Greg Bryant

Counting down the Irish: Final grades, 20-16

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As we continue our final rankings of the 2014 season, it’s an interesting look at the youth of the Irish roster. Remove fifth-year senior Christian Lombard from the group and our first five players had a collective zero starts heading into the season.

That helps explain some of the issues that came along with this team. As complementary parts, Malik Zaire, Romeo Okwara, Drue Tranquill and Nyles Morgan have the talent to be key contributors. But as starters asked to carry the load? That’s when we saw some of the ugly parts of this season.

That theme continues with our next five players. Outside of a key veteran, this group also had a steep learning curve. At times, that meant some difficulties — and those struggles weighed into a 7-5 season.

That’s not to say this group isn’t talented. You’d be hard pressed to find five better recruits. Two from this group were five-star prospects. Per Rivals’ evaluations, all five were Top 10 players at their position and all within the Top 120 players in the country.

The best part? All four return, with key roles on the 2015 roster pretty much assured.

Let’s get on to the rankings.

 

2014 IRISH TOP 25 FINAL GRADES

25. Christian Lombard (RT, GS)
24. Malik Zaire (QB, Soph.)
23. Romeo Okwara (DE, Jr.)
22. Drue Tranquill (S, Fr.)
21. Nyles Morgan (LB, Fr.)

 

Michigan at Notre Dame
Michigan at Notre DameChicago Tribune/MCT via Getty Images

 

20. Max Redfield (S, Soph.): After sitting out most of his freshman season, Max Redfield was pushed into the starting lineup for the Pinstripe Bowl by head coach Brian Kelly. He stayed there after spring and fall camp, a key cog in the starting lineup for 2014.

But Redfield’s season seemed to go as the Irish’s went. When things were going well, Redfield was a featured part. When they weren’t, Redfield was in the spotlight. Success has a funny way of hiding weaknesses.

Redfield’s season had some unquestionable bright spots. A key interception during the shutout of Michigan. He also contributed 54 tackles, good enough for fourth on the team. But Redfield lost his starting job after a disappointing game against Arizona State, with color commentator Chris Spielman blasting Redfield for missing a key tackle on the sideline.

The Irish coaching staff made a change after the game in Tempe, bad timing for Redfield as the two unrelated moves seemed interconnected. And while he wasn’t overly explanatory about the move, Brian Kelly cited a lack of production from Redfield.

The demotion hurt the Irish, with Kelly and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder suffering through some mediocre safety play with Austin Collinsworth and Drue Tranquill in the starting lineup before injuries forced Redfield and Shumate back onto the field. Redfield then suffered a rib injury early against the Trojans, momentarily putting the position down to Shumate and recently returned Eilar Hardy.

At his best, Redfield has all the tools it takes to be an elite safety. But after being forced to learn two systems in two seasons, it still feels like Redfield is a beat slow diagnosing what he sees, neutralizing the physical gifts that he has.

After two years, Irish fans would’ve gladly returned Harrison Smith for an open scholarship. So it’s far too early to call Redfield a disappointment. But it’s an important offseason for Redfield, who needs to take a big step forward before his junior year.

Preseason: 12th. Final: 20th. 

 

Michigan v Notre Dame
Michigan v Notre DameJonathan Daniel/Getty Images

 

 

19. Steve Elmer (RG, Soph.): The question wasn’t whether Steve Elmer would start. It was where. But after spending spring at guard, Kelly and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand’s gamble to move Elmer to right tackle backfired, necessitating a four-position shuffle after three games that ended with Nick Martin at guard, Matt Hegarty at center and Christian Lombard outside at right tackle.

Pinning all of that on Elmer is unfair. The reality of the situation always had Elmer among the best five offensive linemen on the roster, with Matt Hegarty chosen to start over a first-timer in Mike McGlinchey. But while Elmer looks the part of a college tackle, he struggled moving outside to the edge before finding a rhythm at guard as the season wore on.

A few bad snaps likely color fans opinion of Elmer’s season. And after finding his footing, Elmer showed the physical skills that still make him a very impressive prospect as he enters the final two seasons of his college career.

