Braden Lenzy

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Friday at 4: National Signing Day’s Things We Learned & Things We Knew

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From a pure numbers perspective, Notre Dame went above and beyond by signing 27 recruits this cycle. To a degree, that was expected. As soon as the Irish exceeded 23 recruits, the effect was the same, only increasing: Each signee meant another roster spot needs to be found by August. That was known.

It was not known the final piece of that boom would be consensus four-star cornerback Noah Boykin (pictured above). His 11th-hour and unexpected commitment put Notre Dame’s defensive back haul over the top, joining consensus three-star cornerback DJ Brown in choosing the Irish on Wednesday. Signing seven defensive backs in one class is a bit extreme, but considering a year ago included only two safeties and no cornerbacks, the overcompensation served a purpose.

Joe Wilkins (rivals.com)

To that point, Notre Dame cornerbacks coach Todd Lyght acknowledged Wednesday the influx of defensive backs could allow for some flexibility for the likes of consensus three-star Joe Wilkins, who excelled as a receiver as much as a defensive back in high school.

“I think there is going to be some two-way play for him when he first gets here,” Lyght said. “To really find out where his skillset is best served on this team, whether that be on the defensive side of the ball or on the offensive side of the ball, that’s too soon to be determined, but we’ll know soon enough.”

Lawrence Keys (rivals.com)

Not that the receivers exactly need another piece to consider, either. Consensus three-star receiver Lawrence Keys appeared to be trending toward the Irish before this week, but sealing the deal with him created a receivers class of four, equally balanced between speed and physicality. Keys and consensus four-star Braden Lenzy offer the breakaway speed that can single-handedly force a coverage adjustment, while consensus four-star Kevin Austin and rivals.com four-star Micah Jones offer physical threats possibly ideally designed for sideline receptions.

“That’s the goal. Year-in and year-out you want to make sure you bring in a different skillset and that you’re not one dimensional,” Notre Dame receivers coach Del Alexander said. “We’ve got quickness, we’ve got speed, we’ve got size, we’ve got a little bit of everything. That’s what you should do each year you bring in a group of receivers.”

The Irish may have had that with or without Keys, but considering the numbers game inherent to college football, doubling up on speed doubles the chances of it making an impact down the road. (See: Stepherson, Kevin.)

This class’s depth of defensive backs and receivers will be cited for a time to come. Eleven of the 27 recruits fill the edges of the passing game, be it on offense or defense or, in the case of Wilkins, perhaps both. In a year when Notre Dame did not excel in defensive line recruiting, focusing on the pieces of the aerial game served as an adequate alternative. If this class leads the Irish to the bowls always mentioned as a season’s goal, those two position groups will almost certainly be heavily involved.

Pardon the second usage of the following quote just today, but it best underscores the Irish success this year in recruiting defensive backs and receivers.

“From an across the board depth standpoint on the back end of our defense and at the wide receiver position, an area that I feel is [as] good as any class that we’ve recruited here at Notre Dame,” Kelly said. “… When I walk away at the end of the day and take a step back, those two areas I feel really good about relative to what we’ve done there.”

Admittedly, what the Irish had done at those two positions was largely hit-or-miss. If looking at the last three classes via rivals.com ratings, even just the top-end recruiting has yielded inconsistent results. Last year, Notre Dame managed only one defensive back (safety Isaiah Robertson) rated as highly as each of this year’s top two defensive backs (safety/cornerback Houston Griffith and safety Derrik Allen) and top two receivers (Austin and Lenzy).

In 2016, two receivers matched that ranking, Chase Claypool and Javon McKinley. The former broke out a bit this past fall while the latter has been hampered by injuries. A total of five defensive backs reached that recruiting ranking. The cornerbacks (Julian Love, Troy Pride, Donte Vaughn) have largely lived up to that billing while the safeties (Jalen Elliott, D.J. Morgan) have not, just like the rest of the safeties on the Irish roster.

