Matthias Farley

Counting down the Irish: 20-16

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After the first five slots of our Top 25 included three talented freshmen that could play supporting roles, our next five spots are dedicated to upperclassmen that will be major contributors this season, all expected to be members of the starting lineup.

If the inclusion of Jaylon Smith, Max Redfield and Greg Bryant represented the idea of bottled promise, the inclusion of numbers 20-16 on this list have mostly all demonstrated their abilities to the coaching staff.

If you’re looking for a sign that the depth of this team is improving, these five spots are a great data-point supporting that conclusion. Last season’s 20-16 included Robby Toma, Christian Lombard, Davaris Daniels, Troy Niklas and Bennett Jackson. The combined starts for that group heading into the season? Zero. Only two members of this group haven’t started any games, and the staff has evaluated both players and expects them to be key contributors this season.

Let’s continue the rollout of our annual rankings.

2013 Irish Top 25
25. Max Redfield (S, Fr.)
24. Elijah Shumate (S, Soph.)
23. Jaylon Smith (OLB, Fr.)
22. Ishaq Williams (OLB, Jr.)
21. Greg Bryant (RB, Fr.)

RANKINGS

20. Christian Lombard (RT, Sr.) That Lombard, a year after starting the entire season at right tackle, falls a spot in this rankings from 2012 should give you an idea of how much better the personnel is getting in South Bend. Because there’s no reason to think Lombard is going to be a lesser player in 2013 than he was in his first season in the starting lineup.

Lombard’s career trajectory is right on schedule, with the one-time Army All-American redshirting his freshman season, contributing on special teams and in mop-up duty as a sophomore, before winning the right tackle job as a junior. With a fifth-year available, Lombard should end up being a three-year starter on the offensive line.

At what position remains the one interesting question. While there isn’t necessarily the depth along the line yet that the coaching staff would like, Lombard has the positional flexibility to slide inside to guard if needed. That could be because Ronnie Stanley presents himself to be one of the five best offensive linemen on the roster or because Conor Hanratty isn’t ready to start at guard. But Lombard is a solid technician who will likely be a whole lot better in his second season than his first.

Highest Ranking: 8th. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (three ballots)

19. Amir Carlisle (RB, Jr.) Carlisle is the sole wildcard of this group. The USC transfer sat out last season with a nagging ankle injury, when a nerve issue extended a broken ankle from spring practice well into the regular season. (Getting Carlisle immediate eligibility was an impressive task by the Irish’s compliance department, though they couldn’t handle any medical maladies.)

Carlisle bad luck on the injury front extended to this spring, when he broke his collarbone in full-contact drills. While he returned to practice less than a week later, the very real questions about his durability were cemented.

At his best, Carlisle could be the most explosive offensive weapon the Irish have. He’s capable of being a threat in the return game, he’s dangerous as a running back or receiver, and he’s got top end speed and moves that nobody on last season’s roster can match. Of course, he’s yet to take a snap wearing an Irish uniform, so any practice All-American awards need to be transferable to the gridiron on Saturday.

Brian Kelly raised more than a few eyebrows when he said that the coaching staff had seen all that they needed from Carlisle in the spring’s first handful of practices. That might just mean they too expect Carlisle to be one of the team’s most dangerous weapons, playing both running back and slot receiver. All he has to do is prove he can stay on the field.

Highest Ranking: 9th. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (two ballots).

18. Carlo Calabrese (LB, Grad.) At this point in his career, we know what Calabrese is. And that’s a productive player at inside linebacker that still sometimes struggles in space and on passing downs. But sharing time with fellow fifth-year player Dan Fox, the duo played productive football next to Manti Te’o last season, anchoring one of the toughest run defenses in the country.

Calabrese was suspended for the season opener, but proceeded to put up strong numbers, playing key roles each week while starting five games. He may occasionally get exploited as a cover man, but the 245-pound sledgehammer will only improve in his final season for the Irish.

With Te’o gone and first-year starter Jarrett Grace stepping into his place, the pressure to be productive will be heaped on all three inside linebackers. While they won’t be able to replace the interceptions that Te’o miraculously made last season, they have every chance to be as productive making tackles and playing assignment correct football.

Highest Ranking: 13th. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (two ballots).

