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Defensive Signees: Kelly’s Takes

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Of its 21 signees in Notre Dame’s class of 2017, 10 are expected to line up in new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme. During his National Signing Day press conference, Irish coach Brian Kelly heaped some praise on each of those 10.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN
Darnell Ewell: Lake Taylor; Norfolk, Va.
Measurements: 6’4”, 295 lbs.
Rankings: Consensus four-star recruit; Ninth at position, per rivals.com, and No. 139 in country
Brian Kelly’s Take: “He’s in great shape physically and his mental preparation. I love the way he prepares in everything. He has a single-minded purpose in everything that he does. He takes care of himself. He’s very committed. He visited Ohio State and Notre Dame, and knew exactly where he wanted to go to school …

“He’s a guy that is prepared and wants to play immediately. We’re not going to tell him anything different. Come over here and compete right away. He’s got the physical traits, and he’s got the mindset.”

Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa: Kapolei, Hawaii
Measurements: 6’4”, 270 lbs.
Rankings: 247sports.com four-star recruit; No. 4 player in Hawaii, per rivals.com, and No. 39 at position
Brian Kelly’s Take: “When you talk about d-linemen that are really emerging, Myron Tag-Amosa—I’m not going to give you the whole name because I will butcher it. I’ll save that as I get to know him a little bit.

“Myron jumped off the screen with his first-step quickness. For a big guy, we really think he’s got a huge upside. We think he’s starting to scratch the surface in terms of where he can be. He has some length to him, pass-rush ability, inside guy, not necessarily strictly an edge guy. He’s got some versatility.

“We like the fact that he’s a young player that’s going to get better and develop.”

Kurt Hinish: Central Catholic, Pittsburgh
Measurements: 6’2”, 283 lbs.
Rankings: Consensus three-star recruit; No. 11 player in Pennsylvania, per rivals.com, and No. 38 at position
Brian Kelly’s Take: “Another guy that was part of that 15 group, if you will, that had always been kind of the first defensive lineman that we wanted and had identified, was Kurt Hinish, because of his toughness. We really wanted that tough-guy mentality on our defensive line. Kurt brought that to us right away. Not only did he make plays, but he had a toughness to him. We wanted to upgrade that toughness across the board.

“We thought we had some big, athletic guys. We wanted that physical and mental toughness that Kurt brought to his game.”

Jonathan MacCollister: Bishop Moore; Deland, Fla.
Measurements: 6’4”, 253 lbs.
Rankings: Consensus three-star recruit
Brian Kelly’s Take: “Speaking of a guy that’s developing on the outside, Jonathan MacCollister, who played mostly at the tight end position … He’s long, athletic, call him ‘Big Bird.’ He’s a very athletic player that we’re going to play on the outside. He’s a guy that we think has the length, the athleticism that can play the defensive end position.”

Kofi Wardlow: St. John’s College High School; Washington, D.C.
Measurements: 6’3”, 230 lbs.
Rankings: Consensus three-star recruit; No. 47 at his position, per rivals.com
Brian Kelly’s Take: “We were looking for one more pass-rusher. We think Kofi has some elite skills at the defensive end position where he can grow and develop. We really liked his athleticism and his size, really impressed with him in person…

“He really fit the profile. He reminded us of a young [former Notre Dame and current New York Giants defensive lineman] Romeo Okwara. Not quite as long, but he is actually thicker than he is.

“He’s just a really young, raw, extremely athletic guy. A guy that we think can develop into a really nice edge player for us.”

LINEBACKERS
David Adams: Central Catholic, Pittsburgh
Measurements: 6’2”, 225 lbs.
Rankings: Rivals.com three-star recruit; No. 8 player in Pennsylvania, No. 18 at position
Drew White: Saint Thomas Aquinas; Boca Raton, Fla.
Measurements: 6’1”, 225 lbs.
Rankings: Consensus three-star recruit
Brian Kelly’s Take: “Linebackers, we have two that are instinctive, tough, smart. Those are the three things that stand out with David Adams and Drew White…Captains, competitive, smart, instinctive linebackers. It just adds to what we’re looking for from a defensive perspective. Really, really excited in having them on our football team.”

SAFETIES
Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah: Bethel; Hampton, Va.
Measurements: 6’2”, 188 lbs.
Rankings: Consensus three-star recruit; No. 18 player in Virginia, per rivals.com, and No. 40 at position
(Notre Dame has Owusu-Koramoah listed at linebacker, but Kelly discussed him as a safety, and that is likely where he takes the field for the Irish.)
Brian Kelly’s Take: “Another one of those guys that really fit what we were looking for, especially in coach Elko’s defense, that safety position that can come down close to the line of scrimmage. Plays physical.