The offseason allows Elmer the opportunity to settle into a position and develop there. With his time at tackle likely over, Elmer can work on becoming a steady and physical force on the inside.

Preseason: 11th. Final: 19th. 

 

Stanford v Notre Dame
Stanford v Notre DameJonathan Daniel/Getty Images

 

18. Ben Koyack (TE, Sr.): Koyack played more snaps than any skill player on the offensive depth chart. And after being thrust into an every-down role after Troy Niklas bolted for the NFL, Koyack performed admirably in his only season as a starter.

His 4th-and-long touchdown catch against Stanford was the play of the year. His 29 catches were fourth most on the team. But Koyack’s inconsistency was a microcosm of the offense’s play, and his struggles as a blocker hurt the Irish multiple times. On a depth chart with zero experience behind him, Koyack picked up the slack in 2014, with Durham Smythe, Mike Heuerman and Tyler Luatua brought on slowly.

But after enjoying an impressive run of tight ends with Kyle Rudolph, Tyler Eifert and Troy Niklas, Koyack’s senior season checks in a notch below — hardly an indictment for a senior who should have a chance to play on Sundays as well.

Preseason: 10th. Final: 18th.

 

Purdue v Notre Dame
Purdue v Notre DameMichael Hickey/Getty Images

 

17. Elijah Shumate (S, Jr.): After injuries plagued Shumate during his sophomore season, a transition to a new defensive system took longer to take hold than many expected. Athletically superior to senior captain Austin Collinsworth, Shumate was the fan’s choice for a strong safety, even if he wasn’t the coaching staff’s. But injuries forced Shumate into the lineup from the opening game. And some struggles showcased why Collinsworth got the initial nod.

Again, Shumate’s season wasn’t all bad. He finished third on the team with 64 tackles, and his interception to end the Michigan game was one of the season’s best highlights. But Shumate found his way into the staff’s doghouse, missing a key snap against Northwestern that cost the Irish big time, a mistake that just can’t happen to a player that’s got more experience than just about anybody else on the field with him.

Entering his senior season, Shumate’s review could basically mirror the one written for Redfield. His physical talent can’t take off until his mental aptitude catches up. Another offseason learning VanGorder’s defense can only help.

Preseason: Unranked (27th). Final: 17th.

 

Greg Bryant, Taylor Richards
Greg Bryant, Taylor RichardsAP Photo/Michael Conroy, File

 

16. Greg Bryant (RB, Soph.): No, Bryant wasn’t the breakout star many expected. But upon final inspection, his numbers weren’t too shabby either. The sophomore (who took a medical redshirt last season) led the Irish in yards per carry at 5.5. He also provided a spark in the return game.

That’s about what people expected, though they didn’t see the midseason lull that plagued Bryant’s overall productivity. Yet that feels almost predictable looking back at things, with Bryant pressing to do too much, the propensity to chase the big play when making the ordinary one would’ve been just fine.

That’s a byproduct of sharing carries with Tarean Folston and Cam McDaniel. It’s also comes from the weight of great expectations, with Bryant’s high school ranking still framing early playing career. But against USC Bryant created the big plays that had long been expected of him by playing within the framework of the offense, merely letting his talent do the work.

With little depth behind him, Bryant will team with Tarean Folston in 2015 to create a two-deep that’s the envy of just about every program in college football. It may have taken a little bit longer than some expected, but Bryant is on track to be a prolific offensive player.

Preseason: 9th. Final: 16th.

Four-star WR Micah Jones chooses Irish; Rees may need to wait; Other late-week reading

jones
rivals.com
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A day may come when Notre Dame suffers a recruiting disappointment in the 2018 cycle, when a high school star spurns the Irish coaching staff for a foe, but it is not this day.

Rivals.com four-star receiver Micah Jones (Warren Township High School; Gurnee, Ill.) committed to Notre Dame on Friday, joining a class of now 10 recruits, including four who committed just this week.

Jones chose the Irish over offers from the likes of Iowa, Michigan State and Ole Miss, among others.

