Junior Day kicks off 2015 recruiting cycle

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After getting our first taste of spring ball, we’re going to have to wait two weeks for practice No. 3. While it’ll give South Bend a chance to thaw, it’s leaving all of us in a lurch. So let’s get caught up on some recruiting.

Notre Dame held its first Junior Day last weekend, entertaining a handful of recruiting targets for the 2015 class. With quarterback Blake Barnett and offensive linemen Jerry Tillery and Tristen Hoge already on board, it’ll be interesting to see how the Irish build the 2015 class.

One look at the potential 2015 roster shows you quite a few key fifth year players available. Everett Golson, DaVaris Daniels, Amir Carlisle, Nick Martin, Tony Springmann, Chase Hounshell, Ben Councell, Jarrett Grace, Eilar Hardy and Matthias Farley are just the first wave of players that the Irish would welcome back to play out their eligibility. That makes the scholarship numbers for this recruiting cycle more limited than the back-to-back classes in the 20s.

Still, if there are priorities in this class they are taking shape. One such player is Cincinnati linebacker Justin Hilliard. With elite offers from Ohio State, Michigan, Florida State and USC, Hilliard is going to be a  hotly contested national prospect. But the Irish did some solid work with Hilliard and his father spending time with Brian Kelly and Brian VanGorder.

Kelly won a huge battle at St. Xavier in his first recruiting class, earning the signature of coveted left tackle Matt James. He’ll have to do so again, with Hilliard telling our friends at Irish Illustrated that the Irish got off to a good start.

“Coach Kelly just talked about a bunch of different things and how coach VanGorder is bringing in a more aggressive defense and it really makes for more versatile linebackers,” Hilliard said. “The linebackers will be more aggressive with some blitzing and stuff like that.

“I feel a lot better with Notre Dame from talking with coach VanGorder and meeting him after coach Diaco left,” Hilliard said. “I’ll probably come back up one more time for like a spring practice or something, just for a day, something like that, and just hang out here.”

Hilliard wasn’t the only visitor on campus with an offer. Defensive lineman Elijah Taylor was on campus as well, another Catholic school Cincinnati prospect from Archbishop Moeller. Less of a national prospect, Taylor earned an offer from the Irish staff and seems to fit Kelly and VanGorder’s new plans at defensive tackle.

Another defensive prospect that earned an offer was Indiana prospect Josh Barajas. Barajas moved to Merrillville after playing at Mt. Carmel in Chicago and has the Irish out from after an offer at Junior Day. The Irish are likely going to take three linebackers, making things interesting as to how this shakes out.

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Tom Loy at BlueandGold.com tabs Hilliard and Barajas as two of the five linebackers the Irish have set their sights on, with Arizona prospect Cassius Peat on that list as well. (Notre Dame chased his older brother Andrus Peat, but the offensive tackle ended up at Stanford.)

No commitments came out of the Irish’s first Junior Day, though they weren’t necessarily expected. How Notre Dame builds its class this year will be interesting to follow, as the early commitments the Irish have pulled in appear to be elite, national targets.

In the past, Notre Dame tended to build their classes with “RKGs” commitments from pipeline schools or players that might be more “glue” guys than elite targets, though reaching any true conclusion is rather silly with the Irish coaching staff probably having a far better grasp on the players they offer than any recruiting analyst. Yet Barnett, Tillery and Hoge are among the top 150 players in the country nationally, and elite at their positions, people that don’t often commit early to the Irish.

Offers don’t seem to be as wide as they were in the past when Notre Dame planned to bring in close to the maximum of 25. But they are out to players at profile schools, safety Nicco Fertitta at Bishop Gorman in Las Vegas and Jashon Cornell at Cretin-Derham Hall in St. Paul to name tw0.  

As we slowly build to Signing Day in 11 months, names with come, go, emerge, disappear and everything in between. All just part of the fun that comes with recruiting.

