Mailbag: Transfers, death of the 3-4, and more

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Let’s get down to the Friday Mailbag. (That’s what the kids are calling it, anyway.) The questions are much appreciated.

sfnd: Ty Isaac?

First, kudos for the brevity. It’s a skill (believe me, one I’m still working on, too).

If we’re to take BK’s comments from yesterday at face value, you’ve got to think this was basically saying, “Yes, we want Ty Isaac. We wish you signed with us to begin with.”

Here’s what he had to say while talking to the media assembled at the Irish Legends golf fundraiser.

“For a traditional transfer, my preference is they have three years of eligibility and they’re the right academic fit and of course positionally, it makes sense,” Kelly told JJ Stankevitz of CSN Chicago. “There’s not a backlog of players at that particular position.”

Let’s check the boxes:

* Three years left of eligibility for Isaac, who played as a true freshman for the Trojans.
* Notre Dame finished bridesmaids for Isaac in his original recruitment.
* With Cam McDaniel departing and running back a need in this recruiting class, here’s no backlog — especially for a big back.

It wasn’t certain that Isaac would consider Notre Dame, or that USC would allow him to transfer to their rivals. But this Tweet seems to make both things a possibility.

The decision will come quickly, with Isaac needing to be in summer school and conditioning at whatever program he chooses.

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@HayesBean: How many recruits will we take this cycle? Thought it was fewer this year, if so it seems like were settling, other than top 3.

I’d guess the Irish take a class in the high-teens. But it’ll also depend on who comes back for a fifth year. Here’s a quick breakdown of who is eligible to return:

Everett Golson
Amir Carlisle
DaVaris Daniels
Nick Martin
Conor Hanratty
Matt Hegarty
Chase Hounshell
Tony Springmann
Ben Councell
Anthony Rabasa
Jarrett Grace
Joe Schmidt
Jalen Brown
Eilar Hardy
Matthias Farley

Who stays? Who goes? At this point, who knows — though I think it’s a really important year for the heralded recruiting class of 2011.

But I’m not sure I’d agree with you on the Irish “settling,” especially with Kelly’s track record on early identification of prospects. Barnett is a national QB target that just about every program wants. Tillery and Hoge look like they’ll be top linemen at their respective positions. Fertitta is a bit off profile, but ND has kicked the tires on him more than once, and the other skill players are guys who I trust the staff’s evaluation tools better than any website.

The short answer: My guess is 18. But how they get there will be interesting.

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irishdog80: Which of the ND player that were drafted, other than Zack Martin, will have the longest and most productive career in the NFL?

Which undrafted FA from ND this year will have the longest and most productive career…if any?

Good questions. I’d aim at one of the offensive guys, just because I think playing along the defensive line makes for a pretty short shelf life.

Troy Niklas is a guy that — if he stays healthy — has the body and skillset to last forever in the NFL. I also could see TJ Jones carving out a niche as a slot guy, someone who is that No. 3 receiver with punt return skills who sticks around a decade in the league.

As for undrafted free agents, I’m going to go with Dan Fox. I think his ability to run as an inside linebacker will make him valuable to a team as the league because more of a passing, spread-it-out game.

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mediocrebob: Any word on Springmann and Grace recoveries?

Expect Springmann to be good to go for summer workouts. Grace isn’t quite figured out, but I don’t know how it’s going to be possible for him to be ready for the start of the season, if at all.

Kelly gave a mini-update on Grace yesterday, which was essentially no update. He said that he and head trainer Rob Hunt were going to get together to discuss Grace’s healing sometime next week, in advance of summer school and workouts beginning in June.

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shaunodame: Your best guess at a LB Depth Chart (both 4-3 and 3-4) w/ Mike Sam and Will or Cat Dog Mike and Will, and a Wide Receiver Depth Chart w/ X, Z and Slot.

I’m honestly going to punt on this question, at least from the linebackers perspective. Right now, I think Jaylon Smith is going to play every snap at Will. Joe Schmidt will be the team’s primary Mike, though there’s hope that Grace could be ready and obviously Nyles Morgan is coming in this summer.

But then how this staff decides to use guys like Ben Councell, John Turner, Michael Deeb, Kendall Moore or any of the other freshmen is just too hard to figure out.

If the Irish are playing a 3-4, I think you’ll be seeing heft in the lineup, with a guy like Moore or Councell in there to go toe-to-toe with an opponent, but again — I don’t know how realistic that is, or how often that will be.

At receiver, I think the breakdown is already starting to happen:

Outside receivers: DaVaris Daniels, Corey Robinson, Will Fuller, Chris Brown
Slot: Amir Carlisle, CJ Prosise
Guys in the mix: Torii Hunter, maybe freshman Justin Brent or Corey Holmes.

