Mailbag: Leaving early and early predictions edition

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A good set of questions from you guys. Let’s get to them:

@ontario_bill: KA, with the ascent of Martin his senior year to becoming a 1st round pick, do you think ND guys will see that and be more ikely to stick around? I can’t help but think about the difference 1 more year could make for Tuitt, Nix and Niklas.

I know one person who hopes so: Brian Kelly. After keeping six-star recruits Manti Te’o and Michael Floyd, the odds were in the favor of a few tough coin-flip decisions on whether to stay or go. But in the case of Stephon Tuitt, it sure feels like his decision to go pro cost him millions of dollars.

The farther Tuitt slides down draft boards the less guaranteed money he’s going to get. Sure, he’ll be earning money a full year earlier than he would’ve had he stayed in school. And yes, he’ll be a year closer to his second contract, but the difference in money between a top ten pick and a guy that goes in the middle of the second round is sizable.

If fear of injury were the biggest issue, Tuitt was eligible for an insurance policy that could’ve guaranteed him millions if he were hurt during his senior season at Notre Dame. But to think that jumping to the NFL after a super disappointing junior season (where he put a lot of bad reps on tape for NFL talent evaluators) made sense, he must’ve had someone whispering sweet nothings into his ear.

@mfmitchell88: do you expect to see more up tempo offense with this year’s personnel and new OC?

I do. But then again, we’ve been hearing that every spring since Brian Kelly arrived. But why I think this year will actually be different isn’t necessarily Mike Denbrock or the receiving personnel, but rather the fact that both of Notre Dame’s quarterbacks can run a version of the offense that utilizes the zone read running game.

@steincj36: Any chance we can progress reports on the turf installation? And has there been talk of paint schemes for the field, or will it stay ND traditional?

There won’t be any progress until after graduation weekend, when the natural grass will be torn out and installation will begin. As for the paint schemes — there’s been plenty of talk about it. None of it coming from inside Notre Dame.

But a note on the “traditional” schemes. You’d be surprised at some of the looks Notre Dame displayed in the past. It hasn’t always been hashmarks and diagonals.

irishdodger: Keith, with the least experienced team of the Kelly Era, what are the “musts” in getting this team to 10 wins?

A few musts:

* Win the easy ones: (Rice, Purdue, Syracuse, Navy)
* Win most of the ones they should: (Syracuse, North Carolina, Arizona State, Northwestern, Louisville)
* Win half of the ones that are coin flips: (Michigan, Stanford, Florida State, and USC)

That alone gets you to ten wins. But for a few less macro “musts:”

* Dictate terms offensively.
* Improve Red Zone scoring.
* Don’t give up any 30+ yard touchdowns
* Fix special teams coverage units.

@TheCaptain11: I don’t know to be pumped for this new defense or scared to death. Which way do you lean?

I’d be more pumped than scared. Just because this will be a completely different version of Notre Dame’s defense, with smaller, faster, more attacking schemes compared to the heavyweight techniques utilized under Bob Diaco. Do I think the group will be better? No, not with the lack of experience up front. But I do think it’ll be more exciting.

But as Owen Wilson said in Armageddon: “I got that “excited/scared” feeling. Like 98% excited, 2% scared. Or maybe it’s more – It could be 98% scared, 2% excited but that’s what makes it so intense, it’s so… confusing. I can’t really figure it out.”

bernhtp: With good coaching and development, you can turn a bunch of three and four star recruits into a very, very good football team, but it seems hard to break into the elite group (i.e., those making the playoffs) without getting your unfair share (3-5) of five stars as powerhouse teams like Alabama do every year. Furthermore, many of the five-star recruits ND has signed, didn’t last (e.g., Lynch, Kiel, Neal, Vanderdoes). Does this limit the ceiling for the program?

That’s a question that probably requires a few months of research, not 45 minutes. But I can’t help but think your knowledge of Notre Dame’s success rate with five-star prospects far outweighs your knowledge of how other program’s five-star players pan out, making this one a little bit tougher to prove. Cruise through the past few Rivals classes. For as many guys that “made it” and played to that talent level, there are just as many that you never heard from again.

I’m of the mind that Notre Dame lands more than its share of five-star players. And I also think that while landing elite prospects is critical to success, the teams that become consistent playoff competitors won’t be doing so on the strength of elite recruits, but rather by the strength of the middle of their roster.

Washouts like Lynch, Kiel, Neal and Vanderdoes sure don’t help a program. But nobody holds a success rate like you’d expect or hope.

mtflsmittyI’m not crying wolf here, and I realize ranking of recruits has plenty of flaws. But I’d like your thoughts on the health of our 2015 recruiting efforts.

