Kelly rolls the dice again with position switches

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Brian Kelly has never been afraid to move players. In his four seasons at Notre Dame, Kelly has filled his secondary with former wide receivers, turned a linebacker into a tight end, running backs into wide receivers, and bounced lineman across the line of scrimmage.

After beginning his career at Grand Valley, the Irish head coach learned quickly that his favorite players often played the position of “football player.” That meant finding a way to get his best athletes on the field, even if it meant keeping an open mind as a young player developed.

We saw early Kelly’s commitment to this principle. His first signing class wasn’t filled with position listings, but rather player types: Skill, Big Skill, Power. That meant that Troy Niklas could start his career at outside linebacker, spending part of his freshman season rushing the passer from the interior of the defensive line. It also allowed him to make the switch to tight end, where in two seasons he played well enough to have some believing he’s a potential first round draft pick in this May’s draft.

Sometimes those position switches don’t always work. Kelly tried turning Theo Riddick into the answer at slot receiver. After so-so results, Kelly pulled the plug on the experiment, transitioning Riddick back to running back in the final regular season game of a disappointing 2011 season. But he was rewarded in 2012, as Riddick became the most trusted back on a team that played for the national championship.

After playing a secondary that at times had four converted wide receivers starting at the same time, Kelly is once again rolling the dice on a few key position switches, with hopes of shoring up the back end of the defense. They include a minor move — pushing starting safety (and converted wide receiver) Matthias Farley outside to cornerback. They also include a major move — taking rising sophomore James Onwualu from offense to defense, even after he started four games as a freshman receiver.

Farley’s move comes after a somewhat disappointing season. After filling in admirably when Jamoris Slaughter went down, he struggled to anchor the secondary. Kelly talked candidly about Farley’s play, acknowledging that the shoes he was asked to fill might have been too big.

“He was put into a very difficult situation,” Kelly acknowledged. “We were trying to get him to replace Zeke Motta and Harrison Smith – two pretty good players, and two physical players.

“He’s not that kind of player… That’s not his best trait. He’s really smart. He’s got some tools that, if we play him in the right position, can really help our defense.”

A cerebral and eclectic student-athlete, Farley came to Notre Dame a raw prospect, new to football and projected as a wide receiver. After spending his first season in the program playing scout team receiver, Farley impressed during spring and fall camp at safety, playing well enough to beat out fifth year safety Dan McCarthy to take snaps against Navy. 

Given limited responsibilities, Farley’s athleticism and instincts quickly stood out. But tasked with running the secondary, Farley faced his first true adversity on the field.

“It was a big jump from playing your first year in 2012 to having all that on your plate in 2013,” Farley admitted last week after practice. “You had to know where everyone was supposed to line up. You had to know how everything fits, how you fit in it. Getting the calls to everybody. It was definitely a lot, going through some struggles, the ups and downs, and coming out better for it.”

Better might be at cornerback now. As offenses do more and more to spread the field, the Irish defense will adapt with sub-packages better suited to play a diverse set of opponents. Putting Farley in a quadrant of the field, or playing him “outside in” as Kelly alluded to when discussing the position switch, should allow him to play more instinctual football.

The biggest surprise of spring was the move of James Onwualu to safety. While he only made two catches during his freshman season, Onwualu was an immediate contributor for the Irish, filling Daniel Smith’s role as a physical receiver blocking down field.

Onwualu also made his presence felt on special teams, a key contributor on coverage teams. That presence is likely where the idea to play defense came from, following a similar script to the ones Bennett Jackson and Austin Collinsworth parlayed into starting jobs.

“He’s got great contact skills,” Kelly said of Onwualu. “He’s a ferocious competitor and I wanted to take a look at him because he is such a physical player and he’s got an incredible volume to him in terms of his ability to play every play. So this was a time to take a look at him at safety.”

That Onwualu ends up on the defensive side of the ball shouldn’t be that surprising. Talking with Mike Scanlon, Onwualu’s high school coach at Cretin-Derham Hall, he thought the 6-foot-1, 215-pounder’s best position could be a hybrid safety, physically capable of running with receivers, but stout enough to make an impact in the box.

