Brian Kelly 2013 signing day

Irish succeed with 2014 class, even against the odds

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Brian Kelly introduced his 2014 recruiting class today, a 23-man group that brings back-to-back top 10 classes to South Bend. We’ve talked a little bit about the construction of the group before, but here’s Kelly’s initial reaction to the group.

“I really like the fact that this has come together and the fact that it really represents for us going into our fifth year the one thing that I believe that you’re looking for, and that is depth across the board,” Kelly said. “I think some of the things that stand out, 18 of these recruits that are in this class were in the top 15 in their position group, and so that’s what we were trying to achieve in this class.”

Let’s take a look at the group as a whole:

2014 Notre Dame National Letter-of-Intent Signees

Alex Bars, OL
Grant Blankenship, DE
Jonathan Bonner, DE/OLB
Justin Brent, WR
Jimmy Byrne, OL
Daniel Cage, DT
Jay Hayes, DT
Kolin Hill, LB
Corey Holmes, WR
Deshone Kizer, QB
Tyler Luatua, TE
Greer Martini, LB
Pete Mokwuah, DT
Nyles Morgan, LB
Sam Mustipher, OL
Quenton Nelson, OL
Tyler Newsome, P/K
Nile Sykes, LB
Drue Tranquill, S
Andrew Trumbetti, DE
Nick Watkins, CB
Nic Weishar, TE
Jhonny Williams, DE

As expected, there were some signing days surprises and disappointments. The morning started off with a big victory for the Irish, with Daniel Cage joining the Irish’s recruiting class, bringing in a much needed defensive tackle, solidfying the front seven haul.

There were some tough misses as well, with the Irish finishing second for Terrence Alexander, who chose Stanford, and Michiah Quick, who picked Oklahoma. The Irish also lost out on Courtney Garnett, who had pledged to Bob Stoops last week, but seriously considered Notre Dame until today. (At the time of posting, John “JuJu” Smith has not made his decision, though he’d be a surprise addition to the class.)

Setting aside the events of today, that we’re able to discuss this class as a top 10 group is an achievement. Notre Dame lost both coordinators during the home stretch of this recruiting cycle, with Chuck Martin a key part of the Irish’s efforts in Chicago and Bob Diaco calling the shots on defense. The recruiting staff was shorthanded in the final month with JR Sandlin leaving to take a position coach job at Jacksonville State.

Still, the Irish staff was able to adapt and achieve, evaluating, targeting, recruiting and landed the meat of this class during the final few months. That they went outside their profile at positions like linebacker and defensive end show a flexibility that didn’t exist in previous cycles, and is a big reason why Notre Dame was able to sign 23 in this class, not sputtering down the stretch like they did after the 2011 season.

The Irish didn’t achieve their goals on the field in 2013, but this recruiting class is proof that the foundation of the program is still sound. That can’t be said in Ann Arbor, where Brady Hoke is stuck in a toxic place many coaches can’t recover from, with Pete Sampson pointing out a damning statistics that is just as painful as the team’s won-loss record (or handling of the Brendan Gibbons expulsion).

Just as important, Kelly seemed to double down on his belief in the unique opportunity for student-athletes at Notre Dame. While the Irish lost Stephon Tuitt, Troy Niklas and George Atkinson to the NFL after three years, Kelly made it clear that he wants players who understand the value of getting their degree first.

“When we were having this opportunity to recruit a young man, they had to have a passion for wanting to get a degree from Notre Dame and winning a National Championship,” Kelly said. “If they want to come here just to hang their hat to play football and go to the NFL, we passed on some pretty good players, because I don’t want guys to come here and not finish their degree.  I want guys to come to Notre Dame, get their degree, help us win a National Championship, and be the No.1 pick in the NFL Draft.  That’s what I want, if that’s what they want.”

In the end, Notre Dame didn’t land everyone they wanted. But no school does. Yet even after losing four games and two coordinators, Kelly and his staff landing a deep group that filled roster holes and added talent at every position.

That’s progress.

Restocking the roster: Running Backs

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 17: Josh Adams #33 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish runs for a 26-yard gain against the USC Trojans in the first half of the game at Notre Dame Stadium on October 17, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Notre Dame’s running back depth chart was tested to its max less than 10 minutes into the season opener. The projected two-deep, Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant, were both lost for the year—Bryant out of school as an academic and disciplinary casualty by the start of fall camp and Folston because of a knee injury suffered on his third carry of the season.

Welcome back to Notre Dame, Autry Denson.

The school’s all-time leading rusher in his first season as a running back coach had to be feeling a little woozy. He had a converted wide receiver taking featured-back carries and a true freshman a little over a year removed from his own major knee injury serving as his primary backup.

That the Irish had their most prolific running season under Brian Kelly says quite a bit about the job that Denson did. It’s also a credit to the offensive line blocking, the adjusted scheme that also protected two new starting quarterbacks, and the talent that remained at the position.

Spring presents new challenges. Tarean Folston should be a little over seven months removed from ACL surgery, making him doubtful to do anything more than wear a red jersey. With C.J. Prosise‘s departure, Adams goes from record-setting rookie to spring starter, with Williams likely carrying a large load as well.

Tony Jones Jr. and Deon McIntosh arrive this summer, reinforcements on the way. But before we get there, let’s take a look at the pre-spring roster at running back.

 

DEPARTURES
C.J. Prosise (156 carries 1,032 yards, 11 TDs)
Greg Bryant (lost preseason 2015)

 

2015-16 ADDITIONS
Josh Adams (117 carries, 835 yards, 6 TDs)
Dexter Williams (21 carries, 81 yards, 3 TDs)
Tony Jones Jr.
Deon McIntosh 

 

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Tarean Folston,* Sr.
Josh Adams, Soph.
Dexter Williams, Soph.
Justin Brent,* Junior

*Additional year of eligibility remaining.

 

ANALYSIS: This might be a position battle deferred to fall camp, especially if Folston is still in recovery mode. At this point, it doesn’t make sense to rush back from an ACL tear for 15 practices, so while the rising senior may be chomping at the bit to return, it’s better to save it until August.

Folston will likely be the team’s most versatile back, but keeping Adams off the field will be a hard chore. His breakaway speed was on display multiple times in 2015, with his record-setting run against Wake Forest the team’s longest play from scrimmage. Adams also likely added some mass and physicality to his game in the offseason weigh-training program, giving the Irish someone capable of hitting the big play and also moving the sticks in short yardage situations.

The staff believes that Dexter Williams is a talented back, so with three solid contributors on the roster before Jones or McIntosh hit campus, it’ll be fun to see how snaps get sorted. (From that perspective, you can only wonder how they’d have dealt with the champagne problem of having Prosise around…) Justin Brent remains an option as well, though the attrition from the receiving corps makes you think he’ll be back at receiver.

The wildcard in all of this is Folston. He’s a unique talent with natural ability you just can’t teach. If he’s fully recovered and ready to engage in a position battle, there won’t likely be a drop off even with the early departure of Prosise.

 

Notre Dame gets 10 invites to NFL Scouting Combine

2013 NFL Combine
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Notre Dame will send ten former players to the NFL Scouting Combine. The annual event in Indianapolis serves as the unofficial apex of draft season, a meat-market where the best professional prospects are poked, prodded, questioned and tested in a variety of on- and off-field drills.

Heading to the festivities from Notre Dame are:

Chris Brown, WR
Sheldon Day, DT
Will Fuller, WR
Nick Martin, C
Romeo Okwara, DE
C.J. Prosise, RB
KeiVarae Russell, CB
Elijah Shumate, S
Jaylon Smith, OLB
Ronnie Stanley, OT

For a prospect like Smith, it’ll be teams first opportunity to talk to the elite prospect and check his progress medically as he returns from a Fiesta Bowl knee injury. Russell will also be a non-participant in physical drills, waiting until Notre Dame’s Pro Day to go through testing.

Invites to Chris Brown, Romeo Okwara and Elijah Shumate are crucial in finding their way into the draft, as the three former Irish starters participated in the Shrine Bowl, where scouts had an early look at them. Likewise, Nick Martin and Sheldon Day continue their ascent, both coming off strong Senior Bowl weeks.

For Irish fans, it’ll be fun to watch early-enrollees Fuller and Prosise test. Both are expected to be some of the fastest players at their position. Brown may also have the ability to surprise teams, with his track background and leaping ability capable of earning him an extended look. Offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley will look to impress as well, hoping to check out as one of the draft’s most impressive athletes at offensive tackle.

Ohio State led all schools with 14 invites. National Champion Alabama had nine former players invited.

 

WR Corey Robinson named Notre Dame student body president

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On Wednesday, wide receiver Corey Robinson added another impressive title to his resume as a student-athlete at Notre Dame: Student Body President.

The junior, paired with classmate Becca Blais as his vice presidential running mate, won a majority of the votes cast by his fellow students, a runaway winner with 59.4% of the votes, nearly triple the next highest vote getter.

Robinson posted the following on Twitter, thankful for the opportunity to serve his fellow students:

Robinson’s time at Notre Dame has been filled with accomplishments both on and off the field. He was named an Academic All-American as a sophomore. He’s a six-time Dean’s List member in the prestigious Program of Liberal Studies and is also pursuing a sustainability minor. He’s won the team’s Rockne Student-Athlete Award as well.

That’s quite a bit on the plate of Notre Dame’s lone senior wide receiver. But as you might expect, Robinson is well prepared for the next challenge ahead.

“I’ve planned ahead, gotten all of my hard work out of the way this semester, and I’m finishing up my senior thesis,” Robinson told The Observer. “I’m doing all the hard stuff now so in the fall and the spring, I just have to take two classes pretty much.”

Robinson’s other contributions as a student-athlete at Notre Dame include One Shirt one Body, an opportunity for college athletes to donate their athletic apparel to local communities. Robinson has presented the plan to the ACC as well as the NCAA, earning immediate support from both organizations.

 

Mailbag: Now Open (scheduling input requested)

UNIVERSAL CITY, CA - JUNE 01:  Actors Mike Myers (L) and Dana Carvey as Wayne and Garth from "Wayne's World" onstage during the 17th annual MTV Movie Awards held at the Gibson Amphitheatre on June 1, 2008 in Universal City, California.  (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
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Okay folks, we’ve had enough semi-positive encouragement to keep the video mailbag going for another week. With that said, I’ll need some reader participation to keep this thing rolling on.

As always, submit your questions below or on Twitter @KeithArnold. You can also ask your questions live via Facebook. You’ll need to LIKE THIS PAGE first, and then at the appropriate time, head on over to watch and participate.

To that point, let’s pick a time that works for everyone. Right now, here are the options that work at Inside the Irish HQ.  Weigh in and the best time wins. (How’s that for a democracy?)

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