Similarly, three receivers met that metric in 2015, and their careers covered the spectrum. Equanimeous St. Brown is already headed to the NFL, Miles Boykin may be a starter Sept. 1, and C.J. Sanders is transferring out of the program. The two defensive backs offer a similar range: Finally healthy, Shaun Crawford excelled this past season; Mykelti Williams never took a snap for Notre Dame.

The objective here is to reinforce a point Kelly made while discussing the incoming depth.

“They’re all young players, and they’ve got to prove themselves.”

That echoed both common sense and words from recruiting coordinator Brian Polian on the first day of December’s early signing period.

“Let’s be careful about who we are anointing the next stars,” Polian said then. “… Obviously we feel these young men can come in and compete at a high level, but sometimes it takes time, and we need to allow for that learning curve and that process before we start anointing guys as saviors.”

Jarrett Patterson (rivals.com)

Speaking of the early signing period, it stacked the deck for the Irish to close this strongly. Kelly described the last six-plus weeks as “extremely intentional.” Notre Dame knew it needed defensive backs, and it got them in spades. It wanted a couple more offensive linemen, and new offensive line coach Jeff Quinn made a strong first impression in retaining consensus three-star Luke Jones’ commitment and in bringing in three-star offensive tackle Jarrett Patterson. The Irish hoped for a running back, and consensus three-star C’Bo Flemister will help relieve some of the burden felt by a depleted position group.

But let’s not forget the two areas already known to be excellent.
Notre Dame signed 3 four-star linebackers. Two of them, along with consensus three-star Ovie Oghoufo, enrolled early. As strong as the Irish coaching staff finished in recruiting defensive backs and receivers, this linebacker group is the best in recent memory, to say the least. It is not beyond feasibility to envision three of them starting as sophomores, nor would that necessarily be a bad sign.

And any year in which Notre Dame signs the quarterback it initially targeted can be counted a success at that position.

So, if defensive back, receivers, linebackers and quarterback were all recruiting wins, and offensive line and running back filled the depth as necessary, then 2019’s goal is clear: Defensive line recruiting will be the driving priority.

Thus spins the never-ending recruiting cycle.

Brian Kelly on Notre Dame’s six signees, with some assistant insights

Associated Press
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December’s early signing period allowed Notre Dame to focus its final efforts in this recruiting cycle, narrowing its range of targets to defensive backs, offensive linemen and — due to roster reductions — running back. In discussing Wednesday’s six signees, both Irish head coach Brian Kelly and recruiting coordinator Brian Polian mentioned going 3-for-3 in those categories, at least in part thanks to securing those 21 prospects six-plus weeks ago.

Adding in a receiver provided even further depth.

Lawrence Keys (rivals.com)

Kelly on consensus three-star receiver Lawrence Keys: “[He] really gives us an explosive playmaker. He adds to the depth at that class. … We just felt like we were looking for a guy that could make plays with the ball in his hand.”

Receivers coach Del Alexander on consensus four-star receiver Braden Lenzy, a December signee who made that decision after Kelly’s comments during the three-day early signing period: “Just a spark plug. A kid that has a wealth of knowledge of everything sports, is really intelligent outside of sports. It was just great listening to him and his dad argue back-and-forth about current and past players of their favorite teams and watch that father-son bond and also appreciate where he is mentally. He is a gym rat, he is a junkie, and he wants to be really good as a football player, but he also wants everything that Notre Dame has to offer off the field.”

Kelly on the class of 2018’s depth at both receiver and defensive back, setting it apart from most years: “It’s probably from an across the board depth standpoint on the back end of our defense and at the wide receiver position, an area that I feel is good about as any class that we’ve recruited here at Notre Dame. Now, look, they’re all young players, and they’ve got to prove themselves. But I think when I walk away at the end of the day and take a step back, those two areas I feel really good about relative to what we’ve done there.

“That stands out to me.”