In the past, Kelly has talked about position switches to help get a player on the field. For Onwualu, going from a position where he contributed as a true freshman to a somewhat stacked safety position is a bit of a gamble, but one that the staff must feel confident about.

After watching last season, it shouldn’t be hard to feel good about the future of Eilar Hardy. Collinsworth likely will be another trusted cog as well. Throw in the healthy return of Nicky Baratti, Elijah Shumate rebounding after an injury plagued sophomore season and Max Redfield being groomed as a starter, and talented options don’t appear to be scarce. How Onwualu fits into this group will be fascinating to watch.

With question marks at a lot of positions as the front seven rebuilds and schematics are adjusted, these position changes are coming at the right time, with spring dedicated to learning not necessarily refining. For the defense to play up to his potential, both these position changes need to be more than mere depth chart support.

If history has shown anything, Kelly has moved contributors to roles that only enhance what they’re doing on the field. If Kelly can hit on the position switches of Farley and Onwualu, it’ll mean good things for the Irish defense.

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 85 Tyler Newsome, punter

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-2 ½, 207 pounds
2017-18 year, eligibility: Senior with two seasons of eligibility remaining including the 2017 season
Depth chart: While Notre Dame did unexpectedly add kicker Jonathan Doerer to its incoming freshmen class, his specialty is kickoffs. Newsome remains essentially unchallenged at the punter position.
Recruiting: Punters are not often heralded as recruits, but rivals.com did bestow a three-star ranking on Newsome, the No. 6 kicker/punter in his class.

CAREER TO DATE
With former Irish kicker/punter Kyle Brindza handling all the leg-swinging duties in 2014, Newsome preserved a year of eligibility before taking over as punter his sophomore season. With more than 100 boots to his name at this point, Newsome has been an example of consistency.

2015: 55 punts at an average of 44.5 yards per punt with a long of 62 yards. Notre Dame averaged a field position swing of 38.1 yards per punt.
2016: 54 punts at an average of 43.5 yards per punt with a long of 71 yards. Notre Dame averaged a field position swing of 35.3 yards per punt.

Newsome also handled the kickoff duties in 2015, but that was removed from his to-do list last season and should not return to Newsome’s plate this season, especially now with Doerer entering the picture.

2015: 84 kickoffs at an average of 61.6 yards per kick with 21 touchbacks and five sent out of bounds.

WHAT KEITH ARNOLD PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
“If 2015 was about exceeding expectations, 2016 will be about performing with the bar raised. Newsome’s rookie season was a good one. But there’s room for improvements.

“Expect new special teams analyst Marty Biagi to take Newsome under his wing. The former college punter will likely spend some time refining Newsome’s craft, looking to add hang time to his punts and kicks, and making sure there are more booming moon shots than side-footed shanks.

“Notre Dame doesn’t want to have a celebrated punter – and they won’t as long as the offense performs. But the combo of Newsome and Yoon has the chance to be one of the better special teams batteries in America.”

2017 OUTLOOK
Keith’s final point rings true. Notre Dame does not necessarily want Newsome to excel. If he is getting enough work to truly stand out, that simply means the Irish offense has turned stalling into a routine occurrence.

Whether he gets frequent use or not, Newsome has proven to be a consistent performer, largely immune to the pressure so often found to figuratively cripple college kickers and punters. Expect that steadfastness to continue this season.

DOWN THE ROAD
Unless Doerer begins punting in practices, in addition to his possible kickoff duties, Newsome should take comfort in the fact that the Irish coaching staff did not pursue a punter in the class of 2017. If nothing else, that indicates they expect him back in 2018, and they appear to be comfortable with that. Newsome is low maintenance, and that should not be undervalued.

Could he catch Notre Dame off guard and leave early? When is the last time a kicker or punter not named Aguayo declared for the NFL before his eligibility expired? (No, really, go ahead and do the research. Much appreciated.) If a non-football opportunity presents itself such that Newsome considers leaving for it, one would think that opportunity would still be around a semester later on. He isn’t a linebacker worried about his long-term health, so there should be less motivation to cut short his college football experience.


