Demetris Robertson
Rivals / Yahoo Sports

Late push could finalize elite recruiting class for Notre Dame

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Notre Dame’s 2016 recruiting class was supposed to be a small one. Yet with two weeks to go until Signing Day, Brian Kelly has put together another Top 10 recruiting class, one that could turn into a contender for the best group in the nation.

A strong 2015 season helped—so did a large exodus at season’s end. That’s allowed the 2016 class to have the potential to swell into one of the largest groups signed by Kelly since he arrived in South Bend.

With the Irish coaching staff spread coast to coast chasing some of the nation’s elite prospects, the first Wednesday in February is just around the corner. With five early-enrollees already on campus and the 22-man class potentially adding as many as four more members, let’s take a look at the remaining targets on the board.

 

 

DEMETRIS ROBERTSON

The five-star athlete could be the heir apparent to Will Fuller. Or at least that’s the pitch Notre Dame’s coaching staff gave on Monday night, using Kelly’s in-home visit to try and secure a commitment from one of the nation’s most tantalizing athletes. Robertson welcomed a large contingent of Irish coaches into his home in Savannah, where Notre Dame’s head coach was joined by offensive coordinator Mike Sanford and area recruiters Scott Booker and Autry Denson as they sold Robertson on replacing the Irish All-American.

Rivals’ Woody Wommack caught up with Robertson after the visit:

“They think I can come in and take over the X-receiver spot from Will,” Robertson told Rivals. “Coach Kelly compares me to him a lot, especially my deep threat ability and my route-running and things like that. He said that I have more upside coming in than Will had, even though I’m about the same size he was coming out.”

Robertson stood out on the East team during the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, a game that featured an impressive kick return from the Georgia native, who is still being chased by Alabama and Georgia. It wrapped up an impressive week in San Antonio for the elite prospect, who would be the best offensive players signed by the Irish since Charlie Weis reeled in Jimmy Clausen.

 

CALEB KELLY

Notre Dame hasn’t had much luck recruiting Fresno. But the Irish staff believes things could be different with Kelly, a five-star linebacker who could add another high-end prospect to a linebacker position that’ll need to reload after the loss of Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt and Jarrett Grace.

Bob Stoops—who has built a pipeline into Fresno—already used his in-home visit. Notre Dame saved Brian Kelly’s, hopeful that the Irish head coach can help close on Kelly and finally get one of Central California’s top athletes onto the football field in South Bend.

Anna Hickey of Irish Illustrated spoke with the talented linebacker about how he’s been recruited—starting on the outside with the potential to perhaps grow into a pass rusher.

“He talked to me about his coaching style and position-wise how he does things at Notre Dame,” Kelly said. “He said things could change depending on how I grow, but right now he likes me at Sam. I could develop into a defensive end. He said the defense varies a lot, so all of the players have to know every position.”

Here’s a look at Kelly in action.

 

JEFFREY MCCULLOCH

Notre Dame has been in on the Houston linebacker since he opened eyes at The Opening with some freakish test scores. They finally got McCulloch on campus and managed to open his eyes as well, with the potential fit at Notre Dame a good one.

But Texas has come on, with Charlie Strong selling McCulloch on the virtues of staying home and playing immediately for the Longhorns. McCulloch also earned admission at Stanford, likely a key in a Signing Day decision that pushed back from the original plan to announce at the Under Armour All-American game.

It’ll come down to the wire for McCulloch—with the Irish needing to regain some momentum if they want to add this explosive linebacker who could come in and contribute off the edge right away.

 

BEN DAVIS

Notre Dame did all they could by getting Davis on campus last weekend and giving the Alabama native a look at what life could be like in South Bend. Hosted by Jerry Tillery and given an honest appraisal of what the academic rigors entail, Davis left Notre Dame putting them in a top three with Alabama and Georgia, where former Crimson Tide defensive coordinator Kirby Smart has made him a priority.

Leaving Notre Dame running third doesn’t necessarily give you warm and fuzzy feelings. But this Irish staff has pulled a rabbit out of the hat once or twice on Signing Day in SEC upsets and if they could pull that off with Alabama legacy Davis, they’ll have executed their finest magic trick yet.

 

JONATHAN JONES

Jones certainly doesn’t have the recruiting accolades of the talented trio just discussed, but he’s certainly no slouch. With Michigan still running in the lead for the Orlando native, Jones has seen a lot of the Irish staff, including a recent visit by position coach and recruiting coordinator Mike Elston.

The 247 Crystal Ball still points Michigan’s way, but Jones has one key family member in Notre Dame’s corner, according to Blue & Gold’s Andrew Ivins.

“My dad is Notre Dame all the way,” Jones told B&G. “He loves all of the other schools. He like Michigan and [Coach Harbaugh] but he likes that life after football aspect at Notre Dame. My mom she just wants me to where I’m comfortable and that’s what I want.”

Jones may be a bit undersized, but projects as a possible Mike or Will option. He was a productive high school player with a slew of impressive offers and even if he’s not the “big name” that Kelly, McCulloch or Davis is, once the ink is dry and the faxes are in, the stars disappear.

 

 

JORDAN FULLER

Few corners look like Jordan Fuller. And even with a stacked defensive back group in the 22-man recruiting class, the jumbo-sized DB could look pretty good in a Notre Dame uniform.

Fuller may not have played at an elite level in San Antonio at the Army Bowl, but his intriguing skill set still has Notre Dame in a battle with Michigan, Penn State, Rutgers and Ohio State, who just entertained Fuller last weekend. The New Jersey native has been on campus twice, the last visit for Notre Dame’s ECHOES awards banquet.

This could be a situation where the Irish might not have room come Signing Day. But with a fifth-year class looking minimal, extending past the 25-man limit could be a possibility, especially with five early enrollees potentially counting against last year’s group.

 

NATE JOHNSON

Notre Dame’s most recent target could come at Michigan’s expense. Tennessee receiver Nate Johnson has been a name to watch of late, and taking one look at his senior highlights helps you understand why.

This kid can fly.

With the loss of Fuller, Chris Brown, Amir Carlisle and Corey Robinson a senior in 2016, a reload is necessary in the receiving corps. And finding a way to score a late visit from Johnson and receive his fax on Signing Day morning could be the type of late addition that helps make this class special.

 

Report: Justin Brent to transfer

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Justin Brent has not seen the playing field since Notre Dame faced LSU in the Music City Bowl back in December of 2014. That now looks like it will be the last time Irish fans see him in a Notre Dame uniform, as well. Reports indicate the rising senior running back will transfer.

Irish 247’s Tom Loy broke the news, soon confirmed by Irish Illustrated’s Pete Sampson.

A consensus top-100 pick out of Indianapolis (Ind.) Speedway High School, Brent arrived in South Bend with high expectations, but will depart without an official statistic aside from snaps in nine games his freshman season. He recorded no catches, carries or tackles.

 

Thanks Keith, Now Dear Readers…

SOUTH BEND, IN - NOVEMBER 19: Josh Adams #33 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish takes a hand off from DeShone Kizer #14 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium on November 19, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. Virginia Tech defeated Notre Dame 34-31.(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Dear “Inside the Irish” fans, “Inside the Irish” foes and, of course, my parents –
Dear curious purveyors, my stand-alone predecessor and Tim Raines –
Mostly, dear Notre Dame fans, Notre Dame spectators and college students enjoying any and all hallowed traditions –

Yes, unfortunately for you and fortunately for me, Keith tossed me the keys to this 1971 Volkswagen Beetle known as NBC Sports’ “Inside the Irish” blog. Don’t worry, I know how to drive stick shift.

If I were feeling corny, I would tell you I first reported on Notre Dame football in the fall of 1996, shouting out the garage window to my father as Allen Rossum returned Purdue’s opening kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown. If we are ignoring sentimental childhood stories, however, then it would be more accurate to call 2009’s home-opener against Colin Kaepernick’s Nevada my beginning on the beat.

Over the last few days I reached out to a few of you readers whom I know, asking why you enjoyed Keith Arnold’s coverage. So as to keep them honest, I neglected to tell them I would be stepping into this spotlight today.

Repeatedly, I heard buzz words such as readable, reasonable and realistic. Those will be my goals, as well. My predecessor at The Observer no longer dabbles in journalism, but I still trust his view on most things. His response strikes me as an admirable objective.

“We are smart, informed sports fans with an irrational passion for ND football, and appreciate writers who share those traits but are professional enough to step back from the irrationality and put things in perspective… We like a realistic take, not a knee-jerk reaction.”