“We hosted him with [rising senior linebacker and captain] Nyles Morgan. When you host somebody, you want them to see Notre Dame and see the social aspects. These guys didn’t leave the film room. I mean, it was like they were joined at the hip for six hours just talking football. That’s the kind of kid [Owusu-Koramoah] is. He loves football. He’s going to be a great addition to the Notre Dame football family.”

Isaiah Robertson: Neuqua Valley; Bolingbrook, Ill.
Measurements: 6’3”, 190 lbs.
Rankings: Consensus four-star recruit; No. 4 player in Illinois, per rivals.com, and No. 18 at position
Brian Kelly’s Take: “His reach is really incredible in terms of what were able to see in our testing. Again, a guy that we think can play the safety position for us at a high level. Comes from a great family. His dad played at Wisconsin, so he’s got great genes.

“In terms of where we play him, he played safety, a lot of wide receiver, but we want to focus on the defensive side of the ball with him.”

Jordan Genmark Heath: Cathedral Catholic; San Diego
Measurements: 6’2”, 205 lbs.
Rankings: Rivals.com three-star recruit; No. 73 player in California; No. 67 at position
Brian Kelly’s Take: “The one guy that jumps off the page immediately for us is Jordan Genmark Heath … This is a product of Mike Elko and his ability to stick with a recruit tha he had seen earlier. Both [Elko and new linebackers coach Clark Lea] knew about Jordan, and we were able to get him up here in a short period of time on a visit…

“You can make the case he could play on either side of the ball. We were really looking for that safety that had the skills that would really fit in nicely to the defense that we’re going to employ. I just think he was a real nice fit.”

Work in weight & film rooms has Hayes ready to meet five-star potential

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Common thinking might give four- and five-star recruits too much credit. They do not all arrive ready to play at the collegiate level on day one. It takes time, conditioning, learning. Perhaps it was that awareness that kept Daelin Hayes from letting his five-star ranking on rivals.com change his expectations. He knew he would have much work ahead of him when he arrived at Notre Dame as the only five-star prospect in the class of 2016.

Now finishing his freshman year, the defensive end notices the effects of his work as he puts in more.

“I remember my first time watching film, I was like, woah,” Hayes said following Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. “I look quicker, like more twitch than I did. I was definitely—it’s hard to put into words—but to actually be able to go back and look at it and see how it affected the game was huge. [Director of football performance Matt] Balis has worked wonders for us.”

Hayes’ improved quickness showed in his three “sacks” in the intrasquad scrimmage. Going against future NFL prospect Mike McGlinchey at left tackle, Hayes faced a stiff challenge throughout spring’s 15 practices, not that he shied away from that task.

“I don’t think it was ever a point where it was overwhelming,” Hayes said. “I’ve always been a competitor. … But you guys know Mike, he’s huge, obviously a first-round talent and whatnot. I’m just grateful to be able to go against somebody like that each and every day. He makes me better. …

“I love competing with the guy. You go and do that with a guy in practice every day, then the game scenario comes, it’s like second nature. You can do this in practice, you can definitely do this against anybody.”

McGlinchey does not seem to mind the matchup, either.

“Daelin is a man who is blessed with a lot of size and athletic ability,” McGlinchey said Friday. “That presents a lot of problems for people in the game of football. He’s so young, and he has so much still to work on, it’s pretty cool to see what he’s capable of and then what he is going to do down the road.”

When Hayes arrived at Notre Dame, still recovering from a high school shoulder injury, he weighed 250 pounds with 18 percent body fat. Now, he said, he still weighs 250—the Irish roster lists him at 255—but is down to 10 percent body fat. It is that kind of change which has created more twitch and makes McGlinchey envision Hayes after more time spent improving in the weight room and the film room.

“I’m not the same athlete that I was when I first came in, not by any means,” Hayes said. “… Buying into that offseason program is going to be huge for our team.”

Per the Blue-Gold Game’s statistics, Hayes ended the scrimmage with seven tackles. Whether skeptical of the recordkeeping within a practice or not, seven tackles in one abbreviated afternoon compares favorably to Hayes’ total of 11 in 12 games last season. Some of that uptick is playing time, some of it is scheme, some of it is realization of the potential highlighted by a five-star ranking. For now, though, Hayes insists he intends to simply learn from last year’s 4-8 disappointment and embrace the changes brought by new Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko.

