Brian Kelly podium

Coffee is for closers: The perfect finish to 2015 recruiting class

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With less than a month to go before National Signing Day, Notre Dame’s coaching staff has its entire focus on improving the team’s roster between now and the first Wednesday in February. After two-years of work on the current class — the roots of this group were seeded long, long ago — the next month turns into a high stakes, pressure game where college coaches build the foundation of their programs around the whims of (sometimes) coddled teenagers.

For all the relationship building and work each staff puts into a player, those efforts could go up in smoke in moments. We saw that a few years ago when Notre Dame’s coaching staff hung up the phone on Tuesday night being told Deontay Greenberry was sending his fax in the next morning, only to see the blue-chipper decide to go to Houston. That is the game.

With the Irish still chasing some critical final pieces to their recruiting efforts, let’s walk through some keys to finishing the 2015 recruiting class strong.

 

Get Your Early Enrollees Onto Campus. 

Notre Dame learned this one the hard way when the Irish lost linebacker Alex Anzalone to Florida after he arrived at the Under Armour All-American Game as an Irish pledge only to enroll in Gainesville for the second semester.

Anzalone was always a fragile commitment, he had bounced between Notre Dame, Ohio State and Florida through much of his recruitment. He also pinned Brian Kelly’s brief dalliance with the Philadelphia Eagles on the change, though those in the know still believed it was a 50-50 proposition from the start. (Anzalone has made 16 total tackles over two seasons with the Gators.)

Right now, the Irish expect Jerry TilleryTevon Coney, Tristen Hoge and Micah Dew-Treadway to begin class this January. Until then, they’ll likely be keeping close tabs on both Tillery and Coney.

LSU and Les Miles have had eyes for the 6-foot-6, 315-pounder since the beginning, and Tillery visited campus multiple times. In perhaps a concession that came from Miles’ pursuit, Tillery will now begin his career at defensive line.

Originally projected as an elite tackle, Tillery’s size and athleticism make him an intriguing prospect regardless. That Kelly and his staff recruit “power” types makes this an easy transition, also considering the road to the field on the defensive side of the ball is infinitely easier than along the offensive line right now.

For Coney, rumors of his move to Florida or Miami have been evergreen, even if the linebacker continues to refute them. Pulling a top prospect out of Florida is always a challenge, so don’t expect the Irish coaching staff to take their eyes of this recruitment until Coney’s in a dorm room.

 

Find Another Running Back and Defensive Back. 

Notre Dame’s search for more running back depth is well documented. With only Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant on scholarship, the Irish coaching staff is looking to add another back to Josh Adams, the Irish’s lone running back commit in the 2015 class.

They’ve searched far and wide. The Irish finished No. 2 for UA All-American Ronald Jones II, who chose USC from Orlando. They’re also in the mix for five-star recruit Soso Jamabo, with most pointing to UCLA as the leader. (That could change if Jim Mora heads to the NFL.)

That hasn’t stopped the Irish from identifying and chasing more backs. Florida’s Jordan Cronkrite took an official visit for the year-end awards banquet and is an option. Nashville’s Ke’Shawn Vaughn will likely see campus this January. Former Miami commit Dexter Williams is now considering the Irish as well, likely one of the reasons why a mini-Twitter war started when a Miami assistant took to social media to compare local climates.  Expect the Irish staff to kick the tires on a few other backs in the coming days as well.

In the secondary, the Irish are still holding out hope for another defensive back. While the grand slam is cornerback Iman “Biggie” Marshall from Long Beach Poly, finding another safety to add to the back line seems critical, especially with the uncertain fate of Nicky Baratti and the all but certain departure of Eilar Hardy.

Even with the trio of Prentice McKinneyMykelti Williams and Nicco Fertitta, the Irish staff is looking to add one more safety. Frontrunner Ben Edwards pledged to Stanford last week. That seems like a done deal, but Edwards has wobbled a few times already during his recruitment.