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steincj36: Does the fact that BK will be calling plays scare anyone else besides me? Am I just apprehensive to this because of the Weis era?

I think Kelly has proven himself to be a true head coach. Charlie Weis was a long-time coordinator thrust into his first head job when he was at ND.

But outside of 2007, what year did you have a problem with the offense? Sure, the running game wasn’t very explosive, but Weis’ offense didn’t struggle to put up points, it was his defense that let him down, especially in his last two seasons.

Kelly had the tag of being an offensive innovator, but that was never one that he gave himself. But he’s got the personnel he wants to run his system this year and knows that style of offense better than anyone else on staff. I think the arrangement will work quite well.

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ndlv: Based on what Coach Kelly has accomplished at ND, where does he rank relative to earlier coaches at ND? Where do you think he ranks relative to other coaches currently in college football? Is he in the top 10?

He’s automatically behind anybody that’s won a national title. And he’s the best coach the Irish have had since Lou Holtz. Outside of that evaluation, I’m not a good enough historian of ND football to place him anywhere else.

As for his place in college football’s elite, I think he’s squarely in the top 10. He’s probably hovering right around the top 5, falling behind guys like Nick Saban, Urban Meyer and maybe Bob Stoops and Steve Spurrier?

(The Sporting News has been doing this exercise for quite some time and has Kelly ranked fifth.)

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kmic000: When ND is in the 3-4 this year, who do you think the DLine and linebackers will be?

I’ve already punted on the linebackers, but here’s how I’d expect a 3-4 look to play out.

Sheldon Day
Jarron Jones
Ishaq Williams/Tony Springmann

Romeo Okwara
Joe Schmidt
Jaylon Smith
Ben Councell (big) / John Turner (little)

Again, I don’t think this is going to turn out to be correct — nor do I think you’ll see Notre Dame with a legit three-man front too often. But I think it’ll be dependent on guys like Springmann and Hounshell to recover from their injuries and give legitimate reps.

Spring positions to watch for revelations: DL & WR

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 05: Jerry Tillery #99 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish tackles Jerrod Heard #13 of the Texas Longhorns for a loss of yards during the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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If quarterback, rover and the early enrollees could be Notre Dame fans’ springtime Christmas thrills, what positions present as potential spots of coal?

Three former Irish players were invited to next week’s NFL Combine in Indianapolis: quarterback DeShone Kizer, defensive tackle Jarron Jones and defensive end Isaac Rochell. Losing two consistent defensive linemen leaves this year’s unit with some questions. Jones and Rochell combined for 100 tackles, 18 for loss and three sacks last season. Notre Dame’s returning defensive linemen combined to total 111 tackles and only 5.5 tackles for loss. To be clear, sacks are not included in that latter list because no returning defensive linemen recorded one. Among the returnees, junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37 tackles, three for loss) and senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26, 0.5) contributed solidly alongside the two NFL prospects.

This dearth of known and reliable linemen is a large part of why the potential transfer of Clemson graduate defensive tackle Scott Pagano is so intriguing. Pagano would immediately be a favorite to start, and if not that, at least rotate in heavily.

For now, though, Pagano remains a theoretical

By the end of spring practice, who already on campus will emerge alongside Tillery and Trumbetti in the Irish front? Senior ends Jay Hayes (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) and Jonathon Bonner (nine tackles) seem the most-likely candidates … aside from former four-star recruit and now rising sophomore Daelin Hayes. In his debut season, D. Hayes finished with 11 tackles.

Look for senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) to establish himself as Tillery’s immediate backup this spring, but that spot in the rotation will be up for competition all over again once four-star tackle Darnell Ewell (Lake Taylor High School; Norfolk, Va.) arrives on campus in the fall. His size and quickness should play right into new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s system.

Equanimeous and Who?
Not only did Notre Dame bring in a graduate transfer at receiver in former Michigan wideout Freddy Canteen, but it has also already received the commitments of two four-star receivers in the 2018 recruiting class. The continued emphasis on the position reflects the lack of bona fide game-breakers currently on the roster.

Junior Equanimeous St. Brown established himself as the top Irish threat in 2016, and he should shine only further with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush targeting him. Classmates often amplify each other’s success, simply due to the added shared reps innate to joining practice at the same time. With Torii Hunter, Jr., now pursuing a professional baseball career, who will prevent the secondary from focusing all its energies on St. Brown?

Canteen will not be with Notre Dame in the spring, as he does not graduate from Michigan until April. That will give a clear shot for the likes of juniors Chris Finke, C.J. Sanders and Miles Boykin, and sophomores Kevin Stepherson, Javon McKinley and Chase Claypool to establish themselves. Did that say “clear” shot? It should probably read, “a chance to separate from the crowd.”