A few observations:
– At this point in the 2014 recruiting cycle ND had secured commitments from eight recruits. One 5-star, five 4-star, and two 3-star.
– The 2015 class seems not to be shaping up as well. Zero 5-star, four 4-star, and four 3-star players. Until yesterday, we had gone for five months without anything but 3-star commitments.
– I expect we’ll have a smallish class this year (16-19 recruits). Therefore, I would have expected us to be more selective than usual. I also don’t see us in play with any 5-star guys.

Are we having issues, or am I making an issue out of nothing?

Smitty — Deep breaths, brother. Get back to me in August. Notre Dame isn’t taking a full freight class, likely capping this group in the high-teens. So while this group might not be shaking out as quickly as some of the earlier efforts Kelly and his staff put together, it’s also a bit more surgical.

almostbrian: Are fans coming into September down to earth regarding expectations? Or with Golson back do they have visions of Championships dancing in their heads? FSU, USC 2.0, Stanford, ASU and Michigan’s one great performance of the year. If they make it to the playoff, I’m dancing. If they make it to the Championship, I’m quite my day job to make and sell busts of Brian “Ditka” Kelley

What the fun of tampering expectations before the season begins? One free tip: Before you get those busts started, make sure you spell check the head coach’s name.

irishdog80: How much of a positive impact will the new turf have on the team both offensively and defensively? Negative impact? During winter weather? In the past, was recruiting negatively impacted by our natural grass field?

Good question. A quick straw poll of players showed almost universal love for the decision to go to an artificial surface. For one, they practice on it already every day. Secondly, it allows the team to actually hold practices in the stadium. And most importantly, it allows the speed and athleticism this roster has to actually be utilized, not held back on a sloppy track.

As for any negative impact, I don’t see it. This isn’t retro 1980s turf that gets slippery (or more slippery than natural grass) in the rain. And nobody was recruiting against Notre Dame Stadium, even if the grass wasn’t up to snuff.

oldestguard: How does a top 10 – 20 football program scout the entire country effectively ? Do they rely on any of the recruiting sites at all ? …or is it strictly in-house ?

I cut down your question a bit, but it’s a good one. Most coaching staff’s utilize some type of outside service. Is it Rivals, Scout or 247? No. But what makes a coaching staff valuable is the relationships they develop around the country. They rely on high school coaches to alert them if they see a great player, and that’s part of the reason they hit the road during evaluation periods, to kick the tires on the well-established prospects and to unearth the guys not yet on the radar.

As for the delicate dance of making offers and accepting commitments, that’s a line that always needs straddling and one that the Irish staff has done a great job on. It’s no secret that Notre Dame has cast a wider net for prospects, but they’ve also had to make sure that they’re able to get in the running for players early, while also making sure they’ll gain acceptance into school.

For the most part, the Notre Dame staff succeeds with honesty. They’ll tell a player where they are on their board, and for the most part kids appreciate the candor. Does it always work out? No. But then again, in recruiting it never does.

Now is the time for Daelin Hayes to turn athleticism into pass rush threat

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This space has mentioned a few times the dearth of returning sacks among Notre Dame’s defensive line. It is a pertinent fact—no returning Irish defensive lineman recorded a sack in the 2016 season—but it fails to mention the flipside of that.

Most of Notre Dame’s defensive linemen had few, if any, opportunities to rush the passer in 2016. Perhaps at the top of the list of those who should bring down the opposing passer a few times this fall, sophomore Daelin Hayes has laid claim to a starting rush spot through five spring practices.

“The athleticism is what obviously stands out,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “He’s extremely athletic, he’s fit physically, 250 pounds and very strong.”

These facts are, after all, the reasons Hayes was a highly sought-after five-star recruit according to rivals.com.

“It’s the football knowledge, learning the techniques at the position in which he plays is really the piece,” Kelly continued. “It’s just learning right now for him. This is the time to do it, in spring ball.

“Squeezing down on a tight end when the back is away. Wrong-arming the puller. These are all football terms and schemes that are a bit new to him. We have to be patient with him. He’s an explosive athlete. There’s going to be some mistakes along the way, and I’m okay with that as long as he’s learning.”

Without much depth pushing for playing time behind him, Hayes will have the opportunity to make, and subsequently understand, those mistakes. Seniors Jay Hayes (no relation) and Andrew Trumbetti are mired in competition for the other end spot, while sophomores Julian Okwara, Adetokunbo Ogundeji and Khalid Kareem may have even more development ahead of them than Daelin Hayes does.

