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Talking Irish: Shamrock Series (and more!)

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After a few very busy weeks, CSN Chicago’s JJ Stankevitz returns for some chatter. Enjoy. 

 

KA: Last we chatted the Cubs hadn’t won a World Series, America didn’t have a new president-elect, and Brian Kelly hadn’t lost to Navy. So… Do you feel like things in South Bend are any worse now than they were a couple weeks ago?

JJ: Not really, honestly. The Navy game played out like a lot of this year’s games have played out: A special teams mistake (that shouldn’t have been called, but still), a questionable coaching decision, some poor execution here and there and voila, a narrow loss.

To paraphrase the late, great Dennis Green, the Irish are who we thought they were.

KA: I think you’ve hit on it. The loss to Navy wasn’t bad in my mind. It was what it was—a good football team playing a perfect game and beating a more talented (but bad) football team that made a crucial mistake. It was just that the team was Navy, and that, historically, means something very bad.

JJ: The biggest issue here is that Notre Dame played good football against Navy and lost by 1. In previous years, playing good football against Navy meant a 40-point win or something along those lines.

KA: That’s a good point. I don’t know if I call it good football. They forced half-a-punt and kicked 2 FGs in red zone opportunities.

JJ: Maybe not good football, but it certainly wasn’t *bad* football, of which we’ve seen a lot this year. And part of that is the strength of Navy’s program — Ken Niumatalolo is a top-10 coach in this country — but still.

KA: I think you can honestly make the argument — on the football side — that this is the worst rivalry Notre Dame has. Zero upside to it. You win, you should. You lose, you’re mocked.

JJ: From that standpoint, yeah. I love it from a historical standpoint, but I also double-majored in history at Mizzou, so.

KA: I’ll ask you a question I asked John Walters on our podcast. Staying with the election theme — What do you do to make Notre Dame football great again — if you’re Jack Swarbrick?

JJ: First and foremost, better offensive line play and a healthy stable of running backs.
And a renewed commitment to running the football.

No. 2, stop with the mind-numbing special teams mistakes.

No. 3, a COLLEGE-level defense that has a clear identity that’s easy for young players to pick up and cycle through the system.

Those are mine. Yours?

KA: So those feel like things BK needs to do. Is that the same thing as Swarbrick?

JJ: Ah, I see what you’re saying. I only ask because I think those are the principles that we should all agree with, but at the same time, i think you have to make some changes to the staff and program at a macro level to do that.

JJ: If I’m Swarbrick, you can’t be shy about another million-dollar coordinator.
But you better make sure your coach gets the right one.

KA: Completely agree.

JJ: And I think you have to push back if Kelly really is serious about not needing significant changes from this season.

KA: I think the loss to Navy essentially killed the Greg Hudson / in-house DC solution.

JJ: Which is probably a net benefit they don’t even consider that.

KA: I’m at the point where ANY big-picture topic that BK talks about at this point, it’s merely just doing the least amount of damage possible and just trying to get to the offseason.

JJ: Which is entirely fair.

KA: Here’s one for you: Over/Under on number of snaps played by Jarron Jones against Army?

JJ: Hmmmmm. It can’t be 12! Kelly said, without coming out and directly saying it, that Jones had a bad week of practice leading up to Navy. But with Daniel Cage still out with that concussion, Notre Dame really needs him in there for more than a couple of series to have a shot at stopping Army’s offense with any consistency.

So I’ll say 20.5. Which is still low, but probably one or two more series than he had against Navy.

KA: Notre Dame actually did okay against the fullback against Navy, all things considered. And I do expect the safety play to be much, much better after learning on the fly.

Does Army scare you as much as Navy?

JJ: Not at all. Statistically they’re a better matchup for ND, which given last week’s one-point loss, *should* result in a win on Saturday. But we’ve seen this before, with games that should be wins turning into losses, so who knows.

KA: I’m in agreement on that point. I think the lack of explosive plays from Army leads you to believe that they’re less dynamic running the offense, but then again, their defense has been no joke.

***

KA: I’ll leave you with this: As we approach the second Shamrock Series in San Antonio, against an opponent like Army, where do you stand on this peculiarity of ND’s schedule? Is it worth taking this gig on the road? Or does it necessitate a good opponent and an interesting venue?

JJ: It’ll be good to hit the reset button on it in 2017. I think the opponents need to get better for it, more like ASU in 2013. Otherwise, it stops being a showcase game. I mean this year, ticket prices on the secondary market are looooooow. Like Tampa Bay Rays in the midst of a losing season low.

I’m interested to see locations and opponents for it starting back up in 2018. Maybe it goes international?

KA: Ireland (not a Shamrock Series game) was an incredible experience. And ND traveled to Dublin about 25x better than any of the schools to follow.

JJ: The American owners of AS Roma want Notre Dame and BC to play at their new stadium with the pope flipping the coin, so…  (**That was a few years ago they said that…)

KA: Rome would be awesome. Sign me up for that assignment. But little things like Toronto or Mexico City don’t sound terrible, either.

JJ: Yep yep yep. Or Vancouver. That would be great. Just so we could all go to Vancouver.

KA: I am driving the Vancouver bandwagon. No better city to visit and lots of fun to be had. Just find me the Under Armour tie-in to Notre Dame and Canada and funky helmets.

I’ll start you with the predictions. I told Sal Interdonato that the Irish would win 31-20.

JJ: Notre Dame 33, Army 24 Pretty close!

KA: Great minds. Look forward to us being equally right or wrong. Last tip before you travel. Just remember — There’s no basement in the Alamo.

***

With the election all anybody can talk about, John Walters and I dipped our toes in the water, before asking if Brian Kelly could make Notre Dame football great again?  (Warning: It’s not all football.) 

 

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.