If a genuine threat does not line up opposite St. Brown, his explosiveness will likely be greatly reduced by focused defensive scheming. Wimbush will need another target before 2018.

Of course, here is where one should acknowledge the millennia-tested fact: Coal under pressure becomes diamonds.

2016 Notre Dame’s win expectancy was 7.2
Sports Illustrated’s Chris Johnson named the Irish as his team most likely to dramatically improve its record in 2017. Johnson’s thinking is based, at least in part, on Notre Dame’s second-order win total having been 7.2 in 2016, compared to the four wins the Irish actually walked away with. That discrepancy was the largest in the country.

Second-order win totals reflect how many points a team should have scored and allowed based on offensive and defensive stats. In theory, this shines a light on how luck and chance factored into results. Naturally, losing seven games by one possession will often be reflected by a higher second-order win total.

“Notre Dame’s win-loss record belied a solid, if imperfect, squad that just couldn’t pull out close games…” Johnson writes. “The Irish may not get back into College Football Playoff contention in 2017, but they’re bound to post a few more Ws because of reversion to the mean.”

Admittedly, the small sample size of a football season reduces the applicability of metrics such as second- and third-order wins when compared to baseball and basketball.

Jones becomes Mack
A quick piece of housekeeping: Apparently junior tight end Alizé Jones has changed his name to Alizé Mack.

While Notre Dame’s roster may not reflect that change yet, it is reasonable to expect it will after its next update. The football program has consistently respected the intricacies of players’ name preferences. Tai-ler Jones becoming TJ Jones jumps to mind, for example.

Anyways, hopefully noting Mack’s name change here might reduce some confusion down the line. Probably not. How many readers possibly read to the actual bottom of an article? But hey, in good faith.

WR Lenzy makes 11th commitment, brings speed to Irish

lenzy
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At what point does an impressive recruiting roll become something more? When does it become a harbinger of things to come, even if not for a few seasons? How many notable commitments in a row establishes a class as special?

If the answer to any of the above is 11 commitments by the end of February, including five within two weeks, then Notre Dame is there following consensus four-star athlete Braden Lenzy’s announcement Thursday evening.

The Tigard High School (Portland, Ore) receiver/cornerback chose the Irish over offers from USC, Oregon and Michigan State, among a litany of others. In all, nine Pac-12 schools chased Lenzy—and a 10th, Washington, had shown interest—per rivals.com.

Lenzy will fit the leading 2018 need voiced by Irish coach Brian Kelly three weeks ago on National Signing Day 2017.

“Elite speed on offense will be a primary goal for us,” Kelly said Feb. 1. “Guys that can change the game on one possession. I think we’ll see that… We want a couple of home run hitters. We don’t care if they’re Darren Sproles’s size. We’re going to come off the board in terms of profile. We want some guys that can change the game on offense with elite speed.”

At 6-foot, 175 pounds, Lenzy is taller than Sproles’s 5-foot-6, but it is still his speed that drew Notre Dame’s interest.

“They made it clear they want me to do kickoff return and use me as a deep threat across the field,” he told Irish Illustrated. “Just being kind of an athlete, similar to what I’ve been doing already in high school, just on a bigger scale with a quarterback that can throw it a lot farther.”

Presuming Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush is that arm in 2018, throwing great distances should not be an issue. Between Lenzy and fellow 2018 commit Micah Jones, covering those distances should be a reasonable request, as well.

Lenzy brings Notre Dame’s class of 2018 to 11, including eight four-stars according to Rivals’ rating system. Current scholarship projections indicate the class will not be a large one, meaning the Irish coaching staff has already garnered the commitments of more than half the class. Once again, though, Kelly’s sentiment regarding recruiting timing should be remembered.

“We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

SWARBRICK’S TAKE ON RECRUITING
Kelly credited Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick with much assistance in securing the country’s No. 13 recruiting class in 2017. A refresher on those comments:

“In a lot of instances, [Swarbrick] had to be there to support our football program and talk to recruits about where this program is and where it’s going,” Kelly said. “There are questions when a family comes on campus. He reminded them about the investment we were making in staff and what we were doing for the present and for the future.”

Swarbrick did not dispute the factual nature of any of that in an interview with the Indianapolis Star, but he did contest the need for praising what he saw as part of his job, one of the preferred parts of his job, at that.

“I can’t say anything about this year felt all that different,” Swarbrick told Star reporter Laken Litman. “Some asked questions about the future of the program and can we compete for a national championship. And I would talk about the elements of the program we were focused on improving.”

