seems to be a guy who would start in a lot of other programs, but has struggled to crack a two-deep that’s now filled with former blue-chip recruits, all of them essentially handpicked by Hiestand and Kelly.

Restocking the roster: Wide Receivers

Notre Dame v Florida State
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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

BVG
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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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