With regular season finished, recruiting comes into focus

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Notre Dame’s regular season is complete. But the recruiting schedule is heating up, with Brian Kelly and his assistant coaches criss-crossing the country as they work to finalize the 2016 recruiting class.

Coming off of a 10-win regular season and likely accepting a very impressive bowl bid this weekend, Kelly and his assistants have plenty to sell as they look to  finishing strong on some of their top targets. With a few holes that need to be filled and some very big fish still considering Notre Dame, let’s take a look at the current commitments, some final targets and the overall scholarship picture heading into 2016.

 

THE COMMITS

Notre Dame’s 2016 recruiting class sits at 18 members.

Ian Book, QB
Parker Boudreaux, OL
Chase Claypool, WR/DB
Liam Eichenberg, OL
Jalen Elliott, DB
Jamir Jones, LB/DE
Tony Jones, RB
Khalid Kareem, DE
Tommy Kraemer, OL
Julian Love, DB
Deon McIntosh, RB
D.J. Morgan, DB
Adetokunbo Ogundeji, DE
Julian Okwara, DE
Spencer Perry, DB
John Shannon, LS
Kevin Stepherson, WR
Donte Vaughn, DB

For those looking for a quick breakdown, the class consists of:

QB: 1 (Book)
RBs: 2 (Jones, McIntosh)
WRs: 2 (Claypool, Stepherson)
DE: 3-4 (Kareem, Ogundeji, Okwara and maybe Jones)
OL: 3 (Boudreaux, Eichenberg, Kraemer)
DB: 5-6 (Elliott, Love, Morgan, Perry, Vaughn maybe Claypool)
Specialist: 1 (Shannon, long snapper)

 

STILL CHASING

As Notre Dame’s staff takes their in-home visits, multiple reports help us cobble together a priority list of who the Irish still covet. (There are better places for this info, but I’ll do my best.) Here’s a far-from complete list of recruits still on board, some better shots to come to Notre Dame than others.

 

Daelin Hayes, OLB — The Irish appear to be in great shape for the 5-star linebacker, who reportedly will announce his intentions on December 10 and early enroll. Brian Kelly, Urban Meyer and Mark Dantonio are all still chasing the Michigan product, who projects to be a difference-maker at the next level. Hayes isn’t without some risk, injuries have limited his actual playing time as a high school football star, making this more of a developmental project than most would suspect. Still, it sounds like the Irish covet Hayes and appear to have as good a shot as anybody.

 

Devin Studstill, DB — The Florida native entertained Brian Kelly and area recruiter Autry Denson yesterday. Hailing from Te’von Coney’s high school, Studstill has been to Notre Dame multiple times, and was an early target of this staff as they identified top defensive back prospects. Studstill’s star-ranking doesn’t match up with the Irish staff’s interest in him. It’s tough to traditionally pull a player like this out of Florida. But the Irish are trying, including an in-home visit last night.

 

Caleb Kelly, LB — Stop me if you’ve heard this one, but Notre Dame is chasing one of Fresno’s top high school football players. Once again, they’ll be doing battle with Bob Stoops and the Oklahoma pipeline that’s found its way to the Central Valley, but the Army All-American and 5-star prospect will be on campus for the end of the year awards show. Mike Denbrock is on the case for the Irish.

 

Ben Davis, LB — You might not have seen it coming, but the Alabama native is heading to Notre Dame for one of his final visits. He’s an Alabama legacy, he’s being chased by the SEC’s finest, but credit Autry Denson for getting Davis to take a look. Seems like a long shot, but worth the effort.

 

Damian Alloway, WR — Alloway is a diminutive speedster from Southern California who could add some big-play ability at slot receiver. Notre Dame is locked in a battle with UCLA for him, though if his decision pushes close to Signing Day, you’ve got to wonder if there’ll be room on the bus for him.

 

Javon McKinley, WR — Brian Kelly and Mike Sanford stayed in California after the Stanford game and visited McKinley, a receiver they’ve been after since jumpstreet. A big, explosive and physical talent, McKinley still feels like he’s Notre Dame’s to lose—though he hasn’t pulled the trigger yet and the Pac-12’s finest are chasing him, including hometown USC.

 

Damar Hamlin, CB — Notre Dame appears to be closing the gap on Hamlin, a key cornerback target for Todd Lyght and Brian VanGorder. The Pittsburgh-area coverman seems to be receptive of the Irish recruiting pitch, as Irish247’s Tom Loy recently switched his Crystal Ball pick to Notre Dame. It’s clear that the Irish staff is going all in on rebuilding the Irish secondary. Hamlin would be a great piece.

 

Jeffrey McCulloch, LB — One of the biggest athletic freaks at The Opening this summer, McCulloch showed up on the Irish radar then and visited Notre Dame for an official visit. The Dallas native entertained Brian Kelly and Mike Elston at home earlier this week. McCulloch is a speedy, explosive linebacker with a readymade 230-pound frame. It’ll be a battle for McCulloch with some top programs, but the Irish are in good position.

 

Demetris Robertson, ATH — An elite athlete from the state of Georgia, the departure of Marc Richt can’t hurt Notre Dame’s changes with a player who projects at multiple positions. Notre Dame has been after Robertson for a long time. He visited South Bend in September and will entertain Brian Kelly in-home before making a decision. An elite SEC talent who can go anywhere from Alabama to Stanford.

 

Oluwole Betiku, DE — A white whale of sorts, finding a way to get Betiku out of Serra high school, a USC breeding ground, would be a Manti Te’o-like upset. But Betiku has kept the Irish in his plans after he decommitted from UCLA in October and while the Trojans feel like the team to beat (Texas A&M is also in the mix) there’s still a puncher’s chance for Mike Denbrock, Brian VanGorder and Brian Kelly. Especially if Betiku looks at the depth chart.

 

HOW MANY CAN THEY TAKE?

As Notre Dame’s roster once again does the 85 scholarship dance, it’s worth taking a class-by-class look at the team Kelly has assembled. With 18 current commitments—and the Irish staff clearly hunting for more—it’ll be another fun offseason of seeing if the Irish can finally find a way to stay at the 85-man limit, something harder than expected, especially the last few years.

Let’s do some math!

ND Roster Makeup for 2016

Rising Sophomore Class: 23
Rising Junior Class: 20
Rising Senior Class: 20 (make it 19 until Jaylon Smith says otherwise)
62 scholarships
+
18 current commitments
+
Remaining Recruits
+
Fifth (and sixth)-year candidates (with early predictions):

Chase Hounshell (unexpected)
Avery Sebastian (recruiting dependent)
Jarrett Grace (still pending with NCAA)
Nicky Baratti (unexpected)
Scott Daly (expected)
Mark Harrell (unexpected)
Jarron Jones (expected)
C.J. Prosise (expected)
KeiVarae Russell (unexpected)
Ronnie Stanley (unexpected)
John Turner (unexpected)

Last year, Notre Dame went into spring practice over 85 scholarships, knowing that every year for 30+ seasons they’ve had at least one transfer out of the program. So while this certainly won’t quell any of the worry, consider this a reminder that once again a player (or two) will transfer and the Irish staff will do their best to be ready for that by having one or two players more than the limit on scholarship.

 

 

 

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.

 

Tranquill continues work with safeties … for now

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Drue Tranquill will see time at the oft-spoken of rover position, just not yet. For now, Notre Dame needs the senior at safety to provide leadership and communication while the rest of his position group gets up to speed.

“We really have to figure out what the coordination is going to be at the safety position,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “How much does Drue play down at rover? How much does he play back [at safety]?”

Only sophomore Devin Studstill returns any starts to the safety position aside from Tranquill’s career total of 18. Studstill started nine games last season.

That void has kept Tranquill working mostly with the defensive backs in the spring’s first few practices, rather than joining the likes of junior Asmar Bilal in the rover grouping.

“We didn’t want to pull our most veteran player out of the back end of our defense with Drue,” Kelly said. “I think it was more about the hesitancy of losing a great communicator in the back end than about the teaching.”

The time will come, however, for Tranquill to move up. Juniors Nick Coleman and Ashton White have moved to safety from the corner position. With more reps, they will not need to rely on Tranquill’s guidance as much. The same goes for, at least in theory, sophomore Jalen Elliott.

“It’s not really a heavy load of teaching for those guys,” Kelly said. “They’re picking it up quite well. We really want to get a chance to see a lot of guys back there.”

Kelly seemed particularly bullish on Coleman’s prospects at the position, provided he embrace the needed physicality. At 6-foot, 187 pounds, Coleman’s build may have been more suited on the outside, but Notre Dame’s plethora of promising cornerbacks provided an impetus to test Coleman at safety.

“The big thing will be Nick’s continuous development in tackling,” Kelly said. “You have to tackle back there. His ball skills are really good. We’ve seen that he’s able to play the ball. He has athleticism.

“We just want to continue to build on his tackling skills. If we go through the spring and say, ‘Well, he’s tackling really well,’ we’ll feel pretty good about the move.”

At that point, Tranquill will likely join Bilal at the hybrid position, which is something of a trademark to new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Tranquill will be able to do what he does best: Pursue the ball.

“We all know what his strengths are,” Kelly said. “He’s a solid tackler. I don’t think there’s any safety in college football that wants to get matched up one-on-one with a skilled slot receiver. This would minimize that, when you play him close to the ball as a rover.

“And I think he’s pretty quick off the edge. I think we put him in a really good position in maximizing his skill set.”

Until then, Bilal will continue to be the frontrunner at rover, especially with the first four Irish opponents of 2017 presenting run-heavy offenses.

KELLY ON NICK WATKINS
Kelly was also asked about senior cornerback Nick Watkins, his fit into Elko’s defense and his return from injury.

“He’s very coachable, wants to learn, he’s pretty long,” Kelly said. “What I think Mike [Elko] does really well—and this is what I liked about my interactions with him—is, we all have strengths and weaknesses. He has a great eye of saying let’s take Nick’s strengths and let’s put him in a position where we can really utilize his strengths and put him in a position where maybe we’re not a right and left corner team, maybe we’re a short field/wide field team. Let’s apply him in that fashion.

“Nick’s long. He’s a little bit of a physical player. Let’s go to those strengths. He’s shown some of those attributes early on.”

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