Swarbrick and Litman discussed a number of items in the second-half of the interview released by the Star, including Notre Dame’s facilities, a possible early signing period in football and if the Oct. 8, 2016, game against North Carolina State should have been played. Spoiler: No. Then why was it? Go check it out.

Swarbrick also told Litman he likes to write in his free time.

“I tend to think strategically with a pen in my hand.” Swarbrick added he is currently scribbling away on where he thinks college athletics are headed.

This scribe, for one, would be most interested in skimming those legal pads.

Will Wimbush, Elko and the early enrollees surprise in spring practice?

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 26: Fans congratulate Brandon Wimbush #12 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish after he ran for a 58 yard touchdown against the Massachusetts Minutemen at Notre Dame Stadium on September 26, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Umass 62-27.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Exactly 59 days from today, the Irish will take the field at Notre Dame Stadium. Sure, they will be playing against themselves, but nonetheless, it will be somewhat-competitive football played in gold helmets.

For timing context, exactly 59 days ago, you looked beneath the Christmas tree to learn if Santa Claus left you season tickets, socks or coal. I got socks. They had some of that extra cushioning, so I considered them a suitable treat.

Whether you care about my argyles or not (you don’t), for many the Blue-Gold Game and Christmas morning hold similar excitement. That fact is apparently why Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick does not concern himself when groups of alumni publicly lament his decisions, or lack thereof.

“I never worry about that,” Swarbirck told the Indianapolis Star in an exclusive interview you really should read. Go on, click the link, it will open in a new tab. You can come right back here when you are done.

“The hardest job in athletics is trying to generate passion in your program. If that sort of stuff bothers you, you can’t be the athletic director, head coach or the quarterback at Notre Dame.”

That very passion will undoubtedly lead to frame-by-frame discussions of video snippets from spring practice, parsing of each and every word Irish coach Brian Kelly says in quick interviews after those practices, and extreme pessimism and optimism about the 2017 season.

In the Christmas spirit, what toys could bring the must excitement during the spring unwrapping? Personally, the gift I was unsure of always brought the most joy. I would rather open an unexpected book than know about a charcoal-gray suit. In other words, at least for today, let’s look past the offensive line, the running backs and the inside linebackers. Instead, let’s look forward to learning about… (more…)

How did Mike Elko fare against past Irish opponents?

TALLAHASSEE, FL - OCTOBER 18:  Karlos Williams #9 of the Florida State Seminoles scores the touchdown that would win the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during their game at Doak Campbell Stadium on October 18, 2014 in Tallahassee, Florida.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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Former Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder took over at that position before the 2014 season. Former Wake Forest defensive coordinator, and now VanGorder’s successor at Notre Dame, Mike Elko took over in Winston-Salem at the same time. Since then, the two programs faced common opponents nine times.

With the lone exception of Army, all these games featured ACC opponents. When it comes to talent, Wake Forest tends to be outmatched in the ACC. Recruits from 2011 to 2016 suited up for the Deacons in the 2014-16 seasons. During those six recruiting cycles, Wake Forest never finished higher than No. 10 in the conference according to rivals.com’s rankings. In 2012 and 2014, the Deacons finished at the bottom of the conference in recruiting.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, finished behind an ACC team a total of 10 times over those six years. Florida State outpaced the Irish five times, the exception being Notre Dame’s No. 3-ranked class in 2013 following its national championship game appearance. Clemson finished ahead of the Irish four times (2014 joining 2013 as the outliers), and Miami rounds the listing off with its No. 9-finish in 2012, compared to Notre Dame’s No. 20.

The point being, VanGorder and the Irish could anticipate having a stronger and deeper roster in at least six of the games discussed below. Elko and Wake Forest may have been able to make that argument—and it would be a debatable one—just once, when they faced Duke this past September.

Before comparing the two units’ successes and failures in those nine—actually, 18—contests, let’s establish two points of clarification. Notre Dame and North Carolina State played in a literal hurricane this past October. Comparing that game to any other will accomplish nothing. Furthermore, before anyone starts griping about that afternoon’s play-calling, this is an exercise discussing defensive performances, not offensive. The run:pass distribution of Oct. 1, 2016, bears no significance here.

Secondly, the other two games the Irish played fitting this criteria but after VanGorder’s dismissal—Syracuse and Army—are included below. Only so much of the scheme changed mid-season, and the personnel did not.

If you are busy catching up from a long weekend and do not have the time to look at the numbers below, a quick summary for you: In five of the eight instances, Elko’s unit fared distinctly better than VanGorder’s in multiple notable statistical categories. However, the Deacons struggled with Army’s triple-option attack, and both 2014 Florida State and 2015 Clemson blew right through the aggressive defense far easier than they did against Notre Dame.

Presented in something resembling reverse chronological order: (more…)