On that note, you will not see me give a recruiting update with my every breath. You will also not see me dispense as much cinema advice as Keith did. I am simply not the film-nik he is, though I am listening to the “La La Land” soundtrack as I write this. You will find jazz increases your words per minute rate.

I will often speak of gambling terms, but not to encourage the vice. Rather, I find those odds to be a thought-provoking and informing means of evaluating things. Today, various books strongly expected President Trump’s inauguration speech to last longer than 15 minutes. Thus, I figured it would last longer than 15, but not by all that much since such was the over/under mark set. I could step away from the computer and watch it without losing too much of my day. It lasted 16:18.

I will try to be conversational, especially in these Friday letters/news-dumps/updates/recaps, should they become a recurring piece.

I intend to keep many, but not all, of Keith’s recurring features, as daunting as many of them seem. If I am to make this place my own, some will have to change. It’s okay, we’ll get through that together.

So ask questions, state your wonderings and pitch story ideas. This very format was a seed watered by one of you early this morning. Admittedly, prior to suggesting this he referred to me in terms I refuse to post publicly, but old drinking buddies have earned that right.

It’s late Friday afternoon. Grab a drink, and don’t you dare leave it unfinished.

– Douglas.

And in that corner… Introducing Douglas Farmer

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 17: Members of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish sing the alma mater following a loss to the Michigan State Spartans at Notre Dame Stadium on September 17, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. Michigan State defeated Notre Dame 36-28. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
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It’s time to turn over the keys. On a day where our great nation makes a peaceful transition, so does our humble blog.

I’d love to say I was smart enough to time my departure for the same day as inauguration, but as they say, it’s better to be lucky than good. And I was lucky to get the gig, and happy to turn it over to someone who I believe is a better-than-good writer: Douglas Farmer.

Douglas was Editor-in-Chief of The Observer when he was a student at Notre Dame. He’s worked for old media—earning a byline at the Los Angeles Times and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He’s worked the ND beat, not just at the school paper, but at Blue & Gold. And now, I’m very happy to say, he’s taking over Inside the Irish, a transition that I think will go wonderfully.

To give you an idea of who Douglas is, I milked one last column gave him the And in this Corner treatment.

Hope you enjoy. And, one last request—Be Nice.

 

Douglas, you graduated from Notre Dame in 2012, and last covered the Irish on a day-to-day basis in the 2014 season. What has you excited to come back to the beat?

Douglas Farmer: Given Notre Dame’s past season, I would say I am most excited to take an in-depth look at how the Irish respond — and perhaps rebound — in 2017. It has been awhile (nearly a decade, more accurately) since Notre Dame has needed to do that, so it is one area of football there is not much institutional knowledge to rely upon.

Aside from that, the general engagement with a fan base so devotedly-interested in its topic is always something to look forward to. Even during a 4-8 season, that fan base does not waver in its curiosity and thirst for information.

 

A nice perk is also getting paid for the addiction that is Notre Dame Football, no?

DF: I prefer to subscribe to Hurricane Carter’s opinion on addictions: Do not be addicted to anything “they” can take away from you.

 

Well put. As I thought about the decision to move on, I came to the conclusion that there’s no perfect time to ever do so. That said, other than the head coach, this is as close to a reboot as you can ask for. Do these next few months get you excited, especially as an almost entirely new staff take charge?

DF: Just had to slip in a reference to removing the head coach, didn’t you?

Bouncing back from a rough season is the most appealing story line in sports, in anything really. Take a look at any movie you have ever watched (or, in your case, perhaps even been involved in). The hero experiences conflict just before redemption. Now, I am not saying Notre Dame is the hero. I am saying watching the team, the program, try to rebound has me very interested.

The staff turnover is an added wrinkle, and will only increase the work ahead for the program. Before the players can learn the plays, they have to learn the staff. Before that, the staff has to learn about each other.

 

So what’s the plan with the blog? You plan on getting to know the characters below the fold in the comments? Keep the A-to-Z series rolling? Do a better job proof-reading?

DF: I do not intend to outright abandon any institution or established series you have devoted years to. Thus, I would expect A-to-Z to continue in some form. But we will see. That is an easy thing to say when I have not yet reached the misery that must be “Q, R, S, …”

I would like to engage with the readers, but only so far as logic and rational conversation will allow. I have no interest in devolving to who knows what depths. Proof-reading, well, I want to say I will excel at that, but that just sets me up to eat a lot of crow when I miss a letter in April.

