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Kelly on the recruits: Front Seven

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One of the more impressive hauls in this year’s recruiting class was the work Brian Kelly and his staff did on the front seven. Needing to replace starters at every position with the exception of Jaylon Smith and Sheldon Day, the group was key in rebuilding the team’s depth chart.

Considering Notre Dame needed to replace their defensive coordinator (who also served as the linebackers coach) and transition in Brian VanGorder during the home stretch of the process, it’s hard to be too tough on this group.

Let’s walk through the signees, with Kelly’s comments from his introductory press conference:

BK on Grant Blankenship

“He just continues to grow.  He’s about 265 pounds.  We loved him in camp.  We had a hard time with anybody blocking him.  He was a guy that just stood out right away for us when we saw him in our summer camp working out.  Had a great senior year, and again, a guy that continued to just grow.  I think he’s just starting to hit his potential level, and it’s only going to get better and better.

“Grant is going to be really a solid player for us with great size, somebody that’s really going to grow into that position at the defensive line.”

BK on Jonathan Bonner

“We really project him to be an outside player for us, an edge player, rush player, a guy that gets after the quarterback, and really was impressed with Jonathan, his personality, his character.

“Has a bit of a connection here with Notre Dame, as well.  When you talk about the right fit to Notre Dame, Jonathan possessed all of the right characteristics, academics, socially, and then as a football player. When he came up here, again, a lot of these guys we see firsthand, so our evaluations in a lot of these young men, we got a chance to see them.  Jonathan really impressed us in all of those areas.”

BK on Daniel Cage

“This guy is a ferocious player.  He’s an inside player, and we love the way he got off the ball.  His strength, lower body strength, he’s a guy that’s going to play the shade, he can play the nose.  He’s a guy that’s very disruptive inside.

“As you know, it was not a long recruiting process. We told Daniel, the circumstances, because of losing a player and then having a couple of guys go early, we had to recruit him in a shorter window, but we were able to show him why we thought Notre Dame was the right fit for him, and he got a chance to see Notre Dame, and he signed with us today.  Daniel Cage, we’re excited about having him at Notre Dame, as well.”

BK on Jay Hayes

“One thing I’ll say about Jay is that he has been probably one of our, I would say best recruiters in a sense from day one.  He’s talked about Notre Dame and why you make a decision to come to Notre Dame.  I remember one of his quotes when I was with him was, Coach, some of these guys don’t get it.  They don’t really understand why you would come to Notre Dame.  And he’s such a thoughtful kid at his age that he understands why he would come to Notre Dame for all the right reasons, getting a degree and opening up doors for him for the rest of his life.

“Having said that, he’s a heck of a football player.  Long, and he’s long.  He’s 6’4″, long arms, about 275 pounds.  He’s got multi‑position capabilities.  He can play inside, he can play outside.  Really like the way he plays the game, ferocious attacking player and a guy that we have a lot of trust in their head coach.  He’s a defensive line coach by trade, and he’s one of the best he’s ever had.  Really excited about Jay Hayes coming into our program.”

BK on Kolin Hill

“Colin was a young man that we offered when he didn’t have a lot of action, but we saw a young man that we thought we could develop into just an outstanding football player.  First of all, we loved him as a person.  Again, a right fit for Notre Dame, character, high energy, yes, sir, no, sir, had all those things that we really liked.  He was engaging.  Really impressed our admissions people.  He had all the things that we were looking for as well as somebody that we felt we could develop.

“After we offered him, of course then he got a million offers after that.  Another kid from Texas that was offered by Texas, but he saw the reasons that he chose Notre Dame and fought through that late recruitment.  Again, I thought Kerry did a great job of recruiting Colin and getting him here to Notre Dame.

“Here’s a guy that really will continue to just develop.  He has not even seen his ceiling yet.”

BK on Greer Martini

“Greer Martini is one of the smarter defensive players we signed.  We got a chance to spend some time with him here on campus.  His leadership skills, his ability to recognize and really‑‑ you have to have leaders.  He’s a really good player, and he’s a really good leader, and he’ll be a very good linebacker for us here at Notre Dame and will also be a guy that makes others around him better.