“With last year being the year that we had, there definitely was a yearning for change,” Hayes said. “When you have basically a reboot of the program, the guys are hungry and they don’t want to have to experience the same season as last year.

“Just continue to trust in that process. We’re hungry for something to cling on and buy into. When coach Elko, coach Balis, everybody came in as part of that reboot, I think we welcomed with open arms. [We’ll] continue to buy into the system and become more comfortable within the system.”

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line

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Heading into spring practice, a quick look was taken at each position group in order of “expected level of interest or question marks,” from least interesting to most, as dictated by an “Inside the Irish” reader. That series concluded with the defensive line.

Exiting spring practice, let’s reprise that premise and reverse the order. If the defensive line triggered the most questions, then answering them first seems to make some version of sense.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
“Will enough defensive linemen prove themselves deserving of playing time to create a viable threat up front?” this space asked. “If so, who will those linemen be?”

RELATED READING: One day until spring practice: A look at the defensive line

Aside from senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26 tackles last season, 0.5 for loss), senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss amid a season lost largely to concussion) and junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37, 3), the Irish defensive line had little track record to cite or rely upon for confidence. Leading the unknowns and unprovens were sophomore ends Daelin Hayes, who recorded 11 tackles in 2016, and Julian Okwara (4).

The lack of depth and experience was apparent heading into the 15 spring practices.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
Look past the 11 sacks in the Blue-Gold Game. Intrasquad scrimmages featuring red-jerseyed quarterbacks make for inexact and context-less statistics. There is some value, however, in noting the defensive line got within reach of the quarterback at least eight times in an abbreviated game. (Three “sacks” came from the linebacker corps.)

“We showed [pressure] in as far as the quarterback wasn’t getting really comfortable, not having all day to throw back there,” Hayes said. “I think it’s been huge, just buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

RELATED READING: What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

Hayes led the way with three sacks, and he will be expected to continue that in the fall, starting at the weakside/rush defensive end spot. Exiting spring, though, only he and Tillery solidified themselves as starters. Nonetheless, defensive coordinator Mike Elko claimed a successful spring for the front.

“I’m happy with our defensive line progress,” Elko said Friday. “Obviously there was a lot written about that group. I’m happy about the progress they’ve made this spring. I think [defensive line coach] Mike [Elston] has done a good job developing them. I think they are buying into the way we want to play defense. There’s probably four to five guys on the inside that are starting to get into a position where we feel comfortable that they can step in and help us.” (more…)

Brian Kelly & Jack Swarbrick on Notre Dame’s changes moving forward

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Whether 2016’s disappointing 4-8 finish was the impetus to program-wide alterations at Notre Dame this offseason, it certainly underscored the need. For the last few months, Irish coach Brian Kelly has focused those changes on himself and self-assessment, and he reiterated that approach when talking with PFT Live’s Mike Florio early Monday morning.

“This is my 27th year of being a head coach, and prior to last year I had one losing season,” Kelly said. “You have a way of doing things, you have a system in place, you follow that year after year. Certainly you make tweaks along the way, but this is the first time where I’ve really taken a step back and made substantial changes in terms of how I’m doing things on a day-to-day basis…

“From my perspective, after being at it as long as I have, you have to take it on yourself that you’re the one that needs to make the corrections. It’s not the players.”

None of this is new. Kelly has been consistent in his springtime messaging, but others have looked past the effects of the 4-8 record and insist the changes were coming regardless of the win-loss totals. Senior captain Drue Tranquill, for example, acknowledged the severity of the losing record Friday but argued adjustments were needed no matter what the final scores were.

“If you have an average season like 8-4, some things might carry over to the next season,” Tranquill said the day before the spring practice finale. “Whereas when you go 4-8, something has to change.

“But I think even at Notre Dame, 8-4 is never really acceptable or tolerated. Those things that were taking place, just within our culture, would have been noticed whether we were 10-3, 4-8. The criticism gave it a lot more hype and juice. We could kind of feel as guys in the program throughout the past three years that certain things needed to change.

“Those things were finally brought to light and it happened to be during a 4-8 season. I don’t necessarily know that 4-8 was the reason all this change happened.”

New Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko expressed a similar sentiment Friday morning, discussing the pressure moving forward.

“If we were coming off a 12-0 season in which we were competing for the national championship, there would be pressure on us at Notre Dame to be successful this year,” Elko said. “That’s Notre Dame.”

Elko has been a quick study, as his comments were echoed the next day by Irish director of athletics Jack Swarbrick during NBC Sports Network’s broadcast of the Blue-Gold Game.