17. Jarrett Grace (LB, Jr.) That our panel voted Grace above Calabrese shows the respect afforded to the heir to Manti Te’o’s starting job. Anchoring multiple special teams units last season, Grace is now stepping into the starting lineup, all but being handed the starting job while Calabrese and Fox will continue their platoon.

That alone shows you the belief this coaching staff has in Grace. The 6-foot-3, 248-pounder is a sideline-to-sideline player that many believe is faster and more athletic than Te’o. A highly touted recruit who turned down Nick Saban to come to South Bend, Grace will now anchor a front seven filled with talent, but desperately needs production out of the first year starter.

There’s every reason to believe that Grace will deliver it, though holding him to the standard Te’o delivered last season would be unreasonable. That said, he’s already established himself as one of the team’s leaders and will likely carve out a place in Irish fans’ hearts with his energy and athleticism.

Highest Ranking: 7th. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (two ballots).

16. Matthias Farley (S, Jr.) Probably one of the best surprises on a 2012 team that was filled with many. After a freshman season spent playing wide receiver on the scout team, Farley transitioned to safety in what was likely a depth chart precaution, then proceeded to play his way into the starting lineup through an excellent spring practice and fall camp.

A cerebral and physical player, Farley moved quickly ahead of fifth-year senior Dan McCarthy, seeing surprise duty as a starter against Navy at outside linebacker before proceeding to start ten more games after Jamoris Slaughter’s season-ending injury. Learning on the job, Farley avoided giving up the big play, was tough and physical down in the box, and battled through a broken hand to keep the secondary intact.

There’s every reason to believe that Farley’s game will only move forward this season. After spending spring ball implanted in the starting lineup as the boundary-side safety, Farley will likely play a role similar to Slaughter’s, a tough guy that can deliver a blow in the box, but run with receivers as well. Farley is one of the true great developmental recruits that Kelly and company pulled out of the blue, a little known three-star recruit with no national or state ranking to his name. A student of the game, his experience last season coupled with a year learning the job with Bob Elliott, should have him set for a breakout season.

Highest Ranking: 9th. Lowest Ranking: 23rd.

***

Our voting panel:

Brian Hamilton, Chicago Tribune
Pete Sampson, Irish Illustrated
JJ Stankevitz, CSN Chicago
John Vannie, ND Nation
John Walters, MediumHappy.com
Ryan Ritter, HerLoyalSons.com
4pointshooter, OneFootDown.com
Keith Arnold, Inside the Irish

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.

Five things we learned: Signing Day 2016

FILE - In this Jan. 1, 2016, file photo, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly makes a call during the first half of the Fiesta Bowl NCAA College football game against Ohio State in Glendale, Ariz. Kelly has agreed to a six-year contract to stay on as coach at Notre Dame through 2021, the school announced Friday, Jan. 29,2 016.  (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)
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There were no last minute defections. No roller coaster recruits or down-to-the-wire decisions. Heck, there were no fax machines—with Notre Dame ditching the office dinosaur for a wireless, smart phone option.

Brian Kelly inked another Top 10 recruiting class on Wednesday. And he did so in decidedly uneventful fashion.

“It’s awesome. I think that everybody should try it once in their career,” Kelly said.

So while Kelly and the Irish staff hold out hope that 5-star talents Caleb Kelly and Demetris Robertson still decide to spend their college careers in South Bend, the 23-man class announced Wednesday was another Top 10 effort and a step in the right direction for a program on very stable ground.

Let’s find out what we learned.

 

Notre Dame’s staff continued to focus on rebuilding the secondary and rushing the passer. 

Yes, Brian Kelly saw what you saw—a group that struggled getting to the passer or to field a nickel or dime personnel grouping. So they countered that in the best way they knew how: By continuing to stockpile talent.

Notre Dame added seven defensive backs and four edge defenders in the cycle. They include safeties Jalen Elliott, D.J. Morgan, Spencer Perry and Devin Studstill and cornerbacks Julian Love, Troy Pride and Donte Vaughn. Perhaps just as important is the impression some of these defenders made in their time on campus, with Kelly pointing to Elliott and Studstill’s work during summer camp really making them must-have recruits.