He is the first receiver among the 10 commitments and the seventh considered a four-star prospect. At 6-foot-5, 196 pounds, Jones should present a large target for whomever the Notre Dame quarterback is in the fall of 2018, most likely then-senior Brandon Wimbush.

Tom, Tommy or Thomas; Assistant Coach or Graduate Assistant?
Thomas Rees may need to wait a season before officially being a coach at Notre Dame. The legislation to approve a 10th assistant coach was expected to be voted on, passed and effective in April. A newly-added amendment may push the effective date to following the 2017 season. The amendment will be voted on immediately before the legislation itself is.

The delay makes sense. Most coaching hirings and firings occur in December and January. In theory, creating a one-timing hiring frenzy following spring football could leave many programs in the lurch. In practice, however, this is not anticipated.

“The majority of the FBS guys that I’ve talked with currently believe that 10th coach is going to come from within their own organization,” Todd Berry told the Associated Press. Berry is the executive director of the American Football Coaches Association and former coach at Army and Louisiana-Monroe. “Quality control, graduate assistants, analysts, or they’re planning on hiring somebody that’s out of work.”

A majority is not a unanimity, though, and that carousel will innately work to the disadvantage of the Group of 5 schools.

As for Rees, a graduate assistant can still work extensively with players. The most-pertinent difference between a graduate assistant and an assistant coach is the former cannot recruit. Given Notre Dame’s recent success on the recruiting trail—and the early commitment of class of 2018 consensus four-star quarterback Phil Jurkovec (Pine-Richland H.S.; Gibsonia, Pa.)—Rees may not be an absolute necessity in that regard this cycle.

A Kizer Appraisal
Former NFL scout Greg Gabriel took a look at former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer this week, largely paying the draft prospect compliments.

In calling Kizer “the most talented quarterback in this draft class,” Gabriel set a high ceiling for Kizer’s spring. Part of Gabriel’s positive assessment comes from acknowledging Kizer’s responsibilities as the Irish signal-caller.

“The spread offense that Kizer played in at Notre Dame is more sophisticated than many of the spread offenses we see elsewhere at the collegiate level. The Notre Dame offense is a whole-field read scheme in which the quarterback has to go through a progression that encompasses both sides of the field. He also can change the play and/or protections at the line of scrimmage. Given all that, Kizer was asked to do more than many spread quarterbacks are asked to do.”

Gabriel also reflected on the dynamic differences for Kizer in 2015 and 2016 and what may have elicited some of his seeming stagnation.

“There was the unnecessary quarterback controversy at Notre Dame, and the offensive line wasn’t as experienced or as talented and the receivers were mostly first-year starters.”

As much as Gabriel raves about Kizer, he would be the first to tell you anything beyond individual player evaluation is a waste of air this early in the draft process. Mock drafts may be fun, but they are not much beyond that.

Take the fates of Tony Romo and Jimmy Garoppolo, for example. Few, if any, in the NFL expect them to dress for the Cowboys and Patriots, respectively, again. Where they end up could directly impact Kizer’s draft placement.

Jaylon Smith May Be Back to Form
Former Notre Dame and current Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith posted yet another encouraging video to Twitter. This one shows Smith really might be game-ready right now and, if not, almost certainly will be by the fall. Should there be any difficulty with the embedded video below, here is a link straight to it.

OL Mabry makes third commitment this week; WR Jones may follow Friday

mabry
rivals.com
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Two weeks ago, Irish coach Brian Kelly gave a non-answer of an answer to a question about a likely early signing period this coming December. Avoiding specifics, he indicated he thinks the effects of such a change will be seen on a case-by-case basis entirely dependent on the recruits.

“Some will, some won’t,” Kelly said. “…Each kid is going to have to react to it based upon also how their school is going to be dealing with it. Some will come off the board at the time.

“We’re expecting some to sign early, but I think our mindset is we’re going into it business as usual. We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

After this week, Notre Dame is going to have more year-long fights than anticipated. Consensus three-star offensive lineman recruit Cole Mabry (Brentwood High School; Brentwood, Tenn.) became the third prospect to offer a verbal commitment to the Irish coaching staff in less than 36 hours with his Wednesday decision. Mabry received the offer over the weekend, but waited a few days before making his decision public, lest emotions be dictating his thought process.

