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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.

Monday’s Leftovers: Notre Dame lands a 2019 CB; Auburn hires an Irish AD

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Sanity is a commodity worth preserving. Thus, this space generally keeps any Notre Dame recruiting updates limited to the current recruiting class. Otherwise, two-thirds of these words would revolve around various offers, commitments, subsequent de-commitments, 16-year-old’s decisions and the other endless minutiae of the internet’s third-favorite niche industry.

In other words, discussing high school juniors today is 10 days earlier than usually allowed. Consider this an exception not setting a precedent, but rather granted because of a commitment so closely following this question submitted Sunday morning:

“Big junior day this weekend. Do you think any in attendance may be on commit watch? It seems last year the class of 2018 was already mostly in place, but there are only two commits thus far. Will that change soon?”

— William from Cypress, Texas.

Indeed, William, at least one junior at Notre Dame on Saturday was ready to commit shortly thereafter, with rivals.com three-star cornerback K.J. Wallace (Lovett High School; Atlanta) making that decision Sunday afternoon. Wallace chose the Irish over offers from Auburn, Penn State and Stanford, among many others.

“Honestly, I expected to commit at the beginning of [his senior] season, but I know this is the place for me,” Wallace told Blue & Gold Illustrated. “… I loved everything about the campus and the coaches. We met a few players and I like their strength and conditioning program, too. I couldn’t find much wrong about it.”

Securing a cornerback’s commitment so early in the class continues Notre Dame’s recovery from not getting any cornerbacks in the class of 2017, with three signed this cycle and another yet possible before next Wednesday.

William’s memory of a year ago is a bit inaccurate. Of the 21 players who signed with the Irish during December’s early signing period, only five had committed by this point a year ago. Broadly speaking, there tend to be a few key periods for recruits to commit. The earliest do so before their junior football season. Then there is typically a lull until the winter. For the majority of high school juniors, that silence lasts until after National Signing Day, at which point schools finally make the juniors a priority.

For example, Notre Dame secured three commitments the two weeks following National Signing Day 2017. December’s early signing period may have skewed that rush forward a few weeks, leading to decisions like Wallace’s, but it is too soon to gauge that effect of the new recruiting timetables. Either way, a handful of commitments coming to the surface in February would be logical.

— Bet you weren’t expecting to think about Auburn basketball this morning.

With a 25-point win over LSU on Saturday, the No. 19 Tigers won their third straight and 17th of their last 18. The winning streak coincides with the hiring of former Notre Dame baseball star Allen Greene as athletic director. Obviously, the hiring has nothing to do with the winning streak except the spot at the top of the SEC standings underscores the biggest challenge Greene will immediately face at Auburn.

Tigers head basketball coach Bruce Pearl appears to be more than tangentially-involved with the FBI investigation into basketball recruiting tactics, meaning Greene may soon face the unenviable prospect of pondering a coach’s future even as he wins the SEC and gets a high seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Greene is one of 10 Irish graduates serving as athletic directors somewhere in the Division I realm. Two others just made changes with head football coaches, neither necessarily voluntarily, but the Pearl dilemma will likely be a whole other type of ordeal.

Those other nine:
Gene Smith at Ohio State.
Stan Wilcox at Florida State.
Jack Swarbrick at Notre Dame.
Bubba Cunningham at North Carolina.
Mike Bobinski at Purdue.
Tom Bowen at Memphis.
Danny White at Central Florida.
Bill Scholl at Marquette.
Boo Corrigan at Army.

— Let’s turn to another reader question … “I miss the days when ND was Tight End U. Any chance of rekindling that? — nmmargie

An undeniable return to being considered “Tight End U” in 2018 will likely hinge on current Notre Dame junior Alizé Mack. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Yes, there is a chance. Notre Dame will have six tight ends around in 2018, and based off last season, Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long does genuinely prefer to include tight ends as often as possible. If current junior Alizé Mack can finally realize some of his physical potential, then he should certainly join the four Notre Dame products at tight end already in the NFL.

That number should even rise to five this spring. Durham Smythe caught three passes for 48 yards and a touchdown in this weekend’s Senior Bowl, and would appear to be trending upward as far as NFL draft thoughts may go.

That is not to say Smythe will be drafted, but, at the very least, he will get his shot in an NFL training camp of some variety.

Smythe and Mack combined to lead an under-the-radar productive season for Irish tight ends in 2017. The position group may have been inconsistent, but so was every other aspect of the passing game. The tight ends as a whole caught 45 passes for 476 yards and four touchdowns. They were certainly a part of the offense, even if not featured as expected entering the season.

Admittedly, nmmargie’s point holds merit. Notre Dame essentially abandoned the position in 2015 and 2016, much to Smythe’s detriment. However, the stretch of Ben KoyackTroy NiklasTyler Eifert – Kyle Rudolph – John Carlson – Anthony Fasano does stretch from 2014 back to 2003. Two years of relying on Will Fuller and Equanimeous St. Brown does not ruin that reputation by any means.

— Get ready for a Brian VanGorder defense in 2019.

The former Irish defensive coordinator landed that position at Louisville over the weekend. Notre Dame opens the 2019 season at Louisville on Labor Day.

— Need Tuesday night plans? The St. Brown Master Plan:

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

Monday’s Leftovers: Coney & Tillery once enrolled early at Notre Dame, now to the NFL or not?

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Today marks two occasions. It is the day before Notre Dame begins its spring semester. In other words, it is the day before this year’s seven early enrollees begin classes. It is also the deadline for early entrants to file for the NFL draft.

There are two common threads to the separate events. Junior linebacker Te’von Coney and junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery both enrolled early in 2015, and they have both delayed their stay-or-go decisions to today.

With the early signing period’s implementation, the former date holds less import. These players have already signed with the Irish. Gone are the days of putting down a drink and racing to a computer after finding a source to confirm a consensus five-star quarterback’s early arrival. With an early signing period, Gunner Kiel likely would have been bound to at least begin his career at LSU in the spring of 2012, rather than show up on Notre Dame’s campus at the 11th hour.

The tangible value of arriving early can still hold legitimacy, but that theoretical does not become much of a reality until spring practice commences, anyway.

Junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery (99) will need to decide today if he will head to the NFL Draft or return for his senior year. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

So an early enrollee summary can wait until tomorrow’s first day of classes. In the meantime, breathes remain baited waiting for the decisions from Coney and Tillery. Will they return for a year under first-time defensive coordinator Clark Lea, or follow the lead of running back Josh Adams and receiver Equanimeous St. Brown and head for the NFL?

As has been discussed and seems rather obvious, both Coney and Tillery would greatly boost the 2018 Irish defense. They would also both likely hear their names called in the NFL draft, so there is merit to whatever option each chooses.

— As it pertains to the early enrollees, the measureable benefit of the semester’s head start can be debated. In looking at the last three classes, it has appeared to have great effect with a few of the freshmen, but not for most.

2015: Tillery, Coney, defensive lineman Micah Dew-Treadway, offensive lineman Tristen Hoge.
2016: Safety Devin Studstill, receiver Kevin Stepherson, defensive end Daelin Hayes, defensive end Khalid Kareem, safety Spencer Perry.
2017: Offensive lineman Robert Hainsey, tight end Brock Wright, running back C.J. Holmes, safety Isaiah Robertson, offensive lineman Aaron Banks.

Of those 14, Tillery, Studstill, Stepherson and Hainsey offered genuine contributions in their debut seasons.

Tillery started three games in 2015, appearing in all 12, making 12 tackles with one sack. More than the counting statistics, the depth Tillery provided at defensive tackle was an absolute necessity.

As injuries and suspensions purged the Irish secondary just before the 2016 season’s start, Studstill was forced into a starting role. He finished the year with 38 tackles, an interception and a forced fumble. He was not yet ready to be a collegiate starting safety, but he was needed to be, and the time spent going through the paces in the spring provided Studstill enough of a base to be somewhat serviceable from the outset.

Stepherson broke out as a deep threat right away — a likelihood with or without an early enrollment simply due to his speed. In his only complete season with the Irish, Stepherson caught 25 passes for 462 yards and five touchdowns.

Hainsey’s impact was far and away the most distinct. He went from the second most-heralded early-enrolled offensive lineman to a starter at right tackle. That surge puts Hainsey in pole position to start at left tackle in 2018. He may have ended up there, anyway, but the freshman first played a pivotal role on the best offensive line in the country.

— It would not be a site dedicated to football if it did not include some mention of the Minnesota Vikings’ victory Sunday evening. Some adjective should precede victory in the previous sentence, but no quick combination encapsulates just how absurd, dramatic and, per the quickly-adhered catchphrase, miraculous the conclusion was.

Stefon Diggs’ game-winning touchdown may not have been as excellent as Irish receiver Miles Boykin’s was in the Citrus Bowl if compared in a vacuum, but Diggs’ score came with no time remaining on the clock, while Boykin’s was merely an excellent play that if failed, other chances would have followed.

Of course, being the Vikings, the Notre Dame connection is thorough.

— A thought experiment sparked by that Minneapolis tangent … The Minnesota Timberwolves played their first game in franchise history Nov. 3, 1989, meaning it has endured a title drought the exact same length as the Irish have.

Which wins its respective championship first?

U.S. Army All-American Bowl, featuring five Notre Dame signees: Who, what, when, etc.

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WHO? More than a hundred of the best high school seniors of the class of 2018, including five Notre Dame signees and two more targets, one of which will announce his commitment during the game.

The signed commits: Consensus four-star quarterback Phil Jurkovec.
Rivals.com four-star tight end George Takacs.
Consensus four-star defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola.
Consensus four-star linebacker and possible future rover Shayne Simon (pictured above).
Consensus four-star safety Derrik Allen.

Consensus five-star receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown (Mater Dei High School; Anaheim, Calif.) will announce a commitment to either USC, Stanford or the Irish during the game. The Trojans seem his most likely choice.

Consensus four-star linebacker Solomon Tuliaupupu (Mater Dei H.S.; Anaheim, Calif.) will also play in the exhibition, with Notre Dame still among the contenders for his commitment.

WHAT? Arguably the top of the high-school all-star games, the U.S. Army All-American Bowl is in its 19th season, having featured more than 400 eventual NFL players, per its website.

WHEN? 1:00 p.m. ET.

WHERE? The Alamodome; San Antonio, Texas. The game will be broadcast on NBC, hence its featuring in this space.

If considering watching online, this should work out for you.

WHY? It is a pretty simple argument: This will be the last chance to see these incoming freshmen in any form of competition until September, with the exception of Takacs. The Naples, Fla., product will enroll this month and should be involved in the Blue-Gold Game to conclude spring practices. Otherwise, the five, perhaps seven, will be behind a figurative curtain until any action seen in the fall.

Of the committed five, at least three of them and possibly four are likely to play for the Irish in 2018, with Takacs ironically the exception.

Ademilola’s and Simon’s chances of seeing consistent defensive snaps will rise significantly if current juniors defensive tackle Jerry Tillery and linebacker Te’von Coney opt to head to the NFL rather than return for their final seasons of collegiate eligibility. Coney’s decision notwithstanding, Simon seems primed for special teams duties.

Derrik Allen (rivals.com)

Allen may well become a starter, as has been detailed concerning the situation at safety. He told ND Insider’s Tyler James he strives to prove he is ready for that possible opportunity.

“Just show people I can move,” Allen said of the U.S. Army All-American Bowl. “I’m fast. I can play safety at the next level. Show people I can do it.”

Similarly to Allen at safety, Jurkovec’s potential impact at quarterback speaks as much to the dearth of confidence there currently as it does to his talent.

ALLEN’S RESPONSE TO ELKO’S DEPARTURE
He may be only a high school senior, but Allen’s reaction to Notre Dame defensive coordinator departing for the same gig at Texas A&M was more mature than most fans’ or even current players’.

“Part of the buisness [sic],” Allen posted to Twitter on Thursday. “Sign to a place cause of their cultures and beliefs not because of a coach.”

Phil Jurkovec (rivals.com)

HOW COME JURKOVEC ISN’T ENROLLING EARLY?
Any debate about enrolling early seems unnecessary and inconceivable for those through college or irrationally cheering for a particular football team. But do not forget the subject of the debate is still a high schooler, looking to appropriately conclude what has been nearly two decades with friends. The cliché example of that nostalgic concept is prom. There are other reasons at hand, though.

Jurkovec has not only excelled on the gridiron at Pine-Richland High School, Gibsonia, Pa., but also on the hardwood.

“I’ve been playing [basketball] my whole life, so I wanted to play [this year],” Jurkovec told James while in San Antonio. “It helps me, too. For me, it shows I’m not really tapped out with football, because I don’t play football year-round. Playing basketball has really helped me develop athletically.”

BY HOW MUCH? Just kidding. It would take a real degenerate to know of a betting spread on a high school exhibition game.

WHO ELSE? Consensus four-star defensive back Houston Griffith and consensus four-star linebacker Jack Lamb partook tin the Under Armour All-American Game earlier this week.

ANOTHER OUTGOING NOTRE DAME TRANSFER
Freshman defensive end Jonathon MacCollister announced on Twitter on Friday he will head to Central Florida … as a tight end. Originally from Florida, MacCollister spent this season on the sideline, as he will be required to again in 2018 due to transfer restrictions.

“I would like to thank the University of Notre Dame and Coach [Brian] Kelly and his coaching staff for giving me an amazing opportunity to be part of one of the best institutions in the country,” MacCollister wrote. “I would also like to thank my teammates for accepting me into their family and treating me like their brother from day one, and to me they will always be my brothers.”