Frank Buncom of San Diego had more interest nationally than from Notre Dame until the Irish offered this fall, and a knee injury adds another element to his recruitment. But most believe he’ll stay on the West Coast.

The Irish offered Justin Reid, whose brother played at LSU. Beating the Tigers couldn’t have hurt. They’re also chasing Gary Jennings, who seems to prefer the chance to play offense in college. Irish Illustrated reports  ($) that the Irish staff has warmed to the idea.

 

Pull a Rabbit Out of the Hat. (And Keep the Other Ones In.)

Expect a name nobody is expecting to come out of the blue. That could be a below-the-radar prospect (at this time last year, nobody knew who Daniel Cage was). Or it could be a commitment to another program. Kelly and his staff are unafraid to battle for a big prospect or to make a move at a lesser-ranked guy. They’ve had success with both.

While it seems like a long shot, one of these days the Irish are going to have some success in Southern California with an elite prospect. Is Biggie Marshall that guy? Who knows, but it’d be a game-changer.

Also in the mix could be a fifth-year graduate transfer. Cody Riggs‘ success in South Bend didn’t go unnoticed. Tom Loy of Irish 247 reports ($) that a transfer could be in the mix, though didn’t name the target nor the position. Riggs didn’t hit campus until June. The transfer news wasn’t official until after Signing Day, though Amir Carlisle‘s move was listed as part of the recruiting class.

Finding a one-and-done player is a good way to maximize the roster’s 85 scholarships while also not making a long-term commitment. That allows a readymade player to come onto campus and have success, and a position like defensive end, safety, or even tight end could be an option. Kelly has also talked about being open to any transfer with three seasons of competition remaining.

 

Everything Erases After Signing Day. 

It’s worth a final note: Those star-ratings we all get so excited about? They disappear once a prospect is on campus. So while it’s certainly important to land elite talent, sometimes the guys who don’t look like much to a recruiting service end up turning out okay.

Sophomores Max Redfield and Greg Bryant were five-star recruits. They’re still finding their way to becoming that type of player on the field. Meanwhile, Will Fuller — a three-star by some measurements — just shattered every sophomore record in the Notre Dame books with a 15-touchdown season.

But with less than a month to go before one of the best days on the college football calendar, it’ll be worth keeping an eye on the coffee pot and the commitment list as the Irish staff looks to finish strong.

 

Irish land blue-chip OL Aaron Banks

aaron-banks
Tom Loy, Irish 247
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Notre Dame received the commitment of 4-star offensive tackle Aaron Banks on Friday afternoon. Picking the Irish over a national offer list that included Michigan, Tennessee, and local programs USC and UCLA, the 6-foot-7, 335-pound Banks reminded all that even if the Irish only won four games this season, Harry Hiestand is still one of the premier offensive line coaches in the country.

Banks made the commitment from a ceremony at his high school in El Cerrito, California. And when he picked the Irish, he added to Notre Dame’s impressive offensive line haul, joining Dillan Gibbons, Joshua Lugg and Robert Hainsey — a key piece of the puzzle moving forward.

Banks is a consensus 4-star recruit and a Top 200 prospect. He took an official visit to Michigan in November, but has been a long-time target of Hiestand’s, visiting South Bend in September and welcoming Brian Kelly and Hiestand into his home after the USC game.

As a big recruiting weekend gets started at Notre Dame, the annual Echoes Awards will serve as the beginning of an important home stretch for a program without a bowl game. As Kelly still looks to lock in a defensive coordinator, not to mention other staff changes still in the air, Banks takes back some of the lost momentum, a key commitment heading into a holiday dead period before a furious finish leading into the first Wednesday in February.

Banks is No. 18 in the Irish recruiting class. He’s an early-enrollee, ready to hit campus within weeks and compete on the interior of the offensive line during spring ball.

