Notre Dame v Syracuse

Post-spring stock report: Offensive Line

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If there was one thing made very clear leaving spring practice it was the state of the offensive line. After three years of restocking the depth chart, the Irish should be very good up front.

As mock draft prognosticators everywhere have pointed out all weekend, Brian Kelly did very well for himself by talking Ronnie Stanley into returning for his senior season. While we first reported that Stanley received only a second-round evaluation from the NFL’s advisory board, Stanley—at least 365 days before next season’s draft—is finding himself in the conversation for the No. 1 pick.

Setting that silliness aside (not Stanley’s draft ceiling, but rather the fact that we’re even having that conversation now), Stanley’s return turns a position of strength into a unit that could very well be dominant. With Nick Martin spending spring healthy and playing center, a mix of veterans and ascending youth creates a nice depth chart to make Harry Hiestand’s position group one that should be ready to dominate in the trenches.

Let’s get a look at the post-spring depth chart and check out some movers and shakers after a revealing spring practice.

 

POST-SPRING DEPTH CHART

LT: Ronnie Stanley, Sr. (6-5.5, 318)
LG: Quenton Nelson, Soph.* (6-4.5, 325)
C: Nick Martin, GS (6-4.5, 301)
RG: Steve Elmer, Jr. (6-5.5, 315)
RT: Mike McGlinchey, Jr.* (6-7.5, 310)

LT: Alex Bars, Soph* (6-6, 316)
or Hunter Bivin, Jr.* (6-5.5, 302)
LG: Alex Bars, Soph.* (6-6, 316)
C: Sam Mustipher, Soph.* (6-2, 305)
RG: John Montelus, Jr.* (6-4, 310)
RT: Colin McGovern, Jr.* (6-4.5, 315)

OT: Mark Harrell, Sr.* (6-4, 306)
OG: Jimmy Byrne, Soph.* (6-4, 295)
C: Tristen Hoge, Fr. (6-4.5, 281)

*Denotes fifth year available

 

STOCK UP

Ronnie Stanley: In his first spring practice at Notre Dame where he was fully healthy, Stanley took the strides forward expected of him. With a key 2015 season in front of him, Stanley is going to play next season with a bullseye on his chest—one that comes from evaluations like this:

Staying healthy and getting better were the keys to spring. That he showed some pretty impressive athleticism (and didn’t get hurt) on a screen pass during the Blue-Gold game were the perks. Now it’s time to see if Stanley can play to the level Zack Martin did, without the ability to fly under the radar of the player-evaluating media members.

 

Nick Martin: Perhaps we’ll see Martin at his best next season. Because after hearing Brian Kelly tell it, Martin played far from there last season, not just hampered by a hand injury, but still feeling the lingering effects from a serious knee injury suffered late in the 2013 season that robbed him of lower-body strength.

With Martin back at center, the Irish offensive line should be able to line up its five best players, led by the returning captain and Stanley. Getting healthy and stronger at the point of attack were key. Using his football IQ—and pairing it with the physicality necessary to be dominant—are necessary to have a top-flight center in his fifth season.

 

Mike McGlinchey: We’re looking at McGlinchey as a returning starter, not technically true considering McGlinchey only played in that role during garbage time against USC and getting his first start against LSU. But McGlinchey looks comfortable in the starting lineup, a position he nearly found himself in after spending last spring as the team’s right tackle.

But McGlinchey took a big step forward this spring, as the imposing right tackle will be a key to keeping everything together if the Irish are going to have the powerful ground game many expect. A natural athlete who has earned praise for his work on the practice field, McGlinchey gets his opportunity to show off on Saturdays this season, a key building block up front.

 

Steve Elmer: After struggling at tackle to start last season, Elmer slid back inside to guard after a rocky start, finding his footing on the interior, where he played as a freshman. It was one piece of a four-man shift, helping the Irish solidify their front five.

At his best, Elmer is dominant. At his worst? Well, the tape looked pretty bad. This spring was spent ironing out some technical mistakes, the type that come from moving around and being thrown to the wolves early.

A cerebral player who also has a tremendous physical skill set, Elmer enters his junior season poised to put it all together. That started to show itself this spring.

 

Quenton Nelson & Alex Bars: I’m pairing these two together because get ready to see them stuck together for the next few years. Nelson emerged as the starting left guard as practice wore on, though Kelly committed to getting Bars the snaps needed to advance his craft—either platooning with Nelson or somewhere else.

But after Ronnie Stanley moves to the NFL, expect these two to line up next to each other on the left side of the offensive line, with Bars playing tackle and Nelson mauling people from the guard spot. That Bars isn’t thrown in is a luxury that not many coaches have, and Kelly’s already called Bars one of the most natural talents he’s had in 20-plus years.

In all likelihood, Bars is the sixth man on this offensive line, capable of coming in at tackle, even if Hunter Bivin is listed as the No. 2 behind Stanley. So after a redshirt year for both talented youngsters, these two represent the future of the Irish offensive line. And we’ll get to see them compete come September.

 

STOCK NEUTRAL

Colin McGovern: Last year, I got the feeling that McGovern was making his move—a versatile lineman capable of stepping in if needed. But watching Nelson and Bars jump past McGovern, and hearing other names come out of Brian Kelly’s mouth, it’ll be interesting to see where McGovern fits into the puzzle this season.

He’s likely the next offensive tackle off the bench behind Bars, and if injuries pile up he’ll have a chance to be in the thick of it. But in a critical spring where the depth chart is showing its strength—offensive coordinator Mike Sanford said he has ten offensive linemen he feels can contribute, Kelly tabbed seven of eight—McGovern is likely in that group, but near the bottom.

That’s not the spring I expected from him, but he’s still likely capable of helping Notre Dame win.

 

Sam Mustipher: If we’re looking at the last two seasons, we’ve seen plenty of movement at center, with Martin’s injuries and Matt Hegarty’s surprising departure. Enter Mustipher, who’ll serve (or is listed as) the team’s second-string center. That’s a big responsibility for a convert to the position, really only seen at the position these 15 practices.

There were a few shaky snaps this spring game, including one roller, that have some worried about Mustipher. But with Tristen Hoge likely redshirting this year before getting into the battle for a starting job, Mustipher is the guy who gets the first call—and this spring didn’t necessarily convince anybody that he was ready to do it.

 

STOCK DOWN

Hunter Bivin: This might not be fair because we only saw limited reps, but count me among the skeptics that Bivin is ready to be on the field as a left tackle. Once a promising recruit, Bivin has jumped around the offensive line trying to find a proper fit, but backing up Ronnie Stanley doesn’t look like the best one for him.

Entering his junior season, it’s way too early to cast Bivin off. And his struggles getting on the field speak more to the strength of those ahead of him than to anything he’s not doing.

But against a far from elite set of defensive ends in the Blue-Gold game, Bivin struggled protecting off the edge. That puts the onus on Stanley to stay healthy and Bars ready to compete, because through my eyes, Bivin still needs some work before he can hold his own at left tackle.

 

Mark Harrell: One of the veterans along the offensive line, Harrell spent last Blue-Gold game at center, a few wayward snaps getting him noticed for the wrong reasons. Entering his fourth season in South Bend, Harrell spent this spring buried on the depth chart, a long road between him and the field.

Originally targeted by Ohio State coach Ed Warinner when he was in South Bend, it’s hard seeing where Harrell fits into the puzzle in 2015. But he’s got the type of versatility, not to mention experience in the system, to be an interesting test case up front. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t look possible for him to see the field unless injuries strike or the Irish are winning comfortably.

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.