“He’s a good size at 6’3″, 225.  He’s only going to get bigger and stronger while he’s here.  He’ll be an inside linebacker for us, and again, a position of need for us moving forward.”

BK on Pete Mokwuah

“Pete was a great fit for us, and looking for to augment our defensive line position, we wanted to find the right profile young man.  He’s Nigerian.  We’ve had a great Nigerian connection here, Romeo Okwara, Prince Shembo, just to name a few, and then Pete was able to connect Catholic institution, goes to a Catholic school.  That profile fit very well for us.  A kid that’s serious about his academics here at Notre Dame.  All very good profiling for us in terms of the right fit here at Notre Dame and a 6’4”, 315‑pound defensive lineman, pretty good fit there, too.

“So all of those things together, we really liked his personality.  His mom got a chance to come up with him and see Notre Dame.  He’s got a couple of sisters, one at UConn, one at St.John’s, so the family really understands about college and getting a great education and so it was a really good fit in getting Peter here at Notre Dame.”

BK on Nyles Morgan

“One thing that stands out about Nyles is his thirst for knowledge of the game.  Every time I’m with him, he just wants to talk about football, and he’s a good student, and his mom and dad want him to just talk about academics, and he’s a good student and he recognizes the value of getting a degree at Notre Dame.  A couple of his choices were Notre Dame and Vanderbilt, so he understands that clearly, but every time he’s with me he just wants to talk about football.  He is a student of the game.

“He couldn’t wait for today because after today he gets to talk a lot more football, and on a daily basis he’s going to be talking about football.

“Just got a great nose for the football, plays downhill, plays fast, great instincts, and when he arrives, he arrives with a bad attitude when he gets to the football.  He’s just that kind of player.  Very, very talented.  You know, I think from our standpoint, an inside guy that certainly has the physical tools to be an exceptional player here at Notre Dame.”

BK on Nile Sykes

“Just a great addition to our class.  Really like Nile and his personality.  He’s got a great family.  Mom and dad, really excited about being a part of the Notre Dame family.  Listen, that matters, too.  We want people that want to be part of Notre Dame and be part of our family, and to bring Nile and his family in, he’s a versatile player.  He can play inside, he can play outside.  He is a physical player.  He’s got very good ball skills, instincts, and again, another versatile player in our front seven that’s going to add to the depth of our football team.”

BK on Andrew Trumbetti

“The thing that I would say about Andrew, the thing that really put him over the top for us is when we were watching his film, he was returning kickoffs in high school, and not many times do you see a defensive lineman returning kickoffs.

“We knew about his athletic ability right away, and certainly we loved the fact that he was a multisport player, was a track athlete, and when we got a chance, when Coach Diaco was here before he moved on to Connecticut, got a chance to see him in track practice and got a chance to see his footwork and his quickness and all those things, and that started the recruiting process for us, and then obviously getting a chance to see him up on campus in our summer camps.”

BK on Jhonathon Williams

“Here’s a young man that just started play the game, 6’6”, 230 pounds, and who knows what his future is going to be.  There’s no ceiling on Jhonny Williams’s future.  He’s an engaging young man.  He just recognizes that he’s got a great opportunity at Notre Dame, and we’re excited to provide him that opportunity.

“You know, he’s one of the top players in the state of Michigan, and I think from our perspective, we’ve got one of those guys that if you call him a sleeper or whatever you want to call it, he didn’t play great competition, but he’s going to get an opportunity to play against the very best competition here.  But we’ll take that any time with his athletic skill set.

“At his size, his athletic ability, we’re really excited about developing Jhonny Williams.  He’s the kind of guy that you want to have on your team because of his personality, who he is, his story, his family background, and then a guy that you feel like you can develop down the road.”

Four-star WR Micah Jones chooses Irish; Rees may need to wait; Other late-week reading

jones
rivals.com
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A day may come when Notre Dame suffers a recruiting disappointment in the 2018 cycle, when a high school star spurns the Irish coaching staff for a foe, but it is not this day.

Rivals.com four-star receiver Micah Jones (Warren Township High School; Gurnee, Ill.) committed to Notre Dame on Friday, joining a class of now 10 recruits, including four who committed just this week.

