Keith Arnold

Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt, Justin Thomas

Evaluating Notre Dame’s five early NFL Draft prospects

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Notre Dame submitted five names to the NFL Draft advisory board, looking for feedback on juniors Will Fuller and Jaylon Smith and seniors C.J. Prosise, KeiVarae Russell and Ronnie Stanley. Brian Kelly said he’d be meeting with all five players to discuss their NFL future before any decisions are made.

“We’ll see where that goes. I hope they all come back. I don’t know if that’s going to be the case, but we’ll see,” Kelly said Sunday.

For the Irish, it appears that two prospects have bright immediate futures at the next level. Stanley, who’ll graduate at the semester but has a fifth-year of eligibility remaining, and Smith, who has started for three seasons at Notre Dame, notching 100-tackle seasons in both 2014 and 2015. Both are widely believed to be first round prospects, at or near the top of their position group heading into the evaluation season.

The other three players aren’t quite as cut and dry. For Fuller, a two-season run as one of college football’s most explosive players has been undercut by some bad drops. Prosise’s single-season greatness, not to mention his versatility as a receiver, make him an intriguing prospect at the next level, but he’s far from a readymade player at a position already devalued with talent.

Russell’s return to college football wasn’t necessarily as triumphant as many expected. Now he’ll spend the majority of his combine prep time rehabbing from a major leg injury, far from an ideal situation for a defensive back that needs to show great testing numbers to be drafted anywhere in the first three rounds.

To get an outside perspective on the decisions each of these five players have in front of them I reached out to Josh Norris. He’s the NFL Draft writer for Rotoworld and NBC Sports and took some time to breakdown each prospect.

Norris seems to be with just about everybody else who believes that both Smith and Stanley have top of the first round potential. Here’s his quick eval on Notre Dame’s All-American linebacker:

Plenty of games where [Smith] shows complete LB traits. Athletic and quick enough to work around blocks and succeed in coverage, strong enough to take on blocks and shed when necessary. Aggressive finisher. Early round 1 pick is within reach.

While some wondered if Stanley’s “struggles” during the 2015 season would impact his draft grade, it appears that he remains the same type of high-ceiling prospect that finds his way to the first round as well.

Norris believes Stanley will compete with Ole Miss’s Laremy Tunsil for the top tackle off the board, with many NFL scouts keeping a very close eye on the Fiesta Bowl battle between Stanley and Ohio State’s Joey Bosa.

I remain a big fan of Stanley’s. Sure, he was beat a few times against Clemson and sprinkled in some other “losses” against other teams, but all tackles lose. I think he offers great size, length and athleticism, which can equal power. He and Laremy Tunsil will compete for the top tackle spot.

From there, it appears that Notre Dame’s three remaining draft prospects would do their stock a favor by returning to school in 2016. For as dynamic as Fuller has been, he’s projecting as a Round 2 or 3 type player right now, per Norris.

“A team who drafts him (in 2016 or 2017) will have to understand the drops come with the big plays,” Norris explained. “Therefore, benching him or decreasing reps because of drops is pointless. It is who he is. He will atone for a mistake with a huge play.”

Prosise projects to be a similar player to another former Irish running back/receiver, the Detroit Lions’ Theo Riddick. While we all know Prosise has better breakaway speed, Riddick’s instincts as a runner and ability as a pass catcher have allowed him to find a niche at the next level. That might be what teams think they can get from Prosise, which is why Norris sees him as a fourth round-type back entering the offseason.

Lastly, KeiVarae Russell’s senior season left a lot of scouts trying to understand what to make of him. After appearing to be on a great trajectory at the end of his sophomore season, Russell allowed 14 catches on 29 downfield targets, a stat that left many thinking he was rustier than he let on. Russell may have accomplished his goal of returning to South Bend and earning his degree, but he may help his career by coming back in 2016.

“[Russell] was far from consistent. Maybe it can be chalked up to missed time in 2014, and I bet some evaluators will conclude it was,” Norris said.

Last year, Brian Kelly, Jack Swarbrick and a contingent from Notre Dame sat down with Sheldon Day and Stanley as the duo weighed NFL options. Both opted to stay after talking things through.

This year, those conversations will happen—even with Fuller, who pledged his return a few weeks back and Smith, who everybody assumes is gone. As Kelly has shown in the past, his recruiting skills have helped keep Harrison Smith, Manti Te’o, Tyler Eifert and Michael Floyd. Building on the team’s 2015 success, keeping players like Fuller, Prosise and Russell could lead to a very impressive 2016.

Even outside the playoff, winning bowl is critical for Irish

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The last few years Notre Dame has used their month of bowl preparations to get a jumpstart on spring practice. Whether that was force-feeding reps to then freshman Max Redfield to prepare for the Pinstripe Bowl or getting a closer look at redshirt linemen like Mike McGlinchey, Quenton Nelson and Alex Bars, Brian Kelly valued the December month of practice in a way not dissimilar from spring football.

Not this year.

While there was certainly disappointment in the air yesterday when the four playoff teams were set and Notre Dame came in at No. 8, it disappeared quickly when the Irish saw they were playing Ohio State. In years past, Kelly talked about combatting disinterest from outgoing seniors. This year that seems far from the problem—with the veterans on this roster knowing how important it is to their legacy to win a premier bowl game in their final chance to play together.

“I think first and foremost, this team wants to win, and so winning will be the most important thing,” Kelly said. “I think that we’d like to say that experimenting with positions and getting young guys work is really left to the spring. This is about preparing this football team for one last game.”

If the Irish were looking for a consolation prize for having a great season ruined in Palo Alto, they were given that opportunity. Now they need to rise to the challenge of facing Urban Meyer’s latest dynasty in the making, facing off with a Buckeyes team that won the national championship last year and is a ridiculous 49-4 in the four seasons since Meyer took over the Ohio State program.

That means another three weeks of preparing for a dominant running football team, with the Buckeyes averaging over 240 yards a game behind All-American Ezekiel Elliott and a very good offensive line. On the other side of the football, it means preparing for Joey Bosa, the Buckeyes havoc-wreaking defensive end who’ll likely be among the top five picks in the NFL Draft.

Between the three former Notre Dame assistants on staff with the Buckeyes, the countless recruiting battles—past, present and future—and a claim for superiority among the Midwest’s bluechip powers (sorry Spartans), a bowl game that doesn’t lead to a championship sure feels like a grand stage nonetheless.

“Heck yeah. Winning this is important. It’s important,” Kelly said, when asked about the impact this game will have on his program. “Not being there in a while and not playing well in 2012 on a national stage, you know, it’s very important for us to play well and win the game.”

 

Jarron Jones, Durham Smythe both on track to return for Fiesta Bowl

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 11: Jarron Jones #94 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish rushes against Jon Heck #71 of the North Carolina Tar Heels at Notre Dame Stadium on October 11, 2014 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Notre Dame will welcome back two long-injured starters for the Fiesta Bowl as Jarron Jones and Durham Smythe both return to practice this week and are on track to play, Brian Kelly said Sunday.

Jones, expected to be Notre Dame’s starting nose tackle heading into the year, will play his first game of the season, lost in preseason camp to a knee injury. Smythe went down in week two against Virginia, with surgeries performed on both his shoulder and knee that kept him out for the remainder of the regular season.

Jones’ return comes just as the Irish get ready to face Ezekiel Elliott and an Ohio State running game that’s among the best in the country. He’ll finally have a chance to return to the lineup next to Sheldon Day, a duo that was expected to be among the best interior pairings in the country.

“Jarron Jones is cleared for full practice and participation, beginning Thursday,” Kelly said. “It’ll just be a matter of increasing the volume as we work through the bowl preparations… I think we can increase his volume where he can be playing for us and contributing.”

What that workload will be remains to be seen. Kelly talked about the strength challenges that come with rehabbing a major knee injury, though did say that he thought Jones was at around 90 percent, turning most of December into a conditioning and strength setup.

At tight end, the Irish will welcome Smythe back, especially as they look to develop consistency at the position heading into 2016. With the ground game needing solid perimeter blocking from an attached tight end, if Smythe is all the way healthy, he’ll have a chance to fill that role.

“I know [head trainer] Rob Hunt thinks we can get Durham to where he was in August,” Kelly said.

The Irish also expect to have James Onwualu back for the bowl game. The junior linebacker injured his knee against Wake Forest and missed the regular season’s two final games. C.J. Prosise‘s high ankle sprain still needs time to heal, but his cast was off and he’ll likely have a chance to finish the season on the field as well. KeiVarae Russell‘s return looks less likely.

 

Notre Dame set to play Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl

Will Fuller
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Notre Dame may not be in the College Football Playoff. But they’ll be playing in one of the most intriguing bowl matchups of the year. The Irish are headed to Arizona, set to play against Urban Meyer’s Ohio State team in the Fiesta Bowl.

The Irish and Buckeyes will battle on January 1st, a game that seemed destined to be a potential playoff matchup before Ohio State lost to Michigan State and the Irish fell in the season finale to Stanford. The Irish will now need to go through the Buckeyes to get to eleven wins.

Notre Dame finished ranked No. 8 in the playoff rankings. Ohio State finished No. 7. More to come after Brian Kelly talks to the media at 4 p.m. ET.

With regular season finished, recruiting comes into focus

Brian Kelly
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Notre Dame’s regular season is complete. But the recruiting schedule is heating up, with Brian Kelly and his assistant coaches criss-crossing the country as they work to finalize the 2016 recruiting class.

Coming off of a 10-win regular season and likely accepting a very impressive bowl bid this weekend, Kelly and his assistants have plenty to sell as they look to  finishing strong on some of their top targets. With a few holes that need to be filled and some very big fish still considering Notre Dame, let’s take a look at the current commitments, some final targets and the overall scholarship picture heading into 2016.

 

THE COMMITS

Notre Dame’s 2016 recruiting class sits at 18 members.

Ian Book, QB
Parker Boudreaux, OL
Chase Claypool, WR/DB
Liam Eichenberg, OL
Jalen Elliott, DB
Jamir Jones, LB/DE
Tony Jones, RB
Khalid Kareem, DE
Tommy Kraemer, OL
Julian Love, DB
Deon McIntosh, RB
D.J. Morgan, DB
Adetokunbo Ogundeji, DE
Julian Okwara, DE
Spencer Perry, DB
John Shannon, LS
Kevin Stepherson, WR
Donte Vaughn, DB

For those looking for a quick breakdown, the class consists of:

QB: 1 (Book)
RBs: 2 (Jones, McIntosh)
WRs: 2 (Claypool, Stepherson)
DE: 3-4 (Kareem, Ogundeji, Okwara and maybe Jones)
OL: 3 (Boudreaux, Eichenberg, Kraemer)
DB: 5-6 (Elliott, Love, Morgan, Perry, Vaughn maybe Claypool)
Specialist: 1 (Shannon, long snapper)

 

STILL CHASING

As Notre Dame’s staff takes their in-home visits, multiple reports help us cobble together a priority list of who the Irish still covet. (There are better places for this info, but I’ll do my best.) Here’s a far-from complete list of recruits still on board, some better shots to come to Notre Dame than others.

 

Daelin Hayes, OLB — The Irish appear to be in great shape for the 5-star linebacker, who reportedly will announce his intentions on December 10 and early enroll. Brian Kelly, Urban Meyer and Mark Dantonio are all still chasing the Michigan product, who projects to be a difference-maker at the next level. Hayes isn’t without some risk, injuries have limited his actual playing time as a high school football star, making this more of a developmental project than most would suspect. Still, it sounds like the Irish covet Hayes and appear to have as good a shot as anybody.

 

Devin Studstill, DB — The Florida native entertained Brian Kelly and area recruiter Autry Denson yesterday. Hailing from Te’von Coney’s high school, Studstill has been to Notre Dame multiple times, and was an early target of this staff as they identified top defensive back prospects. Studstill’s star-ranking doesn’t match up with the Irish staff’s interest in him. It’s tough to traditionally pull a player like this out of Florida. But the Irish are trying, including an in-home visit last night.

 

Caleb Kelly, LB — Stop me if you’ve heard this one, but Notre Dame is chasing one of Fresno’s top high school football players. Once again, they’ll be doing battle with Bob Stoops and the Oklahoma pipeline that’s found its way to the Central Valley, but the Army All-American and 5-star prospect will be on campus for the end of the year awards show. Mike Denbrock is on the case for the Irish.

 

Ben Davis, LB — You might not have seen it coming, but the Alabama native is heading to Notre Dame for one of his final visits. He’s an Alabama legacy, he’s being chased by the SEC’s finest, but credit Autry Denson for getting Davis to take a look. Seems like a long shot, but worth the effort.

 

Damian Alloway, WR — Alloway is a diminutive speedster from Southern California who could add some big-play ability at slot receiver. Notre Dame is locked in a battle with UCLA for him, though if his decision pushes close to Signing Day, you’ve got to wonder if there’ll be room on the bus for him.

 

Javon McKinley, WR — Brian Kelly and Mike Sanford stayed in California after the Stanford game and visited McKinley, a receiver they’ve been after since jumpstreet. A big, explosive and physical talent, McKinley still feels like he’s Notre Dame’s to lose—though he hasn’t pulled the trigger yet and the Pac-12’s finest are chasing him, including hometown USC.

 

Damar Hamlin, CB — Notre Dame appears to be closing the gap on Hamlin, a key cornerback target for Todd Lyght and Brian VanGorder. The Pittsburgh-area coverman seems to be receptive of the Irish recruiting pitch, as Irish247’s Tom Loy recently switched his Crystal Ball pick to Notre Dame. It’s clear that the Irish staff is going all in on rebuilding the Irish secondary. Hamlin would be a great piece.

 

Jeffrey McCulloch, LB — One of the biggest athletic freaks at The Opening this summer, McCulloch showed up on the Irish radar then and visited Notre Dame for an official visit. The Dallas native entertained Brian Kelly and Mike Elston at home earlier this week. McCulloch is a speedy, explosive linebacker with a readymade 230-pound frame. It’ll be a battle for McCulloch with some top programs, but the Irish are in good position.

 

Demetris Robertson, ATH — An elite athlete from the state of Georgia, the departure of Marc Richt can’t hurt Notre Dame’s changes with a player who projects at multiple positions. Notre Dame has been after Robertson for a long time. He visited South Bend in September and will entertain Brian Kelly in-home before making a decision. An elite SEC talent who can go anywhere from Alabama to Stanford.

 

Oluwole Betiku, DE — A white whale of sorts, finding a way to get Betiku out of Serra high school, a USC breeding ground, would be a Manti Te’o-like upset. But Betiku has kept the Irish in his plans after he decommitted from UCLA in October and while the Trojans feel like the team to beat (Texas A&M is also in the mix) there’s still a puncher’s chance for Mike Denbrock, Brian VanGorder and Brian Kelly. Especially if Betiku looks at the depth chart.

 

HOW MANY CAN THEY TAKE?

As Notre Dame’s roster once again does the 85 scholarship dance, it’s worth taking a class-by-class look at the team Kelly has assembled. With 18 current commitments—and the Irish staff clearly hunting for more—it’ll be another fun offseason of seeing if the Irish can finally find a way to stay at the 85-man limit, something harder than expected, especially the last few years.

Let’s do some math!

ND Roster Makeup for 2016

Rising Sophomore Class: 23
Rising Junior Class: 20
Rising Senior Class: 20 (make it 19 until Jaylon Smith says otherwise)
62 scholarships
+
18 current commitments
+
Remaining Recruits
+
Fifth (and sixth)-year candidates (with early predictions):

Chase Hounshell (unexpected)
Avery Sebastian (recruiting dependent)
Jarrett Grace (still pending with NCAA)
Nicky Baratti (unexpected)
Scott Daly (expected)
Mark Harrell (unexpected)
Jarron Jones (expected)
C.J. Prosise (expected)
KeiVarae Russell (unexpected)
Ronnie Stanley (unexpected)
John Turner (unexpected)

Last year, Notre Dame went into spring practice over 85 scholarships, knowing that every year for 30+ seasons they’ve had at least one transfer out of the program. So while this certainly won’t quell any of the worry, consider this a reminder that once again a player (or two) will transfer and the Irish staff will do their best to be ready for that by having one or two players more than the limit on scholarship.