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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.

Report: Tarean Folston won’t return for fifth year

Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl
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Tarean Folston will declare for the NFL Draft. The senior running back, who has a fifth-year of eligibility available after a medical redshirt in 2014, will instead turn his focus to preparing for the professional ranks. Irish Sports Daily’s Matt Freeman broke the news, confirming the decision with Folston.

The departure wasn’t totally unexpected, though Folston was also a candidate for a graduate transfer. But after running for 1,712 yards over four years, the 214-pound back will hope an NFL team takes a shot on him, likely looking at tape of Folston the underclassmen to make their evaluation.

The Cocoa, Florida native burst onto the scene as a freshman against Navy when he ran for 140 yards on 18 carries in the Irish’s 38-34 win. He was Notre Dame’s leading rusher in 2014, running for 889 yards and 5.1 yards per carry  and six scores in 2014.

Expected to do big things in 2015, Folston’s season lasted just three carries, a torn ACL suffered against Texas in the season opener. After Josh Adams emerged that season, Folston fell behind him in the depth chart, getting just 77 carries in 2016.

The move clarifies a depth chart that looked to be unchanged heading into next season. But with Folston’s exit, rising sophomore Tony Jones will join Adams and Dexter Williams in the rotation. Fellow sophomore Deon Macintosh and incoming freshman C.J. Holmes will also compete for playing time.

Quenton Nelson will return for his senior season

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 17: Quenton Nelson #56 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates after a 10-yard touchdown reception by Corey Robinson against the USC Trojans in the fourth quarter 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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Brian Kelly’s talked about the rare 6-star recruit: Harrison Smith, Manti Te’o, Michael Floyd, Zack Martin. Well, add Quenton Nelson to the list. Notre Dame’s starting left guard has made it official that he’ll return for his senior season.

The New Jersey native adds another key building block to the Irish offensive line, returning with Mike McGlinchey to anchor Harry Hiestand’s unit. Like McGlinchey, Nelson had an option to be selected high in next year’s NFL Draft, staying in school even after receiving a second-round grade from the NFL’s Advisory Board, per Irish Illustrated.

Nelson took to social media to make the news public, with the NFL’s declaration deadline set for January 16.

“Excited for this team to grow every day this offseason by putting in nothing but hard work and grinding together. When we reach our full potential, look out. I’m right behind you Coach.”

Nelson was named a team captain for 2017 at the year-end Echoes Awards Show. He earned second-team All-American honors from Sports Illustrated and was rated by ESPN’s Mel Kiper as the No. 1 offensive guard in the 2017 draft class, a grade he’ll likely carry into next season.

Clark Lea formally named Linebackers Coach

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UND.com
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Notre Dame formally introduced new linebackers coach Clark Lea on Thursday. The press release for the 35-year-old  included the following quote from the new assistant who has worked at Bowling Green, UCLA and Wake Forest, and rejoins Mike Elko in South Bend.

“I’m humbled to be a part of the Notre Dame football program,” Lea said in a statement. “It’s an honor to represent such a prestigious academic institution, and to be a part of this program’s rich tradition of athletic excellence. I’d like to thank Jack Swarbrick and coach Kelly for this tremendous opportunity. I’m excited to get to work building relationships with our players, and do my part in helping coach Kelly execute his vision for the program.”

That work has already begun, with Lea on the prowl as the recruiting dead period ended and the rebuilt Irish staff hit the road. Yesterday, Lea was with defensive coordinator Mike Elko visiting commit David Adams, a key piece of the Irish puzzle on the defensive side of the ball. That starts a mad rush that’ll keep Lea’s belongs in boxes until after the first Wednesday in February, as Elko and his reshuffled defensive staff open their recruiting board, finding replacements for a handful of de-commitments and pieces that’ll fit Elko’s scheme.

If there’s any reason for optimism after a tough few weeks in recruiting, it’s the young staff that Kelly has assembled. The youth movement includes not just Lea, but the 39-year-old Elko. New offensive coordinator Chip Long is just 33, moving to Notre Dame after one season at Memphis. Running backs coach Autry Denson just turned 40 while special teams coordinator Brian Polian is practically long in the tooth at 42. (All that comes before the expected announcement of 25-year-old Tommy Rees.)

Lea’s pedigree is rock solid, earning kudos in 2012 for his work as Linebackers coach at Bowling Green, Football Scoop’s Linebackers Coach of the Year.

“Clark is a wonderful addition to our staff,” Kelly said in the release. “Obviously, he brings a substantial amount of knowledge about coach Elko’s defensive system — having worked with Mike at both Bowling Green and Wake Forest. Clark has demonstrated throughout his career an ability to not only identify unique talent in the recruiting process, but also develop that talent into high-production linebackers. As a former student-athlete, he will relate exceptionally well with our kids and provide tremendous mentorship throughout their careers at Notre Dame.”

 

 

 

Reports: Lea, Alexander added to Irish coaching staff

delvaughn
ASU Sports Information
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Brian Kelly is adding to his rebuilt coaching staff, reportedly finalizing deals with Wake Forest linebackers coach Clark Lea and Arizona State assistant DelVaughn Alexander. Lea will reunite with Mike Elko and coach linebackers and Alexander will coach wide receivers. While both hires are still going through formal university vetting, the Lea hire has long been rumored before being reported by SI’s Pete Thamel. FootballScoop.com broke the news on Alexander, before multiple outlets confirmed the report.

In Lea, Elko brings a piece of his coaching staff with him to South Bend. The 35-year-old spent last season working in Winston-Salem and spent three seasons at Syracuse before that. He worked with Elko and Demon Deacons head coach Dave Clawson at Bowling Green and has spent time as an assistant at UCLA as well. He earned three letters at Vanderbilt, a 2004 graduate.

Alexander is a veteran presence to help replace Mike Denbrock and fill his void coaching receivers. He’s also a coach with first-hand knowledge of new coordinator Chip Long, having worked alongside him in Tempe under Mike Norvell. The move also comes in time for the reopen of the recruiting season’s home stretch, bringing a capable West Coast recruiter to the staff at a time when Notre Dame’s 2017 class is leaking a bit of oil.

Alexander played wide receiver at USC, playing for Larry Smith and John Robinson, before breaking into the coaching ranks there as a graduate assistant. He’s also had stops at UNLV, coached for Jim Harbaugh at San Diego, and spent significant time at Wisconsin and Arizona State where he coached multiple positions, taking over tight ends after Long left for Memphis.