At 6-foot-6 and 255 pounds, Mabry will have time to add muscle to his frame, with four or five offensive tackles greeting him on the Notre Dame roster in the summer of 2018. That ability to mold his style and growth may have played a part in the Irish interest.

“They love my height and athleticism and how I play,” Mabry told rivals.com. “We got to break down film and go through things that they do that pair up with how I play now. They think I’ll be a great fit in their offense.”

Mabry is the ninth Notre Dame commitment in the class of 2018, though the first offensive lineman.

Judging by new Notre Dame director of football performance Matt Balis’s agenda for the Irish roster’s Valentine’s Day morning, Mabry will have much to look forward to in terms of strength and conditioning.

Rivals.com four-star receiver Micah Jones (Warren Township H.S.; Gurnee, Ill.) is scheduled to announce his verbal commitment this Friday at 4 p.m. ET. Along with Notre Dame, Jones is considering Iowa, Michigan State, Nebraska, Ole Miss, Illinois and Northwestern. He would be the first receiver in Notre Dame’s 2018 class. Naturally, whomever Jones commits to, the recruiting fight will last until at least December, and perhaps all the way to February.

Notre Dame adds two top defensive back commits; Elliott officially a ‘Husker

allen
rivals.com
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It’s early. It’s really, really early. Not in the day, though this post is scheduled for an a.m. hour. No, it is early in the 2018 recruiting cycle. Any piece of news, each commitment, everything should be taken with two grains of salt.

Nonetheless, Notre Dame—and more specifically, new Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko and defensive backs coach Todd Lyght—enjoyed Tuesday’s recruiting news when two consensus four-star coverage men committed to the Irish.

Safety Derrik Allen (Lassiter High School; Marietta, Ga.) and cornerback Kalon Gervin (Cass Tech; Detroit, Mich.) joined a class of now eight commitments, six of which play on the defensive side of the ball.

Gervin, the No. 11 cornerback in the class according to rivals.com, waited mere days after attending Notre Dame’s Junior Day over the weekend. Irish coach Brian Kelly and staff’s failure to land a recruit at Gervin’s position in the 2017 haul actually helped reel in the recruit with offers from Florida, LSU, Michigan and dozens others.

“The opportunity to play right away, they didn’t sign a cornerback this last class,” Gervin told Blue & Gold Illustrated helped sway him. “Also, the education is second-to-none. It speaks for itself.”

Allen, pictured at top, has leaned toward Notre Dame for months. The No. 3 safety in the country per Rivals, he chose the Irish over the likes of Alabama, Clemson and Florida State.

Elliott officially to Nebraska

The two highly-touted defensive backs will not have the chance to learn under the tutelage of Bob Elliott. Nebraska officially announced the hiring of the former Notre Dame safeties (2012-13) and linebackers (2014) coach. Elliott spent the last two seasons serving as a special assistant to Kelly, focusing largely on defending the triple-option attacks of Army, Navy and Georgia Tech.

Elliott rejoins former Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco in Lincoln. Diaco was hired as the Cornhuskers’ defensive coordinator in January.

The Lincoln Journal Star’s Brian Cristopherson reports Elliott will make a nice wage in eastern Nebraska.

Could Kelly move a receiver to cornerback?

PALO ALTO, CA - NOVEMBER 30:  Bennett Jackson #2 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish intercepts this pass intended for Michael Rector #3 of the Stanford Cardinal during the fourth quarter at Stanford Stadium on November 30, 2013 in Palo Alto, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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Before the weekend, Notre Dame already had 10 receivers on its depth chart, all with at least two seasons of eligibility remaining. Cornerback, meanwhile, is a position where the roster seems to be lacking, with only seven currently on scholarship. The only fact staving off panic is that all seven also have two years of eligibility in hand. Nonetheless, an additional body in the defensive backfield at practice would seem to be a reasonable want, if not quite a necessity.

Thus, the addition of graduate transfer receiver Freddy Canteen—himself having two seasons of potential college football to go—brought the return of wonderings: Should one of the plethora of Irish receivers switch to breaking up passes?