One of two defensive ends in his class, along with Kofi Wardlow, the likelihood of MacCollister seeing imminent playing time decreased with the rapid development of sophomore Khalid Kareem and the presumed return of senior Jay Hayes after a productive season from the veteran. Additionally, sophomore Daelin Hayes (no relation) continued strong progression and MacCollister had a future of competing with sophomores Julian Okwara and Ade Ogundeji for any remaining playing time.

At tight end, MacCollister never would have seen the light of day with the Irish.

INSIDE THE IRISH COVERAGE OF THE CITRUS BOWL VICTORY:
Book and Boykin heroics give Notre Dame a Citrus victory
Things We Learned: Kelly is open to a Notre Dame QB competition; WRs emerge
Things We Learned from the season: 10-3 Notre Dame is two glaring holes from being much more

INSIDE THE IRISH COVERAGE OF DEPARTURES:
Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko leaves for Texas A&M
Friday at 4: Notre Dame not at fault in Mike Elko’s departure, but the next decision could determine 2018
C.J. Sanders to transfer from Notre Dame; DT Pete Mokwuah, as well
Notre Dame’s leading receiver, Equanimeous St. Brown, heads to the NFL
One-time Notre Dame Heisman candidate, Josh Adams declares for the NFL

OUTSIDE READING:
Future Irish QB Phil Jurkovec catches Notre Dame’s fantastic Citrus Bowl finish
Analysis: Sizing up Brian Kelly’s next step after Mike Elko’s departure from Notre Dame
Fisher tabs Elko as Aggies’ defensive coordinator
Nelson, Yoon make AP All-Bowl Team
Under Armour All-America Game viewing guide for Notre Dame fans
USC QB Sam Darnold declares for NFL Draft
The final steps of Baker Mayfield’s inimitable college football career ($)

One-time Notre Dame Heisman candidate, Josh Adams declares for the NFL

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It would have been an ideal scenario for Notre Dame if junior running back Josh Adams returned for his senior year, but that may not have been in his best interests. Thus, Adams announced Friday afternoon he will head to the NFL.

“With a lot of thought, prayer and discussion with my family, I’ve decided to forgo my senior year and enter the 2018 NFL Draft!” Adams wrote. “… I’ll always have Notre Dame in my heart.

“With my decision, I hope that people will know, and kids will see how it’s okay to chase your dreams, because with God ‘ALL things are possible.’”

Adams went on to state he will “definitely” return to the University to earn his degree.

The Irish running game hinged on Adams and the dominant offensive line in front of him this season, with the one-time Heisman candidate finishing the year with 1,430 yards gained on 206 attempts, adding nine touchdowns. He finishes his career with 3,198 yards and 20 touchdowns, averaging a startling 6.6 yards per carry. His career total places Adams fifth in Notre Dame history. His 229 yards at Boston College in September are fourth in single-game school history and paced the team to its most-efficient rushing performance in modern history.

Perhaps not a first-round draft pick, Adams will still likely hear his name called in an early round. Given the career longevity for running backs in the NFL — rather, the lack thereof — seizing that opportunity makes an abundance of sense.

“I chose Notre Dame because it was a place that allowed me to pursue my full potential,” Adams wrote. “It was a decision that would affect the rest of my life.”

Without Adams, the Irish backfield still has both depth and talent, led by current junior Dexter Williams and sophomore Tony Jones, with sophomore Deon McIntosh and (currently suspended indefinitely) freshman C.J. Holmes adding further depth and incoming freshman Jahmir Smith on the way to round off the options.

Arguments can be and have been made Williams was not used enough in Notre Dame’s offense in 2017, but that can be somewhat attributed to Adams’ record-setting successes. In addition, nagging ankle and quad injuries limited Williams throughout the season, as did an ankle to Jones.

The most likely scenario moving forward is Williams sees the most action only if he develops as an every-down back, as in, only if he develops as a pass blocker. For example, he followed two successful runs in the Citrus Bowl by immediately missing a block and exposing sophomore quarterback Ian Book.

If that progress occurs, Jones can continue to serve as a positional mismatch putting defenses in a bind. Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long relished opportunities to deploy a healthy Jones as a second running back due to his threefold abilities as a rusher, receiver and blocker. With him lined up with Adams, defenses truly did not know what type of play could be coming. Long’s ideal will presumably have Jones in a similar role alongside Williams.

With junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown declaring for the NFL Draft on Thursday, Notre Dame now awaits for decisions from three more juniors: linebacker Te’von Coney, defensive tackle Jerry Tillery and tight end Alizé Mack. They have until Jan. 15.

From Adams’ Instagram