“Jalen Elliott competed like no player that I have seen since I’ve been coaching in a camp setting,” Kelly said. “Same thing with Devin Studstill. His skill level was of corner-like ability but had the size of the safety, and so our guys went right to them early on, and that was a focal point because we got a chance to see them up close and personal.”

At defensive end, the Irish welcome 5-star recruit Daelin Hayes, getting him on campus as he recovers from shoulder surgery. He’s joined by former Alabama commit Khalid Kareem, the strongside counterpart that is an early candidate to see the field, especially as the staff looks for someone to spell Isaac Rochell for a few snaps. Longer-term prospects include a few speed rushers—Julian Okwara (younger brother of Romeo) and Ade Ogundeji, a long-limbed, below-the-radar edge rusher.

“We’re pretty excited about the potential for some guys in this class that can answer some four-man pass rush needs that we do have,” Kelly said.

 

It may not be the biggest group, but Brian Kelly is excited about his offensive line—especially the guys he pulled from Ohio State’s backyard. 

Three recruits in the offensive line class point to a big 2017 at the position. But the three the Irish did sign—guard Parker Boudreaux and tackles Liam Eichenberg and Tommy Kraemer—have Kelly very happy.

“Parker Boudreaux has that physical presence inside like, and I’m not comparing him, but he’s a Quinton Nelson in terms of size and physicality,” Kelly said. “And then two edge guys with Liam and Tommy on the outside. Those two kids are as good as you’re going to find in the country, and couldn’t be more excited to have two kids from the state of Ohio, from two great Catholic schools in St. Ignatius and Cincinnati Elder from the state of Ohio.”

Both Eichenberg and Kraemer were priority targets for Urban Meyer and company, with neither wavering after committing to Notre Dame. Kraemer was Ohio’s Gatorade Player of the Year and an Army All-American. He’ll be able to step into the two-deep immediately, capable of playing up front if the Irish need him. Eichenberg more than held his own at the Under Armour All-American game and has a high ceiling, especially as he learns the game under Hiestand.

It doesn’t take away the sting of the Fiesta Bowl. But it’s a nice consolation prize.

 

Irish legacies Jamir Jones and Julian Okwara may have big brothers who played for Brian Kelly, but they earned scholarships on their own. 

Classmates Jarron Jones and Romeo Okwara will turn over the reins to their younger brothers, linebacker Jamir Jones and defensive end Julian Okwara. The younger duo’s commitments felt all but inevitable throughout this recruiting cycle—even if that wasn’t always the case.

Jones had to come to camp to earn a scholarship. Having played quarterback and tight end as a high school standout in Rochester, the defensive staff had to see how he moved before they could find a position for him to play.

Similarly, Okwara’s journey to Notre Dame shouldn’t be taken for granted. While his older brother leaves Notre Dame the team’s leading quarterback sacker, Julian has a better natural pass rush skill-set than the 2015 team-leader.

“Julian can separate himself in a way because he has an elite initial movement and speed that Romeo has had to try and develop,” Mike Elston said in Okwara’s Signing Day video. “Romeo has the size and the power and the aggressiveness, but Julian can really add value for us right away.”

Kelly talked about how important it was to not just land this duo, but to have them already understand what the journey is that lies ahead.

“We didn’t recruit them because their brothers were here. We recruited them because we thought they were players that fit here at Notre Dame that would be very successful,” Kelly said. “Obviously it helps when their brothers have a great experience here and really enjoy their Notre Dame experience as a student and as an athlete, so that helps you in the recruiting… those kids really fit and can stand on their own two feet.”

 

Even without Demetris Robertson in the fold, Notre Dame’s receiving class is a group to watch. 

You want productivity? Throw on a highlight tape of Javon McKinley. You want an intriguing set of physical tools? Look no further than Chase Claypool. You want a sleeper prospect who out-performed every elite prospect who came to the Irish Invasion camp? Then your man is Kevin Stepherson.

Most of the attention on Signing Day was the fate of 5-star receiver Demetris Robertson. But the trio of athletes that’ll reload the receiving corps is a group that deserves recognition even without an additional infusion.

McKinley provided the day’s only scare when his smart phone struggled to send his signature via electronic fax. Claypool sent his national letter of intent in the day after scoring 51 points on the basketball court. And Stepherson is already taking part in team workouts in Paul Longo’s strength facilities, getting a jump start with the spring semester and 15 practices as the Irish try to figure out what life looks like after Will Fuller, Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle.