2017’s Notre Dame 99-to-2
Friday at 4: Goodbye A-to-Z, hello 99-to-2 (May 12)
No. 99: Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle
No. 98: Andrew Trumbetti, defensive end
No. 97: Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle
No. 96: Pete Mokwuah, defensive tackle
No. 95 (theoretically): Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle
No. 94 (theoretically): Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle
No. 93: Jay Hayes, defensive end
No. 92 (theoretically): Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle
No. 91: Ade Ogundeji, defensive end
No. 90 (theoretically): Cole Kmet, tight end
No. 89: Brock Wright, tight end
No. 88: Javon McKinley, receiver
No. 87 (theoretically): Jafar Armstrong, receiver
No. 86: Alizé Mack, tight end

Friday at 4: A holiday with reason to be remembered

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This weekend marks the unofficial start of summer, and it has its mainstays. Some weekends will hinge around the parade up Main Street. At some point, everyone comes across a hot dog or hamburger during the long weekend. A beer or pop inevitably accompanies that grilled good.

Gathering college friends may even add a whiffle ball and bat to the grocery list.

Between innings, during one of those many social breaks, take a moment to remind yourself why Monday is a federal holiday, why it is a long weekend.

It isn’t just because the weather has finally turned as desired and now white pants are socially acceptable.

It is — as we all know but do not always take the time to recognize — because it is Memorial Day, a chance to remember all those people who died while serving the United States’ armed forces.

That obviously includes some former Irish football players, but they are merely a representation of the larger item.

Rather than continue on for who-knows-how-long with this point, let’s take this opportunity to deliver some Notre Dame-related tidbits. As it pertains to Memorial Day as a whole, either you already grasp the importance of taking a pause and understanding the significance of so many lost in service, or you don’t. This space is not going to be the piece that changes the latter’s view.

Looking through some of the internet’s depths, it appears at least 19 former Irish football players are among those who should be remembered Monday, including 17 from World War II, most notably 1942 captain George Murphy. In 2004, ESPN published a worthwhile story on a football game Murphy helped organize among Marines in the southwest Pacific.

Those 19 are among the approximate 500 alumni who died in World War II, the Korea War and the Vietnam War. The Clarke Memorial Fountain — more commonly known as “Stonehenge,” directly west of the campus library, more commonly known as “Touchdown Jesus” — commemorates alums lost in each of those three wars, as well as those alums lost in times of peace.

Of course, it should be noted many other World War II veterans — and simply by logic, many other World War II casualties — passed through Notre Dame. The naval training established on campus is the impetus to the Navy football series continuing to this day. In addition to the usual students, about 12,000 officers trained at Notre Dame in those days.

Campus features two other prominent acknowledgements of this country’s conflicts. The statue of Rev. Corby in front of Corby Hall depicts him delivering a blessing and absolution to troops during the Battle of Gettysburg. It is a copy of a statue standing where Corby stood back in 1863.

Perhaps most famously, an entrance to the Basilica of the Sacred Heart bears the etching of “God, Country, Notre Dame.” Partly since he titled his autobiography with those four words, many tie them to Rev. Ted Hesburgh. “God, Country, Notre Dame,” in fact, predates Hesburgh’s arrival to campus. The Basilica’s eastern entrance was constructed in 1924 as a World War I memorial. During World War II, 20 years later, the accompanying statues of St. Joan of Arc and St. Michael the Archangel were added above the well-known phrase.

Lastly, it has become something of a Notre Dame tradition to bemoan the selection for commencement speaker each spring. Forgotten amid the misguided vitriol and inaccurate historical claims is a recognition of one of the first University commencement speakers. Nowadays, he, too, would certainly draw some magnitude of controversy.

