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Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s defensive backs, stellar cornerbacks and concerning safeties

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When having these discussions, it would make sense to split this broad group into two not only by positions of cornerbacks and safeties, but also by strength and likely weak point, respectively.

Notre Dame has cornerback depth and proven talent — so much so, all the cornerback options cannot line up at the position at once in any situation. The Irish also have no proven contributors at safety, although some help may have spent the last year on the roster, perhaps playing at another position or sidelined by the NCAA’s mandate.

Spring Roster:
— Fifth-year Nick Watkins and rising junior Troy Pride at boundary cornerback.
— Rising juniors Julian Love (pictured above) and Donte Vaughn at field cornerback.
— Rising senior Nick Coleman, rising sophomore Jordan Genmark-Heath, rising junior Devin Studstill and rising senior Nicco Fertitta at boundary safety.
— Rising juniors Alohi Gilman and Jalen Elliott, rising sophomore Isaiah Robertson and rising junior D.J. Morgan at field safety.
— Rising senior Shaun Crawford at nickel back.
— Early-enrolled freshman Houston Griffith somewhere among the cornerbacks, likely backing up Crawford at nickel.

Yes, the orders of mention above should be noted, but the safety situation will be much less murky after just one day of seeing Notre Dame in spring practice.

Summer Arrivals:
— Incoming freshmen cornerbacks D.J. Brown, Joe Wilkins, Noah Boykin and Tariq Bracy.
— Incoming freshmen safeties Derrik Allen and Paul Moala.

Rising junior Jalen Elliott started every game in 2017, but that is not mean he will be a starter in 2018. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Depth Chart Possibilities:
As is, the Irish cornerbacks are set with an excellent two-deep roster, including Crawford seeing more and more time at nickel back with his fitness finally fully-returning after two consecutive injury-halted seasons.

At safety, however, it should be a wide-open spring competition between Gilman, Coleman, Genmark-Heath, Elliott, Studstill and Robertson. Frankly, whoever earns the gigs will get them. No player begins with an advantage due to past performances.

Gilman has earned only praise since transferring from Navy, but this spring will be the first genuine chance to see him on the field in a Notre Dame jersey while Elliott and Studstill have two years of mixed results, to put it generously, and Coleman has one of his own, though his result are a bit more favorable than either Elliott’s or Studstill’s.

Genmark-Heath and Robertson hardly saw much time as freshmen, but both looked to be developing as physical fits.

Biggest (Reader) Question(s):
Donte Vaughn was another “big get” for Notre Dame, but he also seems to have dropped off the grid. I’m not seeing him in any projected two-deeps for 2018. — Ken M.

To be honest, Ken offered today’s Vaughn question in the same sentences as yesterday’s pertaining to rising junior receiver Javon McKinley, but for the sake of this “Spring Outlook” series, splitting them into two paraphrased bits made more sense.

Vaughn’s lack of notable impact to date comes as a direct result of the emergence of Love, combined with Crawford showing every skill wanted of a corner aside from health. When others perform well, it does not necessarily prove another’s struggle.

Douglas, a sincere question. You have mentioned, on multiple occasions, that Julian Love could be moved to safety. I, respectfully, assume that such statements are rooted in solid information. Given that Love has developed into, or at the least is developing into, a genuine shutdown corner, why would the coaching staff move him to safety? Is there that much confidence in the other CBs, or is there that little confidence in the current safeties? Given how rare shutdown corners are, and the fact that they can effectively cut the field in half, isn’t the presence of such a corner more valuable than a potentially above-replacement safety? arbormazoo

There is a lot to unpack here, even once getting past the shock of a sincere and respectful question.

First of all, Irish head coach Brian Kelly has both explicitly and implicitly mentioned the possibility of moving Love to safety, so the idea has at least crossed the coaching staff’s mind.

While Love is not necessarily a shutdown cornerback — the moniker is a tough one to earn, especially at the college level where most cornerbacks do not handle both left-side and right-side, or boundary and field, duties — he is by far Notre Dame’s best cornerback, and that is where he is at his best. He could also conceivably be the best safety on the roster. The question then becomes, is the gap from Love to the next option more glaring at cornerback or at safety?