Noah Boykin (rivals.com)

Kelly on consensus four-star cornerback Noah Boykin: “We love the intangibles about Noah. He comes from a school that is not a predictor, a school that we would normally not recruit here at Notre Dame, but I will tell you that one of the things that we were so impressed with — and maybe this doesn’t happen everywhere — we weren’t certain about Noah and his ability to come to Notre Dame and be a great fit until after his admissions meeting. The feedback that we got from admissions in terms of his interview really sold us on this was the right place for him.

“Here’s a young man that wanted to reach for the best and not settle, and that’s what really, for us, drove this.

“… He has got a confidence about him at that corner position. He’s a natural corner, and just gives us great flexibility and depth at that position that we’ve been lacking for so long here.

“But here’s a young man that chose Notre Dame for the right reasons, and we’re really excited about having him here.”

Kelly on consensus three-star cornerback DJ Brown: “We really think that we’ve got somebody here that is a true corner. He’s long at 6’1″. Very smart player. I think what stood out for us is his football intelligence, the way he played the game.

“… DJ has got the skills to play corner right now, but he’s 6’1″, 190, so we know that he’s got length. We know he’s got the ability to be a bigger, stronger player, as well. We liked his football IQ. We liked the way he played football. And so that was first and foremost, and then his length. Those are things that I think you can’t teach, and we wanted some size at that position. He brings it to us.”

Kelly on three-star offensive tackle Jarrett Patterson: “He’s a guy that’s long but can play both guard and tackle, as well. So versatility was really what we were looking for at that offensive line position. Again, augmenting, obviously, the depth there. I think we did an incredible job of adding two offensive linemen that are going to shape this class quite well.”

Jarrett Patterson (rivals.com)

Offensive line coach Jeff Quinn on Patterson: “A great athlete, great size, length, moves well. The one thing also that I felt that was really key for me, when I saw his film, it caught my eye: There was a focus and a determination, he was intentional with his technique, his hands, his body positioning, how he was finishing guys.

“You could tell between his junior year and his senior year, he made great strides in the weight room, he dedicated himself into the weight room, he was eating better. He had that mindset. There was a purpose that he had in terms of what he wanted to demonstrate on the field because he knew that was going to provide him some opportunities to be able to come to Notre Dame.”

Kelly on consensus three-star offensive lineman Luke Jones: “Luke gives us great versatility, can play the guard position, can play center. We were looking for that. In particular an inside guy that had that versatility.”

Kelly on consensus three-star running back C’Bo Flemister: “The running back position, obviously, was a need for us, and C’Bo Flemister is a guy that really was attractive to us with his running style. From a football standpoint, we loved the fact that we had a north-and-south back here that played with low pads, and that’s what we were looking for, a guy that could really hit it inside-out for us and be extremely productive at the position. Great fit for us, really solid student that fits here at Notre Dame. So really excited about C’Bo.”

Running backs coach Autry Denson on Flemister: “I call him my throwback player. He is a down-dirty, old-school, get-it-done kind of player. It was refreshing to watch his film.”

Notre Dame gets the letter: Lawrence Keys, consensus three-star receiver

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Lawrence Keys

McDonogh 35 High School; New Orleans

Measurements: 5’11”, 160 lbs.

Accolades: Consensus three-star prospect, No. 22 recruit in Louisiana, per rivals.com.

Other Notable Offers: Holding offers from the likes of Georgia, LSU, Michigan and Oklahoma, Keys’ recruitment came down to Notre Dame and Texas.

Projected Position: Receiver.

Quick Take: Keys brings more speed to the Irish receiving corps. His measurements may indicate he is slight of frame, but that would not be wholly accurate. Nonetheless, time spent in a collegiate strength and conditioning program will diminish those concerns and help Keys fit more in line with what Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long typically prefers in receivers.

Short-Term Roster Outlook: Notre Dame’s current receivers do not boast an excess of top-end speed, especially after the dismissal of current sophomore Kevin Stepherson and the intended transfer of junior C.J. Sanders. Keys will not arrive as highly-touted for his speed as classmate Braden Lenzy will, but if he can establish himself before the Oregon track star does, then there may be a role for Keys right away.