During the Civil War, Gen. William T. Sherman — yes, he of Sherman’s March — moved his family to South Bend. His children attended Notre Dame, and Sherman delivered the 1865 commencement address. That ceremony took place June 21, in short order after Sherman accepted the surrender of Confederate armies in the Deep South in April of 1865.

Sherman urged the graduates to “perform bravely the battle of life.”

Perhaps that is the message to remember this weekend. Perform bravely the battle of life. At least 19 Irish football players did, as well as more than 500 Notre Dame alums, and so many more, of which each of us assuredly knows of one personally.


It is the Soldier, not the minister
Who as given us freedom of religion.
It is the Soldier, not the reporter
Who has given us freedom of the press.
It is the Solier, not the poet
Who has given us freedom of speech.
It is the Soldier, not the campus organizer
Who has given us freedom to protest.
It is the Soldier, not the lawyer
Who has given us the right to a fair trial.
It is the Soldier, not the politician
Who has given us the right to vote.
It is the Soldier who salutes the flag,
Who serves beneath the flag,
And whose coffin is draped by the flag,
Who allows the protester to burn the flag.

Charles Michael Province, U.S. Army

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 86 Alize Mack, tight end

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-4 ½, 245 pounds
2017-18 year, eligibility: Junior with three seasons of eligibility remaining including the 2017 season
Depth chart: The artist formerly known as Alizé Jones, now Alizé Mack, co-headlines a talented tight end corps along with fifth-year senior Durham Smythe. Due to Smythe’s edge in experience—and therefore further coaching trust in his reliability and blocking acumen—he may start the season ahead of Mack, but Mack will have plenty of opportunities to change that in offensive coordinator Chip Long’s two tight end-dependent system.
Recruiting: A consensus four-star recruit and U.S. Army All-American, Mack originally committed to UCLA before opting for Notre Dame.

CAREER TO DATE
Mack saw action in all 13 games of his freshman season, making enough impressions to set future expectations high. His most notable statistic from that season may be his average of 14.6 yards per catch.

Mack spent last season on the sidelines, though he was allowed to participate in practice, due to academic issues.

2015: 13 catches for 190 yards

QUOTE(S)
Mack’s return and subsequent progress was an oft-discussed topic this spring. His freshman season showed glimpses of his athleticism and playmaking ability. Irish coach Brian Kelly made it a point to acknowledge Mack’s development as a blocker since he was last seen in a competitive environment.

“You can’t cover him, he just has that kind of talent,” Kelly said in March. “The one thing that stands out to me in the few days [of spring] is he’s committed himself to being a blocker and playing physical. If he continues to do that, we’re going to find ourselves with a lot of tight ends on the field.”

Long echoed those sentiments the day before the Blue-Gold Game.

“He’s a perfect fit, that’s why I recruited him like crazy when I was at Arizona State,” Long said. “He’s a prototypical [tight end], a guy who can run, who can catch.

“The biggest thing about Alizé is he’s taking great pride in his blocking ability right now, his presence of being an end-line guy, his protection and overall physicality. When you think like that, you’re going to become a better receiver.”

If Mack earns that trust as a blocker, then Kelly and Long can play him in any situation, only furthering the mismatches presented.

“I don’t know how you’re going to defend him,” Kelly said the week of the spring finale. “There’s not a safety or a linebacker—if you start spreading him out, maybe a corner can get a hand in there and deflect the ball, and maybe he doesn’t run the route quite the way a receiver would—but he’s going to be very difficult to defend.”

WHAT KEITH ARNOLD PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
Jones could turn into Notre Dame’s No. 2 receiver in 2016 if he takes this opportunity and runs with it. That could mean a huge uptick in numbers, with 40 to 50 catches not out of the realm of possibility.

“While size and match-up issues haven’t necessarily turned Irish receivers into targets, Jones could also pick up some of the slack in the red zone, knowing that the Irish offense desperately needs to improve their efficiency in the scoring zones, especially without quick-strike scorers like Will Fuller and C.J. Prosise. Matching Chris Brown’s four touchdown catches seems like a logical next step for Jones.