Zaire says thank you to Notre Dame

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA - SEPTEMBER 12: Quarterback Malik Zaire #8 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish rushes past defensive end Mike Moore #32 of the Virginia Cavaliers in the third quarter at Scott Stadium on September 12, 2015 in Charlottesville, Virginia. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish won, 34-27. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
Getty
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Big week for The Observer. Not just for its advertising revenues, but for the classy gesture that outgoing senior quarterback Malik Zaire made this week.

Thursday’s edition included a letter to the editor from Zaire, who took to the student newspaper not to make headlines around the internet, but rather to thank the university for his experience in South Bend.

While Zaire’s time at Notre Dame is drawing to a close, he will leave as a proud alum. So while he’ll play football next season at another university, Zaire wrote the following in Thursday’s issue:

Dear Notre Dame students and staff,

My life changed for the better the moment I stepped onto the University of Notre Dame’s beautiful campus. The one goal I had set in my mind to achieve was to become a better man, a Notre Dame man. After growing through many trials and triumphs, the thing I’ve learned most from my experience was that if you don’t believe in yourself first, then no one else will. I believed in becoming a better man and succeeding through any circumstance, and I can say that I’ve truly accomplished that. I often refer to the famous quote from the movie “Catch Me If You Can” that was well put by Frank Abagnale:

“Two little mice fell in a bucket of cream. The first mouse quickly gave up and drowned. The second mouse wouldn’t quit. He struggled so hard that eventually he churned that cream into butter and crawled out.”

I’ve put my heart, soul and passion into the University, the football program, the South Bend community and the Irish community worldwide. I have the unbelievable honor to represent this University to the fullest as a student and soon-to-be alumni. Thank you to the amazing students and staff that I’ve met through the years for helping me grow into the person I’ve always wanted to be. I love the Irish and will always be an Irish alum no matter where I go! I look forward to keeping in touch. Let’s change the world!

Go Irish!

Malik Zaire

Senior
Dec. 7

Zaire is expected to compete for a starting quarterback job next year as a graduate transfer. He’s reportedly taken a visit to Wisconsin and plans to visit North Carolina as well, just two of several programs on the radar as Zaire looks to step in and win a starting Power 5 job.

 

 

 

ESPN’s Kiper & McShay: Kizer should return to Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 29: DeShone Kizer #14 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish drops back to pass during the game against the Miami Hurricanes at Notre Dame Stadium on October 29, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
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It’s evaluation season. With college football’s regular season over, the focus now turns to the stay-or-go decision that faces many of college football’s best players. Return for another season? Or head to the NFL?

That’s the big question facing DeShone Kizer. Viewed as a can’t-miss prospect by some earlier in the season, Kizer now awaits feedback from the NFL’s advisory board, who’ll give him either a first-round grade, a second-round grade, or none — essentially serving as a message to return to school.

That feedback is something Kizer’s requested, with Brian Kelly revealing that Kizer is one of four underclassmen requesting a review, joined by Mike McGlinchey, Nyles Morgan and Quenton Nelson. 

And while most still think it’s merely a formality before Kizer heads to the NFL, two of the media’s most well-established pundits, ESPN’s Mel Kiper and Todd McShay, are among those who actually think Kizer should stay in school.

In ESPN’s 25 questions about the 2017 NFL Draft, Kiper and McShay focus their attention on potential first-round quarterbacks:

There’s really only one guy right now, and he might not even enter the draft. That’s North Carolina’s Mitch Trubisky, a fourth-year junior who is in his first season as the starter. Trubisky has thrown 28 touchdown passes to only four interceptions, but he’s still green — with another year of seasoning, he could be the No. 1 pick in the 2018 draft. He’s not ready to play right away in the NFL.

I don’t see any other first-rounders in the group. Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer, a third-year sophomore, has to go back to school. Clemson’s Deshaun Watson has taken a step back this season. Underclassmen Luke Falkand Patrick Mahomes could use another year in school, and they don’t project as first-rounders.