Long-View Depth Chart Impact: Even if Lenzy gets the nod ahead of Keys this season, the latter will have plenty of chances moving forward, considering they are essentially the only two burners in the Irish receiving room at the moment. Junior Chris Finke is certainly quick and graduate transfer Freddy Canteen was brought in largely for his speed when healthy, but neither has the ability to take the top off a secondary like Lenzy and Keys should.

Keys is the fourth receiver in this class. That is quite a haul in every respect, and from a pure numbers standpoint, it sets up Notre Dame very well for the next few years.

It’s a different National Signing Day

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It’s National Signing Day. Longtime “Inside the Irish” readers are expecting post after post after post this morning announcing the arrivals of faxes. Not today, and not just because National Letters of Intent have not been sent in as literal faxes for years.

Notre Dame signed 21 recruits during December’s early signing period. That means today, what used to be a college football national holiday, will be far quieter. The Irish are expecting somewhere between four and six signees today. Only one of those has already committed, consensus three-star offensive tackle Luke Jones (Pulaski Academy; Little Rock, Ark.).

The rest of the targets have announcements scheduled throughout the day.

Thus, it is distinctly possible the only “The Letter Is In” moment before the East Coast morning commute is that of Jones. Those few hundred words are, indeed, drafted within the cobwebs of the internet.

The two perks for the fans of this revamped system are the day is far less stressful, and each signee is considered a notable victory. The Notre Dame coaching staff’s success during the early signing period turned National Signing Day into a day filled with much upside and nearly no downside.

Anyway, with that refresher out of the way, here is a bevy of information on today’s possibilities and December’s signees, considering the decent chance that moment evaded some entirely. After all, it was the week immediately prior to Christmas.

TODAY’S POSSIBILITIES:
Whom might Notre Dame add to this recruiting class?
The pros, cons and math of Notre Dame signing more than 25 recruits
As a National Signing Day primer, some mailbag questions

SUMMARIES OF DECEMBER:
A refresher of Notre Dame’s early signing period success
Seven early enrollees set a new Notre Dame high, but will they make an impact?
Notre Dame’s eight offensive signees — Brian Kelly’s take
Notre Dame’s 12 defensive signees — Brian Kelly’s take
Context shows Notre Dame succeeded in the early period

DECEMBER’S LETTERS ARE IN:
Notre Dame signs consensus four-star WR Braden Lenzy
Kevin Austin and Micah Jones, four-star receivers
Phil Jurkovec, consensus four-star quarterback
Jahmir Smith, consensus three-star running back
George Takacs, four-star tight end
Tommy Tremble, consensus three-star tight end
John Dirksen and Cole Mabry, consensus three-star offensive linemen
Jack Lamb, consensus four-star linebacker
Bo Bauer, four-star linebacker
Shayne Simon, consensus four-star linebacker
Ovie Oghoufo, consensus three-star linebacker
Derrik Allen, consensus four-star safety
Houston Griffith, consensus four-star safety
Tariq Bracy, three-star cornerback
Joe Wilkins, consensus three-star defensive back
Paul Moala, local safety
Jayson and Justin Ademilola, twin defensive linemen
Ja’Mion Franklin, consensus three-star defensive tackle

A refresher of Notre Dame’s early signing period success

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Eight days from now, Notre Dame will finish off its recruiting class, likely signing three more prospects to reach 25 in the class of 2018. Before looking ahead at those possibilities, it seems pertinent to offer a refresher of December’s early signing period. The first of its kind, the Irish coaching staff put the three-day stretch to better use than nearly any other program in the country.

Notre Dame expected 20 commits to sign the week before Christmas, and all delivered on that pledge. Consensus four-star receiver Braden Lenzy finished off the early period with a last-minute signing, announced via an essay on The Players’ Tribune. Lenzy joined two other four-star receivers in Kevin Austin and Micah Jones, creating perhaps the strongest position group in the class, rivaled by the linebackers.