 

Smart. Will tell you about the A-to-Z… This roster is a front-loaded one, alphabetically, at least.

DF: All of high school I had a locker next to a Favre. (Not really related.) I understand the luxuries the alphabet can provide.

 

Let’s go rapid fire for a second: Favorite game you saw in person at Notre Dame?

DF: Either the 2012 Stanford game or the 2011 South Florida game. I realize how absurd that latter answer sounds, but that is part of why it stands the test of time. It was such a unique experience. Plus, being allowed to go back to the dorm for an hour at halftime made the whole day more entertaining.

 

Best road game experience?

DF: 2010 Army in Yankee Stadium jumps to the top of the heap, though I suppose technically not a road game. Go ahead and score against me for this, but I am a lifelong Yankees fan. That was a big one for me.

(KA note: The Observer must not have had the $$ to send the editor to Dublin…)

(DF note to KA’s note: I graduated in May 2012. The Observer did manage to send four staffers to Dublin the following September. Sometimes I wonder if I would not have been better off if I had taken two years to get through fifth grade.)

 

Favorite player to watch during your time as a student?

DF: Golden Tate could have walked around the football field as Maximus, for all I’m concerned, given how entertaining he often was. Though Lou Nix also holds a lofty place in my regard.
I lived a door down from Lou for two years, part of the reasoning there.

 

Favorite villain of the Irish from your time watching/following Notre Dame football?

DF: Pete Carroll runs away with the award. His candidacy is enhanced by my Wisconsin-bred Packer fandom.I do not like disliking Pete Carroll. I very much wish I could be indifferent toward him. The Falcons granted me that luxury for nine months.

 

Part of what has me excited about this transition is that I actually thought you’d be a good person to turn the keys over to, as I enjoyed reading your stuff when you were at The Observer and covering the Irish in your post-graduation years. What’s the most exciting part for you about taking over the blog? And what do you look forward to doing with it?

DF: I am most excited for the chance to write, and the chance to write about something on which I consider myself relatively knowledgeable. I look forward to seeing where the blog environment takes me. The open-ended aspect of it presents all sorts of possibilities.

Theoretically, I can be more freewheeling than elsewhere, get in-and-out quicker of some pieces, spend more time on others. I know Notre Dame fans of all varieties — the obsessed, the apathetic, pessimistic, optimistic, etc. — including some who have yet to decide how they feel about Tommy Rees. (Feel positively about him. It’s that simple.)

My sample size is certainly representative of the fan base as a whole. That wide swath is what makes covering Notre Dame enjoyable, and very well may provide the blog some direction and material on its own.

Oh, and I appreciate those kind words, Keith. I’ll Venmo you $20 later tonight.

 

Sliding a final question into my lightning round. What’s your handle on NDNation? (Kidding!)

DF: I will take my right to not incriminate myself, otherwise known as the Fifth.

Notre Dame makes Alexander and Balis hires official

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Notre Dame confirmed the news that Del Alexander and Matt Balis are joining Brian Kelly’s staff. As expected, Alexander will coach wide receivers while Balis was named director of football performance.

The program announced both hires on Thursday.

“I was looking for an experienced teacher, mentor, recruiter and developer of student-athletes,” head coach Brian Kelly said in a statement. “Del not only met the criteria, but he exceeded it. He also understands, respects and values the type of young men we want to bring to this University and football program.”

Alexander, who’ll lean on his West Coast roots and familiarity with new offensive coordinator Chip Long, said the following:

“I’m excited to officially get on board, hit the road recruiting, and to find and develop the best student-athletes in the country. Notre Dame is a special place, and I’ve been able to the see the power of its brand on the recruiting trails across the country for the last 15-20 years. I’m honored and humbled to serve this University, this program and these remarkable young men.”

Balis comes to Notre Dame from UConn, with an impressive pedigree that counts jobs at Mississippi State, Florida, Virginia and Utah. He takes over for Paul Longo, who is taking a leave of absence from the football program, per the official release.

“Matt comes to Notre Dame with impeccable credentials and incredibly high praise from the likes of Urban Meyer, Mickey Marotti, Dan Mullen, Bob Diaco and Al Groh,” Kelly said. “He’s already instituted a strength program built with a foundation that focuses on hard work, discipline and top-notch competition. Matt will demand the best from our players, not only in the weight room, but in many other areas within our program. I couldn’t be more excited to have him in place moving forward.”