After Fuller left campus early on the back of two record-setting two seasons, Kelly said his staff has become more and more comfortable with the fact that his skill players need to develop quickly—especially with the allure of the NFL just ahead.

“If you’re really that good, you may not be here very long, and we hope that you’re here for four years and you stay, but you’ve got to be ready to compete,” Kelly said. “So our expectation in the recruiting process is for the wide receiver group to come in and compete to get on the field and be a player for us immediately.”

That’ll happen whether or not Robertson is a part of this group.

 

Amidst significant transition on both the coaching staff and recruiting office, Notre Dame managed a Top 10 class. Expect things to only get better from here. 

Let’s go back to Signing Day 2015. Within 24 hours of Brian Kelly’s press conference, he was dealing with two major changes—recruiting coordinator Tony Alford was out the door to Ohio State and Kerry Cooks was headed to Oklahoma. Two aces on the staff were gone, forcing the Irish to not just replace long-time staffers, but to find new area recruiters for the state of Texas and Alford’s stronghold in Florida.

Kelly brought in first-year college assistant Todd Lyght to work with defensive backs. He tapped the school’s rushing leader Autry Denson to handle the backs and duke it out in Florida. Mike Sanford shook up the offense as Bob Elliott moved into an off-field position. But perhaps just as important as those moves, Kelly turned over the administrative reins to Mike Elston, who moved into a recruiting coordinator position he had filled for his boss back at Cincinnati.

Elston had to reorganize a staff that saw relationships walk out the door and reboot a recruiting effort that saw significant changes behind the scenes. And in short order things got back on track and have progressed to the point that the Irish are ahead of the game, setting junior days and summer camp dates earlier than ever.

For those paying attention, they’ve noticed the improvements. Notre Dame has paid more attention to messaging—staffers more active on Twitter. There have been improvements on Instagram, Facebook and Vine—platforms that might sound like gobbledygook to grownups, but are critical pieces to a year-long recruiting effort. That should help this staff press ahead in 2017, a recruiting class that already has five members.

“With that team that we’ve put together, we’re not going to look back. It’s only going to get better,” Kelly said.

It was Elston that engineered the equipment truck visit to Savannah, a late-game recruiting move that drew a lot of attention to Notre Dame. It was recruiters like Denson who went to Alabama and got a visit out of Ben Davis, a Crimson Tide legacy who gave the Irish a much longer look than anybody could have expected. And it’s no surprise that a former Pro Bowler and first-round draft pick like Lyght was able to reel in a large group of defensive backs eager to learn from a guy who was a clear success story.

“I think each and every year, you hope that this group is the best group you’ve ever recruited,” Kelly said. “I’m hoping for that again.”

 

Faxes in: Liam Eichenberg

Liam Eichenberg
Rivals / Yahoo Sports
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LIAM EICHENBERG
Cleveland, Ohio

Measurables: 6’6″, 280 lbs.

Accolades: 4-Star, Under Armour All-American, 2015 MaxPreps first-team All-American, 2015 American Family Insurance All-USA Ohio, AP All-Ohio Division I first-team.

Impressive Offers: Florida State, Miami, Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, Tennessee

Projected Position: Offensive tackle.

Quick Take: Another offensive tackle with sky-high potential, Notre Dame snatched Eichenberg out from under Urban Meyer’s nose, bringing in yet another blue-chipper for Harry Hiestand to mold. More of a developmental project than Kraemer, Eichenberg’s upside could be just as lofty, especially after some time in a weight room and on the practice field.

What he means to the Irish: With numbers at tackle on the light side, Eichenberg won’t be asked to get on the field, but he might start his career in the two deep behind Mike McGlinchey. That could take away a redshirt if things go wrong, but the view from behind McGlinchey is a good spot for him, learning behind another talented athlete who came to campus as a developmental prospect but will enter his senior season (McGlinchey has two years of eligibility remaining) as a legit NFL prospect.

Eichenberg has the same kind of ceiling. He’ll just need to keep improving—something that he’s shown after a strong Under Armour All-American week in Orlando.

Obligatory YouTube clip: