Notre Dame picked up the commitment of consensus four-star receiver Kevin Austin on Friday as the summer recruiting rush nears its end. Austin (North Broward High School; Coconut Creek, Fla.) chose the Irish over finalists Duke, Miami and Tennessee, with Clemson, Michigan, Oregon and many others also expressing interest in him.
At 6-foot-3 and 185 pounds, rivals.com rates Austin the No. 28 receiver in the class of 2018, the No. 141 prospect in the country and the No. 32 player in Florida.
Notre Dame currently has a plethora of receivers but its depth chart remains in flux, especially in the two classes ahead of Austin. First off, junior Equanimeous St. Brown may have the viable option of heading to the NFL after the season, and fifth-year senior graduate transfer (from Arizona State) Cameron Smith will be out of eligibility after this season. Those two departures would and will open up plenty of opportunity.
Of the current sophomores, only Chase Claypool has established himself. Kevin Stepherson remains a baffling question mark, and Javon McKinley has yet to get much of an opportunity. Freshmen Jafar Armstrong and Michael Young only got to campus this summer, but either would need to overcome a deep roster to find extensive playing time this fall.
Including both Austin and Jones, the Irish class of 2018 is up to 16 commitments, six now coming this summer. Theoretically, players often like to make a commitment before their high school senior seasons start. It allows them to focus on their own schedule without the added stress and possible travel of recruiting.
More than that — especially considering how many recruits still take their official visits because they recognize the value of a free trip to a high-profile sporting event — with each recruit committing somewhere, it pushes a domino effect forward. With Austin’s commitment, other receivers around the country now see one fewer school targeting the position. Other Notre Dame targets see one fewer spot available in South Bend.
In the remaining handful of openings, the Irish coaching staff will presumably target the troubling void of cornerbacks in this class and the current freshman class, as well as look for at least one more offensive lineman and one more defensive lineman each.
Naturally, as is the case with all 16 commitments, National Signing Day is still a long ways off.
This top-five should show where Notre Dame’s strength will be this season: the running game. More specifically, the running game to the left side of the line.
It probably did not take this polling to reveal as much considering the Irish offensive line features two sure-fire first-round NFL Draft picks on the left side, but it is worth noting how the two will be viewed this year. They finished a point apart at the top of these rankings. Brace yourselves for a few months’ worth of wondering if fifth-year senior Mike McGlinchey legally changed his name to “McGlinchey and Nelson.”
Unlike Nos. 6-10, these five have proven themselves on the field. Also unlike Thursday’s five, all five of these players could be gone come 2018. Three will have eligibility remaining, but it is nearly certain the top vote-getter heads to the NFL with a season of collegiate time left on the table while either or both of the skill position players could showcase themselves this year to the point it would be foolish not to head to the pros.
All in all, Notre Dame has a consensus top-five this year. To that end, this annual ranking served its purpose of highlighting the roster’s top-end. Consider this one last nod of appreciation to the dozen panelists for taking the time to partake.
To give an idea how stark St. Brown’s breakout sophomore season was, realize a year ago he finished No. 25 in this ranking. This year, even when one ballot mistakenly left him off entirely (later corrected), St. Brown still finished No. 5.
Some Irish fans may read the above reference to St. Brown playing himself into position to enter the NFL Draft and panic. That would be a mistake. It should be read as a positive sign. For St. Brown to genuinely consider that leap this spring, he will need to excel in the fall.
With junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush now the starter, St. Brown will have plenty of opportunities to star even further. It is not that St. Brown did not mesh with DeShone Kizer. Rather, it is that St. Brown has worked with Wimbush for three years, including their freshman season when neither was seeing much action.
Unlike St. Brown, Adams’ rise in this ranking is only from No. 8 a year ago. His ceiling may be capped by the talent in Notre Dame’s running back stable. The flipside of that luxury is Adams should still be fresh come November this year. That could be an intimidating concept for opponents considering Adams averaged 7.42 yards per carry last November, closing the season with back-to-back 100-yard games, including 180 yards on only 17 carries against USC.
Adams at his peak may be the Irish at their best this season. But he cannot do it on his own, as illustrated by the top-two finishers yet to come. His impact is easily measured in yards, yards per carry and touchdowns. Nonetheless, their contributions will lead to his production.
3: Nyles Morgan, senior linebacker, 269
High ranking: No. 2, by two separate voters
Low ranking: No. 6
Twelve votes total; unanimous.
Of the top six, only Morgan did not receive a No. 1 vote. Those all went to offensive players. Maybe that is a symptom of college football as a whole. More likely, that is a symptom of the Notre Dame defense struggling so immensely a year ago.
If the defense reverses that trend this year, it will be under the Irish captain’s direction. Frankly, Morgan may not match last year’s 94 tackles, not with senior rover Drue Tranquill in position to build on his 79 and senior linebacker Greer Martini expected to see more time this season alongside Morgan. He also may not match his four sacks, not with an added emphasis on defensive ends chasing down the passer, led by senior Jay Hayes and sophomore Daelin Hayes (no relation), not to mention Tranquill again.
Thus, view Morgan’s impact on a macro scale. Limiting opponents to three touchdowns per game would be an undeniable triumph, and it would have everything to do with Morgan, no matter how many tackles he tallies and where they are on the field. (Why three touchdowns per game? The low mark of Brian Kelly’s tenure at Notre Dame is obviously 2012’s 12.8 points per game. Since then, the Irish defense’s highpoint came in 2013, holding opponents to 22.4 points per game. That is, three touchdowns and a field goal some weekends, a missed field goal other weekends.)
2: Mike McGlinchey, fifth-year senior left tackle, 284
High ranking: No. 1, by three separate voters
Low ranking: No. 5
Twelve votes total; unanimous.
Partly out of laziness, partly out of a desire to break in the habit mentioned up top, there is a distinct desire to lump McGlinchey’s entry in with the next one. They are separated by one point, about the equivalent of how much space will be between them on the field.
Fans may flinch at this ranking, citing McGlinchey’s penchant for pre-snap penalties a year ago. They have a point, but that is also the peril of judging any offensive lineman off the times his name is mentioned by an announcer. The other thing to keep in mind is how much praise has been heaped on McGlinchey this offseason. Rarely does a likely first-round draft pick return to college and receive credit for drastic improvements. That has been the case with McGlinchey to date, though obviously seeing it against Temple on Sept. 2 will mean more.
As has been the case with each of the captains, McGlinchey’s impact will extend beyond his thankless duties as a left tackle. Media members, including some of these panelists, noted McGlinchey addressing the Irish following the opening session of preseason practice. For a player who has typically led by example, the outspoken moment was notably out of character.
What has not been out of character is another Notre Dame left tackle excelling. Simply as a thought experiment, it is curious to wonder where the starting left tackle, whomever that may be, will finish in this polling in 2018.
1: Quenton Nelson, senior left guard, 285
High ranking: No. 1, by six separate voters
Low ranking: No. 7
Twelve votes total; unanimous.
What else needs to be said? The left guard plays physical and sound football. He has shown expertise in both passing and running situations. Not only did six panelists place Nelson atop their ballots, but three more slotted him second.
On the inside of the line, Nelson will also assist Wimbush and senior center Sam Mustipher in diagnosing certain defensive looks. As another captain, he will stand next to McGlinchey — figuratively or literally — whenever the team needs to be addressed.
This top slot should not be a surprise. Gauging a left guard’s contribution may be more subjective than looking at a linebacker’s tackle totals or a running back’s average yards per carry, but it is every bit as vital, if not more so. Not every play will reach the defense’s second-level and not every offensive alignment will include a running back on the field. Meanwhile, every offensive snap will give a defender a chance to blow past Nelson and reach the quarterback.
Don’t expect that defender to succeed much in 2017.
The 2017 Counting Down the Irish panelists
Michael Bryan, 18 Stripes
Bryan Driskell, Blue & Gold Illustrated
Matt Freeman, Irish Sports Daily
Tyler James, South Bend Tribune
Mike Monaco, Notre Dame Broadcaster/Reporter
Ben Padanilam, The Observer
LaMond Pope, Chicago Tribune
Ryan Ritter, Her Loyal Sons
Pete Sampson, Irish Illustrated
Evan Sharpley, Irish 247
John Vannie, ND Nation
Joshua Vowles, One Foot Down
Kraemer set as Notre Dame’s right tackle; only St. Brown clear at receiver
With only 23 days remaining until the Irish season-opener against Temple, some clarity about Notre Dame’s starters should start to be expected. Following their first practice back on campus after spending the initial week at Culver Academies in Culver, Ind., Irish coach Brian Kelly revealed some of that clearer picture Wednesday.
The biggest offensive question comes at right tackle, and Kelly said sophomore Tommy Kraemer has established himself as the starter there over classmate Liam Eichenberg, who will move to left tackle to back up fifth-year senior Mike McGlinchey. Kelly and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand have the ability to move Eichenberg like that thanks to the emergence of freshman Robert Hainsey, an early enrollee this spring. Hainsey will back up Kraemer.
“Robert becomes kind of our guy that if we need to get in the game, he’s got a really good pass set,” Kelly said. “He’s got some strength and is a really good pass setter for us.
“Tommy, right now, is the guy that goes with the first group, and [nine] practices in, he’s still a work in progress, but he’s making progress for us.”
If Kraemer were to suffer a season-ending injury, it is still conceivable Eichenberg would take over the position, having spent all spring and some of preseason practice working at right tackle, but Hainsey at least allows the offensive line to have a full second-unit in practice.
Kelly also said junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown will start as the W, or boundary, receiver. Kelly has previously admitted the W and X, or field, positions will be largely interchangeable so as to expedite the up-tempo scheme preferred by offensive coordinator Chip Long.
Aside from St. Brown, the pecking order among the receivers remains in flux.
“Everything else is pretty fluid,” Kelly said. “We’re trying to mix and match and we’ve got a lot of really solid players. We’re just trying to take advantage of what they can do and their skill set and where they can best help our football team.”
Acknowledging the large number of possible options there, Kelly then got to the tight ends, where freshman Cole Kmet has apparently inserted himself into the conversation of possible contributors.
(Lack of) Injury Update
To date, and perhaps Notre Dame fans should find some wood to introduce their knuckles to, the Irish have remained largely injury-free in these practices. Junior tight end Alizé Mack suffered a mild hamstring injury, but was an active participant in Wednesday’s practice. Freshman safety Jordan Genmark-Heath has also battled a slight hamstring injury but was cleared for practice.
Senior safety Nick Coleman partook in all of the team repetitions as he works his way back from an ankle injury, while sophomore cornerback Donte Vaughn missed Wednesday’s drills after spraining his neck Tuesday when he missed a pad during a tackling drill. Kelly was unconcerned.
“He’s fine, but those are the kind of injuries you get in camp. That’s as severe as it’s gotten.”
Assuming Vaughn’s health moving forward, there is some levity to be found in a defender suffering an injury during a tackling drill lacking any offensive counterparts.
Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 6 Equanimeous St. Brown, receiver
Listed Measurements: 6-foot-5, 204 pounds 2017-18 year, eligibility: Junior with two years of eligibility remaining including the 2017 season. Depth chart: St. Brown will start as the field receiver, otherwise known as the X. Even as he may move around from the field to the boundary, St. Brown will be a threat for nearly every offensive snap. Recruiting: A consensus four-star recruit, St. Brown held offers from 10 of the Pac-12 programs with Oregon and Oregon State the outliers, as well as from LSU, Miami and Vanderbilt, among others. The Under Armour All-American waited until National Signing Day to commit to the Irish. Rivals.com listed him as the No. 15 receiver in the class of 2015, the No. 23 prospect in California and the No. 144 player in the country.
CAREER TO DATE
After a ho-hum, limited-action, injury-shortened freshman season, St. Brown broke out last year, to say the least. St. Brown led Notre Dame in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns, establishing himself as then-quarterback DeShone Kizer’s most-dangerous as well as most-consistent target.
2015: Seven games, one reception for eight yards before a shoulder injury ended his debut campaign. St. Brown blocked a punt against USC.
2016: 12 games, 12 starts, 58 receptions for 961 yards and nine touchdowns. Highlighting his season, St. Brown took four catches for 182 yards and two touchdowns against Syracuse, including a 79-yard score on the first play from scrimmage. He also logged 116 receiving yards against Duke.
When a sophomore comes about two average-length catches short of a 60-reception, 1,000-yard and 10-touchdown season, not much needs to be worried about the following spring. Instead, Irish coach Brian Kelly noted the improvements in the receiver corps around its standout, though St. Brown is obviously working to stay ahead of the pack, as well.
“I see better balance,” Kelly said in late March. “We have some guys that will come up to the level [St. Brown] was at least year to give the quarterback and the offense a little more balance than we had last year. [St. Brown] will be a better player. He’s working on some of the weaknesses that he has, which limits him in certain areas, and he’s diligently working on those.
“You’re going to see a better supporting cast across the board, which will give us much more balance. More importantly, it’s going to give us much more consistency from an offensive standpoint.”
WHAT KEITH ARNOLD PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
“The drop-off from a veteran like Chris Brown to a receiver with one career catch is sizable. But from a physical skills perspective, St. Brown can do everything needed to be a standout, he just needs to grow up in a hurry.
“Predicting a breakout sophomore season like the ones Golden Tate or Will Fuller had isn’t fair. But with a strong running game and Torii Hunter across from him, St. Brown will have plenty of opportunities to make big plays, he just needs to seize those chances.
“Can St. Brown put himself on course to be the next great Irish receiver? The hype has slowed, but there’s no reason the answer should be no.
“This camp has been all about young receivers finding consistency. While [current-sophomore] Kevin Stepherson seems to have taken most of the excitement, I think St. Brown will be the best of the bunch — at least in 2016.
“But let’s keep expectations in check. I’ll set the bar somewhere between Torii Hunter’s 2015 and Chris Brown’s junior season, with St Brown catching somewhere around 30 balls if he stays healthy and holds onto his starting job.”
Suffice it to say, St. Brown exceeded any and all expectations in 2016, beginning with his tumbling touchdown against Texas. In a way, those successes make it likely St. Brown falls short of expectations in 2017. If he does appear to take a step back, whether that is shown in statistics or not, it could be partly due to the added depth Kelly referred to.
Notre Dame has more options at receiver this year, losing only Hunter form last year’s top-five receivers, and only him and [Purdue transfer] Corey Holmes among those with double-digit catches. Meanwhile, junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush will have an ascending junior Miles Boykin to target at the boundary position and returning, to much hype, junior tight end Alizé Mack drawing attention, as well.
Defenses will not be able to key on St. Brown this season, but Wimbush will not be doing so, either. Overall, that behooves the team, even if it lessens St. Brown’s chances of gaining 39 more yards than last season to reach a four-digit total.
DOWN THE ROAD
Do not be surprised if St. Brown declares for the NFL after this, his junior, season. This is a player with an intellect capable enough to speak three languages fluently (German, French and he dabbles in a little English). He will presumably be close to graduation by the end of 2018’s spring semester. A strong season with a few notable highlights could solidify a strong draft status.
That said, do not be surprised if St. Brown returns to Notre Dame for another year. If he does, that may be a positive indicator for the Irish for a few years beyond 2018. St. Brown’s youngest brother, Amon-Ra St. Brown, is the No. 1 receiver and No. 4 player overall in the class of 2018, per rivals.com, and is considering a list of scholarship offers even more impressive than his oldest brother’s was. Name a prominent college football program and Amon-Ra has heard from its coaching staff, including Alabama, Michigan, Ohio State, Miami, Oklahoma and Oregon (though still no note of Oregon State).
If the consensus five-star chooses Notre Dame over USC and Stanford, perhaps Equanimeous St. Brown will not be able to resist spending a season lining up alongside his brother. However, it should be noted, the middle St. Brown brother, Osiris, will be a freshman receiver at Stanford this season.
Let the roster addition and subtraction continue. Notre Dame added transferring sophomore safety Alohi Gilman from Navy on Friday.
“First of all, Alohi is a great fit here in terms of his character and also what he wants to achieve academically,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “Clearly, that’s primary in our recruiting. Secondly, in terms of his football fit, we got a good look of him against us last season. He plays the style of safety we want in this program. Alohi’s a run-and-hit safety that fits perfectly in the [defensive coordinator] Mike Elko defense.”
Gilman recorded 12 tackles for Navy in its 28-27 defeat of Notre Dame this past November, finishing the season with 76 tackles and five pass breakups. Those 12 tackles do include the one pictured above, lest anyone think Gilman was flagged for face-masking. He was not. Notre Dame then-sophomore receiver Equanimeous St. Brown was forced out of bounds on the play after a gain of 26 yards and a first down.
“I’m extremely grateful to be a part of the Notre Dame family,” Gilman said. “I’m thankful to the coaching staff and the man above for not only believing in me, but also providing this opportunity. I’m excited for this next chapter in my journey.”
His transfer was sparked in part by a decision far up the chain of command to not allow prospective professional athletes at military academies to defer their service to pursue their careers. Presumably, it is this reasoning that leads some to believe he could appeal to the NCAA to play in 2017. For now, Gilman will need to sit out the typical year of an undergraduate transfer.
Heading into this coming season, the Irish lack proven safeties. Junior Nick Coleman and sophomore Jalen Elliott will be the most likely starters in the season-opener against Temple. Coleman moved from cornerback to safety this offseason, while Elliott made 14 tackles in his debut season.
So while Gilman will most likely sit out this season, thanks to a year of starting at Navy, he will essentially be on even footing come 2018 as far as experience with the rest of the defensive backline. At 6-foot, 195 pounds, he may seem slight, but consider that Notre Dame lists Coleman as 6-foot, 187 pounds, and Elliott as 6-foot-½, 208 pounds.
With Gilman’s transfer into the program, rough math indicates the Irish now have 84 scholarship players, one fewer than the maximum allowed by the NCAA.