Jones chose the Irish over offers from the likes of Iowa, Michigan State and Ole Miss, among others.

He is the first receiver among the 10 commitments and the seventh considered a four-star prospect. At 6-foot-5, 196 pounds, Jones should present a large target for whomever the Notre Dame quarterback is in the fall of 2018, most likely then-senior Brandon Wimbush.

Tom, Tommy or Thomas; Assistant Coach or Graduate Assistant?
Thomas Rees may need to wait a season before officially being a coach at Notre Dame. The legislation to approve a 10th assistant coach was expected to be voted on, passed and effective in April. A newly-added amendment may push the effective date to following the 2017 season. The amendment will be voted on immediately before the legislation itself is.

The delay makes sense. Most coaching hirings and firings occur in December and January. In theory, creating a one-timing hiring frenzy following spring football could leave many programs in the lurch. In practice, however, this is not anticipated.

“The majority of the FBS guys that I’ve talked with currently believe that 10th coach is going to come from within their own organization,” Todd Berry told the Associated Press. Berry is the executive director of the American Football Coaches Association and former coach at Army and Louisiana-Monroe. “Quality control, graduate assistants, analysts, or they’re planning on hiring somebody that’s out of work.”

A majority is not a unanimity, though, and that carousel will innately work to the disadvantage of the Group of 5 schools.

As for Rees, a graduate assistant can still work extensively with players. The most-pertinent difference between a graduate assistant and an assistant coach is the former cannot recruit. Given Notre Dame’s recent success on the recruiting trail—and the early commitment of class of 2018 consensus four-star quarterback Phil Jurkovec (Pine-Richland H.S.; Gibsonia, Pa.)—Rees may not be an absolute necessity in that regard this cycle.

A Kizer Appraisal
Former NFL scout Greg Gabriel took a look at former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer this week, largely paying the draft prospect compliments.

In calling Kizer “the most talented quarterback in this draft class,” Gabriel set a high ceiling for Kizer’s spring. Part of Gabriel’s positive assessment comes from acknowledging Kizer’s responsibilities as the Irish signal-caller.

“The spread offense that Kizer played in at Notre Dame is more sophisticated than many of the spread offenses we see elsewhere at the collegiate level. The Notre Dame offense is a whole-field read scheme in which the quarterback has to go through a progression that encompasses both sides of the field. He also can change the play and/or protections at the line of scrimmage. Given all that, Kizer was asked to do more than many spread quarterbacks are asked to do.”

Gabriel also reflected on the dynamic differences for Kizer in 2015 and 2016 and what may have elicited some of his seeming stagnation.

“There was the unnecessary quarterback controversy at Notre Dame, and the offensive line wasn’t as experienced or as talented and the receivers were mostly first-year starters.”

As much as Gabriel raves about Kizer, he would be the first to tell you anything beyond individual player evaluation is a waste of air this early in the draft process. Mock drafts may be fun, but they are not much beyond that.

Take the fates of Tony Romo and Jimmy Garoppolo, for example. Few, if any, in the NFL expect them to dress for the Cowboys and Patriots, respectively, again. Where they end up could directly impact Kizer’s draft placement.

Jaylon Smith May Be Back to Form
Former Notre Dame and current Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith posted yet another encouraging video to Twitter. This one shows Smith really might be game-ready right now and, if not, almost certainly will be by the fall. Should there be any difficulty with the embedded video below, here is a link straight to it.

OL Mabry makes third commitment this week; WR Jones may follow Friday

mabry
rivals.com
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Two weeks ago, Irish coach Brian Kelly gave a non-answer of an answer to a question about a likely early signing period this coming December. Avoiding specifics, he indicated he thinks the effects of such a change will be seen on a case-by-case basis entirely dependent on the recruits.

“Some will, some won’t,” Kelly said. “…Each kid is going to have to react to it based upon also how their school is going to be dealing with it. Some will come off the board at the time.

“We’re expecting some to sign early, but I think our mindset is we’re going into it business as usual. We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

After this week, Notre Dame is going to have more year-long fights than anticipated. Consensus three-star offensive lineman recruit Cole Mabry (Brentwood High School; Brentwood, Tenn.) became the third prospect to offer a verbal commitment to the Irish coaching staff in less than 36 hours with his Wednesday decision. Mabry received the offer over the weekend, but waited a few days before making his decision public, lest emotions be dictating his thought process.

At 6-foot-6 and 255 pounds, Mabry will have time to add muscle to his frame, with four or five offensive tackles greeting him on the Notre Dame roster in the summer of 2018. That ability to mold his style and growth may have played a part in the Irish interest.

“They love my height and athleticism and how I play,” Mabry told rivals.com. “We got to break down film and go through things that they do that pair up with how I play now. They think I’ll be a great fit in their offense.”

Mabry is the ninth Notre Dame commitment in the class of 2018, though the first offensive lineman.

Judging by new Notre Dame director of football performance Matt Balis’s agenda for the Irish roster’s Valentine’s Day morning, Mabry will have much to look forward to in terms of strength and conditioning.

Rivals.com four-star receiver Micah Jones (Warren Township H.S.; Gurnee, Ill.) is scheduled to announce his verbal commitment this Friday at 4 p.m. ET. Along with Notre Dame, Jones is considering Iowa, Michigan State, Nebraska, Ole Miss, Illinois and Northwestern. He would be the first receiver in Notre Dame’s 2018 class. Naturally, whomever Jones commits to, the recruiting fight will last until at least December, and perhaps all the way to February.

Notre Dame adds two top defensive back commits; Elliott officially a ‘Husker

allen
rivals.com
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It’s early. It’s really, really early. Not in the day, though this post is scheduled for an a.m. hour. No, it is early in the 2018 recruiting cycle. Any piece of news, each commitment, everything should be taken with two grains of salt.

Nonetheless, Notre Dame—and more specifically, new Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko and defensive backs coach Todd Lyght—enjoyed Tuesday’s recruiting news when two consensus four-star coverage men committed to the Irish.

Safety Derrik Allen (Lassiter High School; Marietta, Ga.) and cornerback Kalon Gervin (Cass Tech; Detroit, Mich.) joined a class of now eight commitments, six of which play on the defensive side of the ball.

Gervin, the No. 11 cornerback in the class according to rivals.com, waited mere days after attending Notre Dame’s Junior Day over the weekend. Irish coach Brian Kelly and staff’s failure to land a recruit at Gervin’s position in the 2017 haul actually helped reel in the recruit with offers from Florida, LSU, Michigan and dozens others.

“The opportunity to play right away, they didn’t sign a cornerback this last class,” Gervin told Blue & Gold Illustrated helped sway him. “Also, the education is second-to-none. It speaks for itself.”

Allen, pictured at top, has leaned toward Notre Dame for months. The No. 3 safety in the country per Rivals, he chose the Irish over the likes of Alabama, Clemson and Florida State.

Elliott officially to Nebraska

The two highly-touted defensive backs will not have the chance to learn under the tutelage of Bob Elliott. Nebraska officially announced the hiring of the former Notre Dame safeties (2012-13) and linebackers (2014) coach. Elliott spent the last two seasons serving as a special assistant to Kelly, focusing largely on defending the triple-option attacks of Army, Navy and Georgia Tech.

Elliott rejoins former Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco in Lincoln. Diaco was hired as the Cornhuskers’ defensive coordinator in January.

The Lincoln Journal Star’s Brian Cristopherson reports Elliott will make a nice wage in eastern Nebraska.

Could Kelly move a receiver to cornerback?

PALO ALTO, CA - NOVEMBER 30:  Bennett Jackson #2 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish intercepts this pass intended for Michael Rector #3 of the Stanford Cardinal during the fourth quarter at Stanford Stadium on November 30, 2013 in Palo Alto, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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Before the weekend, Notre Dame already had 10 receivers on its depth chart, all with at least two seasons of eligibility remaining. Cornerback, meanwhile, is a position where the roster seems to be lacking, with only seven currently on scholarship. The only fact staving off panic is that all seven also have two years of eligibility in hand. Nonetheless, an additional body in the defensive backfield at practice would seem to be a reasonable want, if not quite a necessity.

Thus, the addition of graduate transfer receiver Freddy Canteen—himself having two seasons of potential college football to go—brought the return of wonderings: Should one of the plethora of Irish receivers switch to breaking up passes?

Aside from balancing the roster and easing some concerns should an injury strike, such a move could also present the player a chance at increased playing time. By no means would the maneuver need to be a selfless one.

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly has had success with such positional flipping. Specifically, Kelly and his coaching staff have overseen the successful switches of receiver-turned-cornerback Bennett Jackson and receiver-turned-safety-and-then-linebacker James Onwualu. Furthermore, defensive backs Matthias Farley and KeiVarae Russell both arrived at Notre Dame expecting to be on the offensive side of the ball before changes early in their careers.

BENNETT JACKSON
A three-star receiver recruit, Jackson stuck with Notre Dame during the transition from Charlie Weis to Brian Kelly, signing with the Irish only weeks after Kelly took the lead of the program. In his freshman season, Jackson carried the ball plenty, as the kick returner. Aside from fielding kickoffs, he had only one carry for 20 yards. That was it for his offensive playmaking.

On special teams, however, he excelled without the ball, too. Jackson finished with 10 tackles, including four against Purdue to start the season. That nose for the ballcarrier prompted the coaching staff to switch Jackson’s positional group. In the following three seasons, he amassed 147 tackles, 11 pass break-ups and two interceptions.

Before Notre Dame faced Alabama in the 2012 BCS National Championship Game, Jackson looked back on his career change.

“I liked receiver. Obviously, I wanted to be a guy with the ball in my hands,” he said. “At first, I wasn’t mad about it, but I wasn’t fond of it.

“As time went on, I actually liked the position a lot more. I had a lot more fun and I got to compete a lot more.”

JAMES ONWUALU
A four-star recruit with the ambiguous “athlete” designation in 2013, Onwualu—like Jackson—spent his freshman season as a receiver. Unlike Jackson, he actually caught some passes. Two, to be exact, for a total of 34 yards. Continuing on a parallel to Jackson, Onwualu totaled six tackles on special teams.

Years later, it is easy to see the receiving depth in Notre Dame’s class of 2013. Onwualu aside, the Irish brought in Corey Robinson, Torii Hunter, Jr., and Will Fuller. It was going to be a tough road to featured playing time for Onwualu. Realizing this, he set to finding a different path.

“I honestly wasn’t sure receiver was the spot for me anyway, so I walked right up to coach Kelly’s office and we had a talk about where I wanted to go and what my thoughts were for my career,” Onwualu told und.com early in his senior season. “We ended up agreeing that the defensive side, we might as well give it a shot, and it worked out.”

Initially, that conversation landed Onwualu at safety. At 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds, he found himself at linebacker pretty quickly thereafter.

“That was a tough one for me because he’s so valuable offensively in a number of ways,” Kelly said before 2014 spring practice. “He’s such a consistent player and he loves to compete. But he’s got great contact skills.”

Onwualu ended his Notre Dame career with 143 total tackles, including those pivotal six his freshman season, along with six sacks.

MATTHIAS FARLEY & KEIVARAE RUSSELL
Both Farley and Russell entered Notre Dame as “athletes”, the former a three-star recruit and the latter a four-star prospect. While Farley was expected to line up at receiver and Russell at running back, each switched to safety and cornerback, respectively, before ever joining the Irish offense. Safe to say it worked out rather well for each.

WHO NOW?
Far be it for the internet to speculate, but that seems to be one of its three primary purposes in the 21st century.

None of the current 11 receivers entered college deemed “athletes” by recruitniks. One does mirror Jackson and Onwualu in that he excelled on special teams last year. Rising sophomore Chase Claypool recorded 11 tackles in his debut season to go along with his five catches for 81 yards. Claypool notched multiple tackles against Nevada, Syracuse and Virginia Tech.

Kelly and new defensive coordinator Mike Elko very well may choose to test fate in 2017 and rely on only seven cornerbacks. After all, how often would the Irish ever have more than four on the field, anyways?

But if Kelly and Elko err on the side of caution, whoever makes the positional switch should not cringe in doing so. It has worked out pretty well both for his predecessors and for Notre Dame.