“In many ways, Jones is one of several unknown quantities that’ll help determine whether or not the Irish are a playoff contender or just a team with some nice young talent. While much of his productivity will likely be determined by the team’s offensive identity and philosophy, he’s another key piece to an offensive puzzle that doesn’t have a lot of experience but has plenty going for it.”

2017 OUTLOOK
Obviously Keith’s projections for Mack were skewed both by the ineligibility and by the name change. That does not mean they would have been wrong.

Notre Dame’s second-leading receiver last season, Torii Hunter, Jr., caught 38 passes for 521 yards and three touchdowns in only nine games. It does not take much of an imagination to see Mack producing at a similar pace—though in a very different role than the 6-foot, 195-pound Hunter—over a full season, perhaps something along the lines of 55 catches for 750 yards and four scores.

That would rival, but not exceed, junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown’s output from a year ago (58 catches, 961 yards, nine touchdowns). St. Brown’s dynamism from all positions on the field makes it unlikely Mack outpaces him for top receiver honors, but the two can aid each other by forcing secondaries to split their focus.

More than St. Brown receiving an appropriately high number of targets, the biggest hurdle between Mack and impressive statistics will indeed be his blocking and overall attitude. The Irish have other options at tight end (see below: No.  89, Brock Wright) to contribute to Long’s preference for two tight ends. If Mack does not earn the playing time in all aspects of the game, he will not receive it.

DOWN THE ROAD
The excitement around Mack this spring may have exceeded realistic expectations. In that regard, Mack is set up for perceived failure in 2017. If he matched the above theoretical stat line, some would lament the fact that he scored only four times.

Taking a longer view of his potential, a stat line like that would make Mack seriously consider the NFL after this season, if only because of that buzzword of potential. Some team might draft him on the second day simply to have the opportunity to find out what he becomes. It is more likely Mack comes back for another year, with Smythe gone, but, frankly, it seems unlikely to think he will use the final season of eligibility lost to academics last year.


2017’s Notre Dame 99-to-2
Friday at 4: Goodbye A-to-Z, hello 99-to-2 (May 12)
No. 99: Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle
No. 98: Andrew Trumbetti, defensive end
No. 97: Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle
No. 96: Pete Mokwuah, defensive tackle
No. 95 (theoretically): Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle
No. 94 (theoretically): Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle
No. 93: Jay Hayes, defensive end
No. 92 (theoretically): Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle
No. 91: Ade Ogundeji, defensive end
No. 90 (theoretically): Cole Kmet, tight end
No. 89: Brock Wright, tight end
No. 88: Javon McKinley, receiver
No. 87 (theoretically): Jafar Armstrong, receiver

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 87 (theoretically) Jafar Armstrong, receiver

Rivals.com
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Listed Measurements: 6-foot, 170 pounds
2017-18 year, eligibility: Freshman with four years of eligibility remaining
Depth chart: Armstrong joins a crowded receiver corps headlined by juniors Equanimeous St. Brown and Miles Boykin and sophomore Chase Claypool. If the Irish are shallow at any of the three positions, it is behind Boykin and sophomore Javon McKinley at the W-receiver position, otherwise known as the boundary receiver. Armstrong could fill in those ranks, or his speed could be utilized at the X position, the field receiver, a la last year’s usage of now-sophomore Kevin Stepherson. In offensive coordinator Chip Long’s up-tempo scheme, it is likely Armstrong is asked to learn both positions.
Recruiting: A rivals.com three-star recruit, Armstrong was committed to his home-state Missouri before a visit to Notre Dame the weekend before National Signing Day. Shortly after leaving South Bend, the No. 3 recruit in Missouri de-committed and did not hold the suspense long, announcing his Irish intentions the same night.

QUOTE(S)
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly specifically mentioned Armstrong’s speed in connection with the X-position on National Signing Day.

“We played a lot of young players on the offensive side of the ball, in particular at the wide receiver position [in 2016],” Kelly said. “Jafar Armstrong out of Bishop Miege High School is somebody that now adds some size and speed to that position that makes it very intriguing for us. We think Jafar is somebody that could possibly be that X-receiver that gives you that deep threat, a guy that can really push the field vertically for us. He was a nice addition to this class.”