Incoming freshmen Kofi Wardlow and Jonathon MacCollister will join the fray in the summer, but for now, the younger Hayes has his chance to impress with his natural gifts while absorbing the intricacies of new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s defense.

Hayes is not a complete unknown. While Okwara made four tackles last season in 11 games and Kareem appeared in four games, Hayes saw action in every contest, finishing the season with 11 tackles, one pass breakup and one forced fumble.

“He’s an athlete,” defensive line coach Mike Elston said last week. “He’s on the edge in a two-point stance. He’s not a trained, put-your-hand-on-the-ground defensive end. He played running back in high school. He can see things better in a two-point and can diagnose quicker. He’s able to be more productive.”

It may be accurate to mention no returning Notre Dame defensive linemen tackled a quarterback for a loss last season, but it is more precise to also include the Irish have possibilities of changing that trend.

SPEAKING OF THE DEFENSIVE LINE
Notre Dame is nearly as thin at defensive tackle as it is at end. Junior Jerry Tillery leads the way with senior end-converted-to-tackle Jonathan Bonner lining up next to him thus far. Their reserves: Oft-concussed senior Daniel Cage, senior Pete Mokwuah and junior Micah Dew-Treadway with junior Elijah Taylor out for the spring with a foot injury.

Theoretically, junior Brandon Tiassum is also in the mix, and three freshmen (Kurt Hinish, Myron Tagovailo-Amosa and four-star Darnell Ewell) will join the group in the summer.

And maybe, just maybe, perhaps, possibly … Clemson graduate student transfer Scott Pagano could walk onto campus alongside those freshmen. Pagano visited Notre Dame the first week of March, and was due to look at Oklahoma and Arkansas the next two weekends, respectively. Instead, Pagano reportedly cancelled both of those visits Monday.

Pagano does still have a visit to Oregon scheduled for April 21. Until indicated otherwise, it may be prudent to presume Pagano hopes to land as close to his Hawaiian home as possible.

RELATED READING: 1 Day Until Spring Practice: A look at the defensive line

Recruiting success continues with OL Dirksen, class’s 12th commit

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Even in the doldrums of spring practice, Notre Dame’s recent recruiting success continues. Rivals.com three-star/scout.com four-star offensive lineman John Dirksen offered a verbal commitment to the Irish on Saturday, bringing the 2018 class to 12 commitments.

The 6-foot-5, 290-pounds Dirksen (Marion High School; Maria Stein, Ohio) joins consensus three-star prospect Cole Mabry (Brentwood H.S.; Brentwood, Tenn.) as the offensive linemen thus far among the 12. In three of the last four years, Notre Dame offensive line coach Harry Hiestand has pulled in four recruits, with 2015’s two (Trevor Ruhland, Tristen Hoge) as the exception. This recruiting cycle could again bring a limited offensive line haul, given the likely limits on the class’s size.

While any and all current class of 2018 team rankings should be taken with many grains of salt—there are 318 days between today and National Signing Day, after all—Dirksen’s commitment solidifies the Irish hold on the No. 3 class, per rivals.com. Other recruiting services place Notre Dame even higher.

Dirksen chose Hiestand and the Irish over offers from Michigan State, Iowa State and Boston College, among others.

 

Holmes out for spring; Jones & Jones shining

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Notre Dame’s spring continued over the weekend, and is all too often the case with football, that led to an injury. Early enrollee running back C.J. Holmes will probably miss the rest of spring practice due to a separated shoulder, Irish coach Brian Kelly announced following Saturday’s practice.

“We’ll get an MRI and know a little bit further on Monday once that calms down a little bit,” Kelly said. “We’ll get a picture of that and see. He had an open repair on that same shoulder his sophomore year in high school.”

Behind three backs, including two with experience, Holmes was unlikely to see playing time in the backfield in 2017.

Of those three backs, sophomore Tony Jones, Jr., is the unknown after preserving a year of eligibility last season. In limited practice viewing, however, Jones has only impressed. He has caught Kelly’s eye, as well.

“He’s 225 pounds, can catch the ball coming out of the backfield, [is] assignment correct, and can run elusively and can get into the second level,” Kelly said. “What does that equal? He’s a pretty good back.

“Obviously he was noticeable today in his play and he got some work with the first group as well. He wasn’t just getting second-team reps.”

Jones may be getting some first-unit exposure, but expect him to remain behind junior Josh Adams in the depth chart. Considering Jones’ style is somewhat comparable to Adams’, whereas junior Dexter Williams presents something of a change of pace, Williams should see more action than the sophomore, as well.