“We expect to compete for national championships and 4-8 is not acceptable,” Swarbrick said. “On the other hand, when you’re in that situation, you have to decide how you’re going to move forward. We decided to move forward by making a major investment in retooling our program with Brian as the leader of it. That’s not a one-year investment for us. We brought in some talented assistant coaches. We rebuilt elements of the program

“We view it as a multi-year investment going forward.”

KELLY ON RECRUITING PITCH
Using this week’s NFL Draft as a peg, Florio also asked Kelly about balancing players’ NFL aspirations with team success both in the recruiting process and during the actual season.

“We have to talk more in terms of process over production,” Kelly responded. “We talk in terms of you’re coming to Notre Dame for a reason. You’re going to get a degree, which will set you up for the rest of your life, and you’re going to play on the grandest stage at Notre Dame, so everybody will see you.

“As long as there’s the balance there—and there has to be that balance in terms of getting your education and playing for championships—then we’re okay. It’s when that balance is out of whack, we’ll have an issue. We vet that out in the recruiting process and make sure we don’t take any kids that are coming to Notre Dame just because they’re waiting for that [junior] year to complete so they can go to the draft.”

A reminder: The NFL Draft begins with its first round Thursday night. Kelly will be joining former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer at the draft in Philadelphia to await Kizer’s destination and future employer.

MISSED THE BLUE-GOLD GAME?
It is available for streaming: here.

Following spring practice, will Notre Dame continue habitual progress?

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By no means is Irish coach Brian Kelly going to measure Alizé Mack’s progress by if the junior tight end makes his bed every morning. Mack’s mother might—mine would certainly factor it in—but when Kelly cited the need to start the day with hospital corners, he was simply trying to make a point.

“He’s taking care of business off the field, which invariably it always comes back to this,” Kelly said Wednesday. “If you’re taking care of work in the classroom and you’re starting the day right, making your bed—I’m just using that analogy—if you start the day right, it’s going to trend the right way and it’s trending the right way on the field for him.”

Mack is the most obvious example of a needed change in habits. When you miss a season due to academic issues, reconfiguring your priorities becomes a topic of conversation. His instance, though, serves as a readily-cited example of a more widespread concern. Of all the optimistic conversation and concerted change following last season’s 4-8 disappointment, Kelly’s preaching of good habits simultaneously appears as the most abstract aspect and the easiest understood.

“It starts with guys being aware of it first,” Kelly said following Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold Game on Saturday. “Then once they are aware that they need to have these good habits to be good football players, then you start to see it show itself in good run support angles. You see it offensively, guys always lined up properly. We had very few penalties today, and that’s a product of some of the habits that are being built on a day-to-day basis.”

It makes sense. If a receiver doesn’t realize he lined up a few feet closer to the sideline than desired, for example, then he will make that same mistake the next time, especially if he still makes a catch on the play. Next time, the defensive back may be more able to capitalize on the gift of less route uncertainty.

It is unrealistic to expect anyone, let alone a 19- or 20-year-old, to display this exacting discipline on the football field without practicing it throughout the rest of the day. Successfully cutting corners in one area of life convinces the psyche it can be done anywhere. Thus, Kelly has needed to harp on his charges about their off-field activities, including—but perhaps not seriously—making their beds.

“I think we ask our guys to do a number of different things on a day-to-day basis,” Kelly said. “First of all, understanding how habits carry over to what they do in the classroom and what they do on the football field.”

Kelly and his coaching staff have had four months to make this impression. The issue is, bad habits are hard to break. They’re usually more fun, anyway. As Kelly pointed out, the rewards of good habits are slow in coming. Delayed gratification, if you will.

“I think our guys understand that it takes time to build those habits, because some of them have bad habits, and to get rid of those bad habits, you really have to be creating good habits over a long period of time,” Kelly said. “That’s the process that is hard for these guys, because it takes time, and they want it to happen right away.

“Sometimes they forget and they just want to go out and play. If you go out and play, but you don’t do it the right way, it’s going to get you beat.”

This all sounds well and good, and some of the effects were evident Saturday. There were few penalties (none, in fact, according to the official statistics), the quarterbacks took advantage of the receiving corps’ size and missed their targets high. But soon comes the toughest time to continue this trend.

Kelly and his staff have worked on the Irish to internalize these lessons. Now, Kelly and his staff will cover the country in recruiting. In a few weeks, the players will scatter home for a break before returning for a summer session spent in the weight room and classroom. If they slip back into old habits, the last four months were spent fruitlessly.

Mack played well Saturday. The question has never been does he have physical talent. He undeniably does.

The question has been, is and will be: Did you make your bed today, Alizé?