Aside from balancing the roster and easing some concerns should an injury strike, such a move could also present the player a chance at increased playing time. By no means would the maneuver need to be a selfless one.

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly has had success with such positional flipping. Specifically, Kelly and his coaching staff have overseen the successful switches of receiver-turned-cornerback Bennett Jackson and receiver-turned-safety-and-then-linebacker James Onwualu. Furthermore, defensive backs Matthias Farley and KeiVarae Russell both arrived at Notre Dame expecting to be on the offensive side of the ball before changes early in their careers.

BENNETT JACKSON
A three-star receiver recruit, Jackson stuck with Notre Dame during the transition from Charlie Weis to Brian Kelly, signing with the Irish only weeks after Kelly took the lead of the program. In his freshman season, Jackson carried the ball plenty, as the kick returner. Aside from fielding kickoffs, he had only one carry for 20 yards. That was it for his offensive playmaking.

On special teams, however, he excelled without the ball, too. Jackson finished with 10 tackles, including four against Purdue to start the season. That nose for the ballcarrier prompted the coaching staff to switch Jackson’s positional group. In the following three seasons, he amassed 147 tackles, 11 pass break-ups and two interceptions.

Before Notre Dame faced Alabama in the 2012 BCS National Championship Game, Jackson looked back on his career change.

“I liked receiver. Obviously, I wanted to be a guy with the ball in my hands,” he said. “At first, I wasn’t mad about it, but I wasn’t fond of it.

“As time went on, I actually liked the position a lot more. I had a lot more fun and I got to compete a lot more.”

JAMES ONWUALU
A four-star recruit with the ambiguous “athlete” designation in 2013, Onwualu—like Jackson—spent his freshman season as a receiver. Unlike Jackson, he actually caught some passes. Two, to be exact, for a total of 34 yards. Continuing on a parallel to Jackson, Onwualu totaled six tackles on special teams.

Years later, it is easy to see the receiving depth in Notre Dame’s class of 2013. Onwualu aside, the Irish brought in Corey Robinson, Torii Hunter, Jr., and Will Fuller. It was going to be a tough road to featured playing time for Onwualu. Realizing this, he set to finding a different path.

“I honestly wasn’t sure receiver was the spot for me anyway, so I walked right up to coach Kelly’s office and we had a talk about where I wanted to go and what my thoughts were for my career,” Onwualu told und.com early in his senior season. “We ended up agreeing that the defensive side, we might as well give it a shot, and it worked out.”

Initially, that conversation landed Onwualu at safety. At 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds, he found himself at linebacker pretty quickly thereafter.

“That was a tough one for me because he’s so valuable offensively in a number of ways,” Kelly said before 2014 spring practice. “He’s such a consistent player and he loves to compete. But he’s got great contact skills.”

Onwualu ended his Notre Dame career with 143 total tackles, including those pivotal six his freshman season, along with six sacks.

MATTHIAS FARLEY & KEIVARAE RUSSELL
Both Farley and Russell entered Notre Dame as “athletes”, the former a three-star recruit and the latter a four-star prospect. While Farley was expected to line up at receiver and Russell at running back, each switched to safety and cornerback, respectively, before ever joining the Irish offense. Safe to say it worked out rather well for each.

WHO NOW?
Far be it for the internet to speculate, but that seems to be one of its three primary purposes in the 21st century.

None of the current 11 receivers entered college deemed “athletes” by recruitniks. One does mirror Jackson and Onwualu in that he excelled on special teams last year. Rising sophomore Chase Claypool recorded 11 tackles in his debut season to go along with his five catches for 81 yards. Claypool notched multiple tackles against Nevada, Syracuse and Virginia Tech.

Kelly and new defensive coordinator Mike Elko very well may choose to test fate in 2017 and rely on only seven cornerbacks. After all, how often would the Irish ever have more than four on the field, anyways?

But if Kelly and Elko err on the side of caution, whoever makes the positional switch should not cringe in doing so. It has worked out pretty well both for his predecessors and for Notre Dame.