MORE PRAISE FOR ALIZE JONES
Junior tight end Alizé Jones—rather, Alizé Mack, per his Twitter account—has taken the lead in spring’s race of who reaps the most sound bite accolades. In complimenting Jones, who missed last season due to an academic suspension, Kelly also managed to laud new offensive coordinator Chip Long.

“I think Chip is doing a terrific job with [Jones],” Kelly said. “He’s got a good relationship. He knows how to rise him up when he needs to and scold him when he needs to. Alizé needs a little bit of that.

“He’s virtually un-coverable in certain areas of the field. I don’t care at any level. You can’t cover him. He just has that kind of talent. The one that I think stands out to me in the few days 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.”

Presumably, Jones would join graduate student tight end Durham Smythe in two tight end sets. It should be remembered, Long has historically shown a preference for such formations, and with Notre Dame’s plethora of options at the position, Long’s tendencies have no need to change. For that matter, Long had some praise for Jones this weekend, as well.

“Alizé can be as good as he wants to be,” Long said Friday. “…He’s growing up each and every day. Great joy to coach, and that whole group is. He doesn’t want to let that group down. There’s no question he can be as good as he wants to be.”

Friday at 4: 40-yard dashes and absurdity

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Of all the absurd things the football world often obsesses over, the 40-yard dash may be the most useless of them. Yes, it even beats out assigning star rankings to 16- and 17-year-olds, though not by much.

For now, let’s look past the rest of the inane Draft intricacies, such as former Irish defensive lineman Jarron Jones feeling pressured to increase his vertical jump by four inches. (He did, jumping to 24.5 inches in Notre Dame’s Pro Day on Thursday.) This scribe does not have an excess of time to spend discussing Jones’s outlandish wingspan if this piece is to post by its intended, though unnecessary, 4 p.m. ET deadline.

The 40-yard dash … No football play begins from a sprinter’s stance, yet it may be the factor most crucial to a low 40 time. Former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer posted a time of 4.83 seconds in the NFL Combine earlier this month. For context’s sake, Kizer ran .07 seconds slower than Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger did as a draft prospect in the 2004 combine.

Roethlisberger has had himself an excellent career, and his ability to shrug off 300-pound defensive linemen is a testament to his athleticism. Put Kizer and Roethlisberger in the open field together, though, and Kizer would presumably have outrun Roethlisberger at any point of the two-time Super Bowl champion’s career. In Indianapolis, however, Roethlisberger did a better job of getting his hips through his first couple strides of the heralded 40-yard dash.

Here, watch Kizer train for the 40, the most-hyped measurement of his combine.

“The ultimate goal is to have yourself in the best position to have your body weight back in those legs so you can create enough torque to get out as quickly as possible,” Kizer said. “A guy who is as long as I am, with long limbs that I have, I’ve got to make sure that my weight distribution is in the best position for me to get out and catch up to some of those quicker guys who are a little lower to the ground.”

What part of that sounds applicable to football? The 40 turns Kizer’s size (6-foot-4, 237 pounds) into a negative. He worries about the angle of his knees. After his throwing session at the Thursday Pro Day, Kizer summed up the draft evaluation process even more succinctly.

“This process is very different in the sense that the way you look productive in the combine and in a pro day is very different from what productivity actually looks like out on the field.”

Well put.

More pertinent to the actual game of football, Kizer’s completion percentage in the staged workout could have been higher.

Then again, he was throwing to the likes of former Irish receivers Corey Robinson and Amir Carlisle and former running back Jonas Gray. Reportedly, the only contact Gray and Kizer had before the session was Kizer emailing the former New England Patriot the planned series of routes.

The NFL Draft, where Gmail becomes a necessity.

Let’s do away with the 40. If we insist on keeping it, let’s do it twice, once from a standing start and once from a running start. Those would simulate actual football movements: A receiver getting off the line, and a ballcarrier breaking away and trying to outrun the defense.

Asking DeShone Kizer to mimic Usain Bolt is an exercise in futility, idiocy, absurdity.

Cue end of rant.

Why cite the Roethlisberger time? Many, including Sports Illustrated’s Chris Burke, have readily compared Kizer to Roethlisberger this spring.

The most notable line of that scouting report (scroll down to No. 32) may be its final one, echoing Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly’s sentiments from earlier this week.

“The mystery is whether he can regain his assertiveness,” Burke writes. “If so, he could turn out to be the 2017 class’s best QB. The team that drafts him will be taking a leap of faith.”

A leap. Not a dash.

For more Notre Dame Pro Day results, click here.

And with that, this just may make the 4 p.m. posting. You know what to do.