Rochell drafted in 7th round; three other former Notre Dame players sign

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All the unnecessary draft conversation may have centered on DeShone Kizer, but the quarterback was not the only former Notre Dame player watching this weekend’s NFL Draft with rapt attention. Aside from Kizer, only Isaac Rochell heard his name called. The San Diego Chargers picked the defensive lineman in the seventh round Saturday with the 225th overall pick.

Rochell finished his Irish career with appearance in 49 of 51 possible games and 167 tackles, including 22 for loss and 4.5 sacks. In 2016, he recorded 55 tackles, good for sixth on the team, with seven for loss.

By the end of the evening, three more former Notre Dame starters had signed on with NFL teams as undrafted free agents. It should be noted, many argue the route available for undrafted free agents is preferable to that of late-round picks. An undrafted free agent can choose which of a handful of situations is preferable to him for whatever reason. A late-round pick does not have that luxury, but still makes a comparable salary.

Linebacker James Onwualu opted to join Rochell with the Chargers. Defensive lineman Jarron Jones signed with the New York Giants. Cornerback Cole Luke latched on with the Carolina Panthers.

Onwualu began his Irish career as a receiver before moving to linebacker before his sophomore season. He finished his career with 143 tackles, including 75 in 2016 with 11.5 for loss and three sacks. His 75 tackles finished behind only now-rising senior linebackers Nyles Morgan’s 94 and Drue Tranquill’s 79.

Battling injuries throughout his Notre Dame career, Jones made 105 tackles with 45 in 2016. His 11 tackles for loss were outdone only by the aforementioned Onwualu total.

Luke made 152 tackles in his Irish career, including 48 last season, and eight interceptions.

Three more players from past years’ Irish rosters could yet find an NFL home—long snapper Scott Daly, defensive lineman-turned-tight end Chase Hounshell and running back Tarean Folston. If any or all do not sign, they can still join teams for rookie mini-camps in hopes of making a positive impression.

RELATED READING: Browns pick former Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer 20th in second round

Browns pick former Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer 20th in second round

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After months of pointless chatter and a night spent waiting, DeShone Kizer’s NFL Draft experience ended Friday night when the Cleveland Browns drafted the former Notre Dame quarterback with the 20th pick in the second round, the No. 52 overall selection.

Originally from Toledo, Ohio, Kizer will have the opportunity to earn the starting job for the franchise less than two hours from his hometown. The Browns trotted out five different quarterbacks in 2016, only two of which remain with the team. Rookie Cody Kessler played in nine games, throwing for 1,380 yards and six touchdowns with only one interception while fellow rookie Kevin Hogan threw for 104 yards and two interceptions in four games.

The Browns have since added Brock Osweiler in a trade with the Houston Texans, though that trade was largely-viewed as a cash-for-picks swap, with the Browns “paying” for picks by taking on Osweiler’s contract in which he is owed $47 million over the next three seasons, including $16 million this season.

A year ago, the No. 52 pick (linebacker Deion Jones to the Atlanta Falcons) received a four-year, $4.546 million contract with a $1.506 million signing bonus.

Hall of fame running back and Browns legend Jim Brown announced the selection of Kizer at the draft festivities.

Speculation a year ago pegged Kizer as an early first-round pick. As the draft approached, projections of his slot varied widely, many including a second-round status. Despite first-round theatrics leading to three quarterbacks going in the first 12 picks Thursday night, Kizer had to wait another day before learning where he will start his NFL career. (more…)

Friday at 4: ‘Attention to detail’ includes Notre Dame Stadium

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Brian Kelly proselytized multiple abstract concepts this spring. By the end of the 15 practices and subsequent media sessions, even the Irish coach knew some of his references to “grit” would be met by muted eye rolls from the press. If a questioner included the word in their query, Kelly reacted with tongue-in-cheek approval, “You’ve been listening.”

In his press conference the day before spring practices commenced, Kelly used the phrase “attention to detail” six separate times. While he was referring to his players on the football field, Kelly could have also been discussing the ongoing—but supposedly close to finished—construction at Notre Dame Stadium known as Campus Crossroads.

The three buildings around the exterior of the Stadium, the added suites and the video board above the south end zone have garnered the headlines. On a macro level, those are the changes of note. On a micro level, however, other details have trickled into the public stream of knowledge as the work nears its conclusion.

Over the weekend—and now reignited by a column from the South Bend Tribune’s Mike Vorel—the image of the newly-added visitors’ tunnel delighted Irish fans. Vorel likens the narrow entry to “the spot they’d stash the gladiators before feeding them to starving tigers in The Coliseum.” Assuredly, Vorel is going for dramatic effect, and it must work considering its citation here, but even a realistic view of the tunnel’s effects bodes well.

If nothing else, Notre Dame players should enjoy something of a psychological boost when racing out of their adult-sized tunnel and seeing their opponent trickle out of a tunnel seemingly-sized for ants. (Yes, the north end zone tunnel is at least three times bigger than the visitors’ tunnel.)

That pale, slanted staircase holds none of the luxuries of the home team’s entrance, something Kelly went out of his way to praise after using it in Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. (more…)

Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers

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You want complete honesty? The linebacker version of this series includes no revelations, no unexpected developments, no surprising spring performances. There is an allusion to a position switch, sure, but this piece became much simpler with the rover being discussed separately Thursday.

The idea was to capitalize on the NFL Draft for the morning and let the linebackers slip by in the afternoon, noticed only by those twiddling their thumbs through the last hours of the work week. Alas, former Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer was not drafted in the first round and a brief recap of his draft destination will need to await at least another day. Programming note: The NFL Draft reconvenes tonight (Friday) at 7 p.m. ET. The Green Bay Packers are on the clock. They will not draft a quarterback.

But back to the linebackers. This piece may have been intended to slip by with little fanfare, but that is not indicative of the Irish linebackers. Where Notre Dame was is so similar to where Notre Dame is simply because two experienced senior captains lead the way at linebacker.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
Aside from questions about defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s rover position, only one question stood out about this linebacker group: Who would start alongside senior Nyles Morgan: senior Greer Martini or junior Te’von Coney?

A year ago Coney recorded the fourth-most tackles on the team with 62. Martini finished fifth with 55, and his seven tackles for loss, including three sacks, dwarfed Coney’s 1.5. Yet Coney technically started nine games compared to Martini’s four.

RELATED READING: Two days until spring practice: A look at the linebackers

With the rover often lining up essentially as a linebacker, there would only be space for one of Martini or Coney in most formations.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
In his first season with the Irish, Elko will have quite a luxury in referring to Coney as a backup linebacker. In some respects, that designation was inevitable as soon as Martini was named a captain. Nonetheless, Coney will see plenty of playing time.

The two captains—along with fellow captain, senior Drue Tranquill at rover—will be counted on throughout the summer and fall camp to continue the defense’s growth in Elko’s system. Elko said he installed “close to 50 percent” of his entire defense throughout spring practice. The linebackers must deal with the most difficult aspects of that learning.

“There’s been a noticeable improvement in terms of this starting to look like the defense we want this to look like as spring has gone on,” Elko said a week ago. “… Linebacker probably more than any other position, linebacker and safety, where the scheme takes some time to get used to, how you see it, how you fit it, how you feel it. Those guys have gotten better with that which has then allowed them to play faster as the spring has moved on.”

Sophomore Jonathan Jones will likely provide any further depth that may be needed in 2017, unless either of the incoming freshmen, David Adams and Drew White, excel from the outset. Irish coach Brian Kelly indicated sophomore Jamir Jones (no relation to Jonathan, but is former Notre Dame defensive lineman Jarron Jones’ brother) may be destined for time on the defensive line, in large part to Jones’s continued growth. Junior Josh Barajas let the spring come and go without mandating he be involved in these conversations, which may as well count as removing himself from the conversation in most regards.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame Was, Is & Could Be: Rover