Three of the four linebackers enrolled early — Jack Lamb, Bo Bauer and Ovie Oghoufo — the core of seven early enrollees.

RELATED READING: Seven early enrollees set a new Notre Dame high, but will they make an impact?

Though he did not enroll early, consensus four-star quarterback Phil Jurkovec remains the most hyped and discussed recruit in the class thus far. The chances of him starting as a freshman may be unlikely, though, as they are for any freshman quarterback.

That hurdle will not be as high for consensus four-star safety Derrik Allen. One of five defensive backs, Allen and consensus four-star Houston Griffith will have an early chance to contribute at safety, given that position’s struggles of late. Griffith will likely spend most of his career at cornerback, even if not beginning there, where he and two others in the class, Joe Wilkins Jr. and Tariq Bracy, help salve the error of not recruiting any cornerbacks a year ago. Local product Paul Moala will add further depth to the sub-par safety situation.

A similar, though less extreme, issue may be developing at running back and defensive end, with only one of each in this class at the moment. Typically, consensus three-star running back Jahmir Smith would be enough to fill that need for a year, but with the dismissals of sophomore running back Deon McIntosh and freshman running back C.J. Holmes in the interim since the early signing period, the roster desperately needs depth at the position.

RELATED READING: Stepherson may get the headlines, but loss of two RBs will cost Notre Dame most

Notre Dame does not desperately need depth at defensive end, but adding a couple to the depth chart each cycle creates better odds of finding success at arguably the most necessary and volatile position in college football aside from quarterback. As of now, only consensus three-star defensive end Justin Ademilola fits that billing of the 21 signed commits. His twin brother, consensus four-star defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola, joins at defensive tackle, along with consensus three-star defensive tackle Ja’Mion Franklin.

Per usual, there are no concerns at either tight end or offensive line. The Irish signed two tights and two offensive linemen, with another tackle, consensus three-star Luke Jones (Pulaski Academy; Little Rock, Ark.) committing shortly after the early signing period, still needing to put finger to cell phone screen next Wednesday, Feb. 7.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame’s eight offensive signees — Brian Kelly’s take
Notre Dame’s 12 defensive signees — Brian Kelly’s take
Friday at 4: Context shows Notre Dame succeeded in the early signing period (Dec. 22)

With Jones bringing the class total to 22, Notre Dame’s focus the last the last six weeks has been on defensive linemen and defensive backs, adding running backs to that fray when McIntosh and Holmes were removed from the program. Of course, those three positions are not the end-all, be-all. There are exceptions in which the Irish coaching staff will take the best players it can get.

“Which true freshmen could you see making significant contributions this upcoming season?” — popelovesnd

Let’s first issue the necessary disclaimer: This answer could and likely will change based on how the seven early enrollees fare in spring practice, what remaining roster turnover will occur between now and August, and who Notre Dame signs with those three remaining spots in the class of 2018.

The obvious answer is Allen. The Irish need someone to step forward at safety, and there has been little-to-no indication that will be either of the current sophomores, Jalen Elliott or Devin Studstill. Notre Dame made Allen a recruiting priority because he just might be up to that task from the outset.

Sticking with defense, Lamb and Bauer will have a chance this spring to earn a starting spot, or at least a spot in the linebacker rotation. That would be quite a leap for someone who would normally be a high school senior, but it is a possibility, nonetheless.

If neither does offer that surprise, it will increase the odds of current senior Drue Tranquill moving from rover to inside linebacker. At that point, consensus four-star linebacker Shayne Simon enters this contribution conversation at rover.

Lastly, Lenzy very well could have a freshman season a la Kevin Stepherson in 2016. Comparisons to Stepherson may feel off-putting, but this is in discussing on-field performance only. Lenzy has outstanding speed, the type that can force its way up the depth chart regardless of age, immaturity or positional competition.

So, if a betting man were offered worthwhile odds, Allen and Lenzy seem the smartest wagers.

Further mailbag questions are welcome at insidetheirish@gmail.com.