McShay echoed Kiper’s evaluation of Kizer, stating: “Kizer needs another year.” And if the Irish get that, it means they’ll have a 1-2 depth chart of a third-year starter in Kizer and junior Brandon Wimbush, who saved a year of eligibility in 2016 and has three remaining.

Kizer’s been clear that he hasn’t made up his mind, planning on talking with his family about the decision in the weeks following the season. And with the year-end banquet this weekend with Notre Dame hosting the “Echoes,” that decision might come sooner than later.

Last year, the NFL draft wasn’t kind to the Irish roster. Four key players gave up eligibility to head to the NFL, with Ronnie Stanley going in the Top 10 to the Baltimore Ravens and Will Fuller joining him as a first-round selection after going to the Houston Texans. Even injured, Jaylon Smith was taken near the top of the second round by Dallas and C.J. Prosise was a third-round selection of the Seattle Seahawks.

Underclassmen have until January 16th to declare.

 

Swarbrick discusses the state of Irish football program

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Jack Swarbrick spoke extensively about the state of the Notre Dame football program. Released last Friday and a part of Swarbrick’s weekly podcast, the Irish athletic director covered the laundry list of hot-button issues, including Brian Kelly’s status, the NCAA order to vacate wins that Notre Dame is appealing, and the challenge of winning football games in today’s environment.

The entire 25 minutes are worth a listen, as Swarbrick and Nolan cover just about every question and complaint that’s out there. And in case you don’t have that time, here’s a quick breakdown:

 

Swarbrick on the 2016 season. 

“It was an extremely disappointing year. Every player, every coach, myself, other administrators involved in the program, we all share the same view. There’s no way around that conclusion. It’s not bad breaks, it’s not a play here, a play there. We didn’t do what we need to do. So we do start from that perspective.

“I think there’s a danger in overreacting to any one piece of information that you get in the course of the evaluation of football programs. That begins with, it looks one way from a this-season perspective, but it feels a little different to me from a two-season perspective.”

 

Swarbrick on the evaluation process: 

“I’m looking at the program. Wins and losses are a huge indicia of where the program is, but it’s not the only one. More important to me, frankly, is the experience of our students. My interaction with them and what their interactions with the coaches, and the environment and are we meeting their expectations. Now, we clearly didn’t meet their expectations competitively this year, because they want to win, too. But on many of the other things, the program elements are in good shape.”

 

On the off-field issues, and the challenges that faced the football team this fall. 

“I don’t want to do anything to minimize the disappointments, whether they’re competitive or unacceptable behavior in the last game at USC by one of our players, obviously, which just isn’t acceptable, it isn’t okay. The disciplinary issues we had to deal with at the front of the year, none of those are acceptable, all of those go into the evaluation, but those are the only ones that sort of get the public scrutiny. I’m dealing with the other 120 young men who are for the most part like my co-host James (Onwualu), doing everything right, making every right decision, having a real positive experience. You’ve got to look at it all, not just isolated elements of it.

 

Discussing the disappointment of the NCAA’s ruling to vacate wins and why the university is appealing: 

“If you’d merely expelled the students, you wouldn’t get this penalty. But because you went though an educative process and kept them in school and adjusted credits and made those things, you subjected yourself to this penalty. That seems like a bad message to send, but that’s one that we’re continuing to advocate for down the road.”

 

On the challenges of winning in today’s college football, as opposed to 30 years ago. 

“I think undoubtedly it is harder. Now, people from that era may have a different view. But there are things that make it harder. But it doesn’t make any difference. It’s harder to win basketball games than it was back then. It’s harder to do a number of things.

“We don’t treat any of that as an excuse or a reason to have different goals. I sort of embrace that. Some of those things that you might view as obstacles are ultimately the things that we have to offer young people. It is the eliteness of the institution and the quality of the education. You can’t say it’s an obstacle and then talk about how great it is because it helps you. That’s the way it is. I wouldn’t trade anything for the circumstance we now compete in. I think it is exactly what it should be. We have to do a better job with it, that’s all.”