Keith Arnold

Rivals.com

All eyes on The Opening

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Some of college football’s elite prospects are soaking up life in Beaverton, Oregon, hosted by Nike and taking part in The Opening. Never heard of it? It’s the now-annual training combine and 7-on-7 tournament that serves as a mecca to the college football recruiting industry.

(Where else is it acceptable to have team names like “Alpha Pro,” “Fly Rush,” and “Lunar Beast?”)

With the Elite 11 quarterback camp taking place at the same time on Nike’s campus, it’s a very good time to be an elite high school athlete—with Nike swag and recruiting analysts doing their best to woo you as you do your best to look excellent in shorts and Dri-FIT. But it’s also a very good chance to get an apples-to-apples look at some of the top prospects in the country, with SPARQ testing all but taking a hammer to the self-reported 40 times and vertical leaps that come along with the YouTube highlights.

Last year, we saw Notre Dame commit C.J. Sanders stand out during the competition, running a blazing sub-4.4 forty time as he made it to the SPARQ Finals. The Irish have three commitments taking place in the festivities at Nikeville, and the early reports all seem to be positive.

A week after pulling a bus in his commitment music video, Irish commitment Parker Boudreaux is backing up that chutzpah with a nice performance in Oregon. Boudreaux was the top-testing offensive lineman at the camp, running a legit 5.1 forty, while also doing very good things in the strength categories.

At 6’4.5″ and 289 pounds, Boudreaux also silenced the questions about his size and length. And his quickness—his 20-yard shuttle time was the best of any lineman in Oregon and would’ve been the best last year as well—gives Harry Hiestand a nice piece of clay to mold moving forward.

If Boudreaux looked the part of a mauler, offensive tackle commit Tommy Kraemer continues to solidify his reputation as one of the country’s best players. Irish 247 published a glowing review of Kraemer’s first day, and at 6’5.5″ and 308 pounds, it sure looks like Notre Dame landed the tackle they needed to add in this recruiting class.

“I liked Tommy Kraemer a lot,” 247Sports Director of Scouting Barton Simmons said. “He’s enormous and they moved a lot of true tackles to guards because when you have so many elite guys, some of those guys have to kick inside, and Kraemer has been one of those guys that has stayed on the edge and looked really good with his feet mirroring quick defensive linemen and has the wide-bodied frame, it takes a lot of geography for a defensive lineman to actually get around him. He’s not a guy that lets guys bully him also. I think he had complete day.

The third Notre Dame commitment at The Opening is running back Tony Jones Jr. Checking in at 5’11” and 210 pounds, Jones has the physique you want out of a power runner, and there’s definitely room to put on 15-20 more pounds once he gets to South Bend.

Jones ran in the high 4.6s—about what you’d expect—and looked good catching the football, per multiple reports. With 5-star Ohio State commitment Kareem Walker missing his flight and nursing a tweaked ankle, there wasn’t a chance to measure Jones against the elite of the elite, but only the freakish 258-pound Devin White ran better among the big backs, so the IMG Academy product had a good opening day.

The Irish are in the hunt for several other prospects. Most look at Canadian receiver/freak athlete Chase Claypool as a possibility to be the next commitment in Notre Dame’s 2016 recruiting class.

Claypool will announce his intentions on Friday, but on Wednesday he showed off a unique skill-set that should have Irish fans very excited if he indeed decides to head to South Bend. At 6’5.5″ and 214 pounds, Claypool ran a 4.66, while also vertical leaping 35-inches.

While those numbers could make staying at receiver a possibility, Notre Dame’s looked at Claypool with the potential to play safety. He’s also basically a slightly taller, slightly faster, slightly better built version of last year’s 5-star defensive end Keisean Lucier-South, who the Irish chased but he ended up at UCLA, so the possibilities seem endless. There’s been no better coach at just getting a great athlete to campus and then figuring out what to do with him than Brian Kelly, so if the Irish do reel in Claypool, they’ll be getting a very intriguing gem in their recruiting class.

The Irish are also after a pair of elite linebackers. Once again, Notre Dame is back in Fresno, this time chasing after 5-star prospect Caleb Kelly. While most only remember the ones that got away (Deontay Greenberry, Tee Shepard, Michiah Quick), credit Kelly for acknowledging the past and also saying it won’t effect his decision.

“Fresno isn’t some blackhole,” Kelly told Blue & Gold’s Andrew Ivins. “It has just been that everybody has been close. Everybody in Fresno has liked Notre Dame, I mean Tee Shepard he had a chance to go there, and Michiah Quick he was choosing between Notre Dame and Oklahoma, so I mean Notre Dame has been it, but we just haven’t ended up there.”

At 6’4″ and 219 pounds, Kelly has the length and size you want in a linebacker. While he didn’t run the 40, he tested well in other drills and seemed to reinforce his 5-star ranking. He’s trying to get to campus later this month and will also use an official visit to get a look at Notre Dame.

 

Lastly, Houston linebacker Jeffrey McColloch opened some eyes when he made the SPARQ testing finals. With a 38-inch vertical and a 4.0 agility time, the 4-star linebacker showed some serious explosiveness along with a 230-pound frame. He also revealed that head coach Brian Kelly has taken on some of the recruiting duties with him.

“I talk to the head coach pretty much every day,” McCulloch told Rivals.

He’ll also make a trip to South Bend later this month, family in tow.

 

 

Irish A-to-Z: Michael Deeb

Deeb
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Last spring, Michael Deeb looked like a front runner to emerge in the middle of Notre Dame’s defense. This spring? He was buried behind a group of talented players and experimenting with a position change.

That’s life in Notre Dame’s defense, a reloaded group that relied on young players to fill the holes in 2014 after the starters went down. Deeb looks the part of a prototype middle linebacker, the type of hulking player you want among the first off the bus. But entering his third season in South Bend, he’s yet to find a role on the Irish defense.

With depth up the middle and an a potential injury that needs rehabbing, let’s see where Deeb stands in the middle of his Notre Dame career.

 

MICHAEL DEEB
6’2″, 255 lbs.
Junior, No. 42, MLB/DE

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Deeb was a three-star recruit, a middle linebacker that the Irish looked at as both a junior, as a on-campus visitor at summer camp before Bob Diaco and Brian Kelly decided to pull the trigger and make an offer.

Deeb had an offer from Florida State, but didn’t have them from Miami or Florida—though he earned MVP honors at Al Golden’s summer camp. Deeb looked the part of a readymade thumper, but questions about his athleticism existed.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2013): Did not see action.

Sophomore Season (2014): Played against USC and LSU. Did not register a tackle, though served as a scout teamer at linebacker.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

It was indeed Nyles Morgan that kept Deeb off the field — with a healthy Joe Schmidt indispensable on the interior. But it was a surprise that Deeb wasn’t a special teams regular in either his freshman or sophomore seasons, though the Irish changed their philosophy on coverage teams to find faster more athletic players.

Kelly has talked about the desire to stay multiple, and a linebacker like Deeb allows the Irish to shift into a 3-4 if the time calls for it. And at 242-pounds, there’s no question he’s hefty enough to stand up at the point of attack, something Joe Schmidt could struggle with an Morgan initially as well.

Ultimately, it’s likely Morgan who will determine how much football Deeb plays on the inside of the Irish defense. They are essentially classmates, with nobody thinking Morgan will need a year of seasoning before hitting the field.

Looking into the crystal ball, it’s hard not to see some of the limitations that Deeb showed as a high schooler not showing up as a collegiate player. Sure, coaches talked about Deeb’s relentless work ethic and willingness to improve in the passing game and in coverage. But it’s hard to see Carlo Calabrese taking a lot of snaps on the interior of a 4-3 defense, and right now Deeb feels a bit like Calabrese as a young player.

All that being said, Deeb looks a bit like a cinderblock in a football uniform. And after watching the Irish special teams bumble their way through the 2013 season, expect to see No. 42 running down the field with reckless abandon on multiple coverage teams for the next four seasons.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

There were whispers that Deeb underwent a significant surgery in May, though that was never confirmed by anyone inside Notre Dame’s program. But either way, I’m not sure Deeb’s potential in the Irish program will be changed.

At this point, it’s hard to see Deeb finding a role in the Irish defense, at least at linebacker. There were whispers that Deeb was going to get some reps at defensive end, a logical place for a guy who is pushing 260 pounds and can move.

(While the Irish don’t employ one, there are also maybe some cross-training opportunities at fullback, though the last time Notre Dame lined up a thumping inside linebacker in the backfield, Carlo Calabrese was chasing a USF safety down the field.)

Deeb’s limitations—a worry in Diaco’s 3-4 scheme—are only amplified in a 4-3 that demands fleet, instinctive linebackers. But with three seasons of eligibility left, there’s a chance Deeb finds a niche in the program.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Deeb seems to be the type of glue-guy that you want in the program. So if his role this season is serving as the best scout team linebacker in America, he’s likely happy to do that. Right now, Joe Schmidt, Jarrett Grace, Nyles Morgan, Greer Martini and likely Te’von Coney all will factor into the defense before Deeb does. That means Deeb’s going to have to make some significant improvements in his game, and also find another role to play on this defense.

Ultimately, it could be as a in-the-box goalline defender. Or a situational player along the defensive line. Or a great piece of the kick-return wedge. With 85 scholarships, Deeb’s a part of Notre Dame’s plans for two more seasons. Finding a way to contribute should be the goal, whether that be in limited opportunities or not.

 

THE 2015 IRISH A-to-Z
Josh Adams, RB
Josh Barajas, OLB
Nicky Baratti, S
Alex Bars, OL
Asmar Bilal, OLB
Hunter Bivin, OL
Grant Blankenship, DE
Jonathan Bonner, DE
Miles Boykin, WR
Justin Brent, WR
Greg Bryant, RB
Devin Butler, CB
Jimmy Byrne, OL
Daniel Cage, DL
Amir Carlisle, RB
Nick Coleman, DB
Te’von Coney, LB
Shaun Crawford, DB
Scott Daly, LS
Sheldon Day, DL

Dilfer praises Malik Zaire at Elite 11

Malik Zaire, J.R. Tavai
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Camp counselor or participant? Those watching Malik Zaire at The Opening were struggling to figure that out.

With some of the nation’s top recruits heading to Nike HQ this week for the Elite 11 quarterback camp and the prep combine The Opening, Zaire returned to his quarterbacking roots to serve as a camp counselor.

It wasn’t too long ago that Zaire was an option quarterback looking to make a name for himself as a camper. He did that—nearly winning the competition, and making quite an impression on Elite 11 head coach and ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer.

Zaire was back working with Dilfer in Oregon, now serving as a counselor. And Irish Illustrated’s Anna Hickey caught up with Dilfer, who sung Zaire’s praises after watching him compete and coach during the first days of camp.

Dilfer wasn’t shy with his words, when talking about the quarterback’s work ethic.

“He’s a machine. He’ll go until he dies,” Dilfer said, before telling Hickey that he’s already spoken with Notre Dame quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator Mike Sanford about the new starting quarterback.

Zaire’s holding his own as a thrower as well. First-round prospects like Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg and USC’s Cody Kessler at also in Beaverton. And according to Dilfer, Zaire’s capable of throwing the ball with those two pocket passers as well.

Here’s Dilfer when asked by Hickey about his evolution as a passer.