This comparison may seem odd, considering offensive linemen and cornerbacks have little-to-nothing in common, but stick with it for a moment. Last spring and summer, the Irish line was set from left tackle to center, but the right side had some questions. The only certain thing was Alex Bars, now a fifth-year, would be involved. Coming off a year starting at right tackle, that may have seemed the obvious spot to keep Bars, but instead he moved inside to right guard.

Bars was both Notre Dame’s best right tackle and best right guard, and then-sophomore Tommy Kraemer was likely the next-best option at both positions. The gap between Bars the tackle and Kraemer the tackle was less of a gap than the one between Bars the guard and Kraemer the guard. Thus, the greatest total value along the offensive line included moving Bars away from his best position.

That is the logic in considering moving Love. If Vaughn can provide much of what Love does at cornerback, then the drop-off there could be minimal compared to the effect of not moving Love to safety.

What is the plan to redshirt some of the coming junior defensive backs? We have defensive backs and wideouts coming out of our ears and seemingly do every year. nebraskairish

Who would you redshirt? If Love stays at cornerback, then either Pride or Vaughn is needed in dime packages, with the other providing vestiges of experienced depth. If Love moves to safety, then all the junior cornerbacks are vital pieces of the secondary.

Elliott and Studstill have started parts of two seasons. No coaching staff would then sideline one as a junior. Furthermore, such absences would serve to leave special teams only short-handed.

That leaves Morgan. Whether or not a year spent preserving eligibility becomes an official item or not will likely end up moot. Considering his first two years with the Irish, it is hard to envision him ever being considered for a fifth year.

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Love: 68 tackles with one for loss; three interceptions and 20 more pass breakups.
Coleman: 44 tackles with one for loss; three pass breakups.
Elliott: 43 tackles; two pass breakups.
Crawford: 32 tackles with 1.5 sacks; two interceptions, five pass breakups, two fumbles recovered, including one he forced.
Watkins: 29 tackles; one interception and eight pass breakups.
Pride: 22 tackles with one for loss; one interception with two pass breakups.
Studstill: 18 tackles.
Genmark-Heath: 16 tackles.
Fertitta: 10 tackles.
Robertson: Eight tackles.
Vaughn: Six tackles.
Morgan: Two tackles.

2017 Departures:
None. At all. Not even a transfer yet.

That may be a big three-letter word closing the previous sentence, but it feels pertinent in this position group with Notre Dame cruising four scholarships above the NCAA maximum allowed come fall.

Notre Dame gets the letter: Derrik Allen
Notre Dame gets the letter: Houston Griffith
Notre Dame gets the letter: Tariq Bracy
Notre Dame gets the letter: Paul Moala
Notre Dame gets the letter: D.J. Brown
Notre Dame gets the letter: Joe Wilkins
A Signing Day victory, Notre Dame gets the letter: Noah Boykin

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are
Linebackers, a proven two and then many questions
Tight ends, a surplus of depth, unproven talent
Defensive line, a returning strength
Receivers, now without both St. Brown & Stepherson

As always, further reader questions are welcomed at insidetheirish@gmail.com.

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

rivals.com
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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.

Questions for the Week: Ankles, Claypool and Notre Dame’s history at Spartan Stadium

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As always, these are questions with answers likely to come before Saturday night’s kickoff …

Will Cam Smith be healthy enough to get back on the field?
The fifth-year receiver suffered a sprained ankle in practice last week, limiting his reps throughout the week and keeping him from playing Saturday, per Irish coach Brian Kelly. That absence may have held more of an effect than was anticipated by anyone.

Certainly, Notre Dame’s receivers totaling three catches for 11 yards is not solely a reflection of Smith not being on the field. It is a sign of bigger issues, but that does not mean Smith would not have aided the cause. With his institutional knowledge of offensive coordinator Chip Long’s scheme from their days together at Arizona State, Smith has been consistent. His seven catches for 54 yards come from running clean, disciplined routes.

Getting him back onto the field could alleviate a slight bit of junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s accuracy issues. By no means would this eradicate the concern entirely, but even a small step in the right direction would be a welcome trend for the Irish at this point.

If Smith remains sidelined, did Chase Claypool do enough to maintain his spot as a starter?
Kelly answered this question Sunday, but it had already been worked into this concept’s draft and emphasizing it seems a valid decision.

Claypool will continue to see time, though more so at the boundary receiver position than the slot spot he worked at throughout spring and preseason practices. Of those three catches for 11 yards the receivers managed against Boston College, Claypool accounted for two receptions and eight yards.

“He was assignment correct,” Kelly said. “We saw him really grow in the areas that we wanted him to grow in.”

Along with Claypool, there was also some Michael Young innuendo last week. Will the depth chart now reflect that?
When Kelly discussed coming changes at receiver before the trip out east, he mentioned Claypool by name. He also seemed to imply another unexpected option could emerge.

“Guys are going to get banged up and we’re going to call on what I think will be outstanding depth at our wide receiver position,” Kelly said Thursday. “But we really do have to start to feature some guys that might not have all the experience but have a higher ceiling.”

At that point, Kelly knew Smith was injured, though perhaps he was still questionable to play. Kelly also presumably knew senior Freddy Canteen would need season-ending shoulder surgery this week. Those two bits could explain the first half of that paragraph.

The second half suggests Claypool would have company in the inexperienced with a “higher ceiling” category. With sophomore Javon McKinley intended to preserve a year of eligibility this season, freshman Michael Young is the most-likely candidate.

That presumption could be quickly confirmed in the Notre Dame depth chart this week.

How badly is Tony Jones’ ankle sprained?
Exactly a week ago, this piece wondered, “Through two games, are the Irish really still this healthy?” Through three games, the answer has become no.

Sophomore running back Tony Jones sprained his ankle against Boston College, only x-rays confirmed no further damage. As a running back, that injury can obviously be more than a nuisance and waiting for Jones to return to full health before playing him makes sense. If that takes longer than a week, it should lead to a bit more playing time for junior Dexter Williams. (more…)

Sunday Notre Dame Notebook: Canteen out for the season, Javon McKinley probably sitting also; Kelly on blocking strategy

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As Notre Dame struggles to find contributing receivers, the option have diminished by two. Irish coach Brian Kelly said graduate student Freddy Canteen will undergo season-ending surgery this week to repair a torn labrum and sophomore Javon McKinley is likely to preserve a year of eligibility this season.

Canteen started Notre Dame’s first two games before injuring his shoulder against Georgia. The Michigan transfer made one catch for seven yards. He does have another season of eligibility remaining, making a 2018 return likely, though not guaranteed.

In Canteen’s place, the Irish will turn more to sophomore Chase Claypool, though that may have been the case, regardless. Claypool made two catches for eight yards in Notre Dame’s 49-20 victory over Boston College on Saturday.

“He’s big, he’s physical, he’s got speed,” Kelly said of Claypool. “He needs to continue to grow at that position. We just like that he blocked very well for us. He was assignment correct. We saw him really grow in the areas that we wanted him to grow in.”

Kelly said Claypool will see time more on the outside of the field, rather than Canteen’s position in the slot. That alignment could hint at increased usage of the already often seen two tight end packages.

McKinley saw action in six games during his freshman season, recording no statistics.

“We didn’t get enough of his year last year, so I try to save a year under those circumstances for those guys,” Kelly said. “… If they’re still growing, still learning — I don’t want to accelerate them through the program unless they are squared away in terms of all of your traits.”

With or without Canteen and McKinley, the Irish still need to find reliable receivers, currently a vacuum best-exhibited by the passing total of 96 yards amassed against the Eagles. (more…)

Notre Dame lands second WR in class of 2018

Rivals.com
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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.

Thus, when Austin arrives, a chance may be waiting for him or mid-February commit Micah Jones (Warren Township H.S.; Gurnee, Ill.), a rivals.com four-star.

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.