Kelly also clarified why Armstrong was such a late addition to the class. Without mentioning former Irish commit Jordan Pouncey by name, Kelly indicated the effect Pouncey’s de-committment in Deceomber had on the recruiting process.

“When we were looking at the receiver position, [Armstrong] was on our radar from day one,” Kelly said. “We just weren’t going to take [three receivers]. When we had somebody de-commit, he was the first guy we went after. We could have gone either way on that. Jafar was somebody that we wanted from the very beginning. We just from a numbers game weren’t going to be able to take [three]. That was an easy one for us to get back into.”

The consensus three-star Pouncey eventually signed with Texas.

WHAT WE SAID WHEN ARMSTRONG’S NATIONAL LETTER OF INTENT ARRIVED
Armstrong flipped to Notre Dame over the weekend, ending a commitment to Missouri. His large frame and strong hands should provide new receivers coach Del Alexander a solid foundation with which to work.”

2017 OUTLOOK
This fall, Alexander will have 10 receivers at his disposal (11 if counting sophomore receiver-turned-running back Deon McIntosh), not to mention the couple of tight ends (namely, junior Alizé Mack and early-enrolled freshman Brock Wright) who could line up in the receiver position in specific situations. It is hard to envision all of those players seeing worthwhile snaps in the Irish offense.

With that in mind, a season preserving eligibility appears to be Armstrong’s most likely path. He and fellow incoming freshman Michael Young are obviously the most inexperienced of the grouping.

For that matter, few—if any—of the 10 receiver options come across as placeholders. Each one brings a tangible skillset to the field. Thus, there are no candidates prime for Armstrong to move ahead of in his first few months on campus.

Unless it is decided Armstrong is needed on special teams—a distinct possibility given how special teams coordinator Brian Polian lamented his lack of options this spring—a season learning the offense is his most likely outcome for 2017.

DOWN THE ROAD
Armstrong’s speed makes for tantalizing long-term projections. St. Brown may head to the NFL after this season, but even if he doesn’t, 2018 will be his last at Notre Dame (barring unfortunate injury). Kelly’s first instinct was to project Armstrong for that, the X, position.

It is not outlandish to expect Armstrong to present a playmaking target on the wide side of the field for the latter half of his career. Even if rarely leading to a connection, the mere threat of a receiver blazing past a secondary forces a defense to adjust its coverage. Armstrong could present such a concern, much as former Irish receiver Chris Brown did throughout his career. Brown affected games much more than his career statistics may indicate (104 catches for 1,410 yards and six touchdowns in 51 career games with 31 starts).

That is not to say Armstrong will not put up numbers in coming years. It is just to say those will not be the only metrics of his success or failure.


Aside from the five early enrollees, the numbers are not yet known for the Irish freshmen class. That is one of the admitted drawbacks to organizing this summer-long series numerically. But a little bit of educated guessing can garner estimates for those numbers, and those estimates can allow the series to proceed without pause.

How are those estimates crafted? The first step is to take a look at certain NCAA rules. When it comes to an “end,” the NCAA limits them to Nos. 80-99. Looking at the Irish roster, this leaves only so many likely options for Armstrong, hence slotting him at No.87.

Jafar Armstrong very well may not wear No. 87, but it is possible, and, frankly, it should be close.


2017’s Notre Dame 99-to-2
Friday at 4: Goodbye A-to-Z, hello 99-to-2 (May 12)
No. 99: Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle
No. 98: Andrew Trumbetti, defensive end
No. 97: Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle
No. 96: Pete Mokwuah, defensive tackle
No. 95 (theoretically): Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle
No. 94 (theoretically): Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle
No. 93: Jay Hayes, defensive end
No. 92 (theoretically): Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle
No. 91: Ade Ogundeji, defensive end
No. 90 (theoretically): Cole Kmet, tight end
No. 89: Brock Wright, tight end
No. 88: Javon McKinley, receiver