“He’s so much more advanced as a passer. Not that he wasn’t before, but I remember getting him from high school, and everybody was saying he’s just a runner who can throw a little bit. And anyone who’s still saying that, I think it’s crazy. He is going toe-to-toe with (Penn State quarterback) Christian Hackenberg, (USC quarterback) Cody Kessler, with all of these supposed passers, and he’s ripping it around as good as anybody. I think Malik has the curse like a lot of college quarterbacks these days that they’re so dynamic as runners that they get devalued as passers. But I think Malik is an exceptional passer.”

Zaire hasn’t had a chance to establish himself as a college quarterback like the other counselors working. But for those in Oregon watching Zaire give back to the camp that helped establish him as a rising senior in high school, Zaire’s leadership is apparent, as is his comfort level now that he’s ascended to Notre Dame’s starting quarterback.

 

Irish A-to-Z: Sheldon Day

North Carolina v Notre Dame
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One of the most important pieces of the offseason came when Sheldon Day decided to return to South Bend for his senior season. Day made the choice after a well-chronicled re-recruitment, with Notre Dame’s coaching staff and athletic director Jack Swarbrick laying out for Day the benefits of returning, including a school-supplied insurance policy.

From the outside, the benefits are obvious. For the Irish, they retain a team captain and their most versatile defensive lineman. For Day, he gets a chance to prove he can stay on the field and produce at the level expected of him—something the NFL still questions.

Notre Dame believes Day has the athleticism and ability to draw Aaron Donald comparisons—a lofty standard that Day hasn’t come close to reaching in his three seasons in South Bend. But with a year left and another strong offseason, Day will get a chance to elevate his draft status and enter the NFL prepared to succeed.

Let’s take a closer look at one of the Irish’s most experienced players.

 

SHELDON DAY
6’2″, 285 lbs.
Senior, No. 91, DL

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Notre Dame won out on Day over schools like LSU and Michigan, something that doesn’t happen all that often when it comes to defensive linemen. He was a four-star recruit, a Top-100 player by various recruiting rankings, and early enrolled.

Day also renewed Notre Dame’s interest in Indianapolis public school athletes, something this Irish staff deserves credit for in reopening that pipeline.  While Day lacked prototype size or length a la an Aaron Lynch or Stephon Tuitt, he walked onto campus and contributed to one of Notre Dame’s best defenses in school history immediately.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2012): Played in all 13 games, making 23 tackles, two sacks and 3.5 TFLs. Collected his sacks against Michigan and Michigan State, both schools that offered Day. Had five tackles against Wake Forest.

Sophomore Season (2013): Played in 11 games, starting just eight after beginning in the opening day starting lineup. Made 33 tackles, with 21 of them being solo stops and 5.5 TFLs (0.5 of those were sacks). Had three TFLs against Pitt and seven tackles against BYU, closing the season on a high note after suffering an ankle sprain early against Purdue.

Junior Season (2014): Started 11 games before a knee injury limited him for the regular season’s final two games. Made 40 tackles, 7.5 TFLs, one sack and nine QB hurries. Named Notre Dame’s Moose Krause Lineman of the Year.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

This projection went up in smoke when the bodies started dropping like flies, starting with the preseason retirement of Tony Springmann.

I expect a dominant season from Day, who might be one of the Irish’s best five players. Without fully understanding how Kelly and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder plan to attack opponents, projecting stats could be tough. But after two-gapping and holding the line of attack, expect Day to use his elite block destruction skills and quickness to put up stats in a defense that’ll find ways to pressure quarterbacks.

From a leadership perspective, Day’s experience necessitates him stepping to the forefront on a defensive line that’s filled with mostly potential and hypothetical fits. And while the experience behind he and Jones at defensive tackle is very dicey (only Tony Springmann, coming off a major knee injury, has any), he’ll be asked to play three downs and help rush the passer.

Still, I tend to think Day will be the best player on a surprising defensive line. A unit that will find a way to be more productive than the group some thought could be the best starting group in school history.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

You’ve got to think that it’s only a matter of time before Day breaks out. He’s a player who consistently has been talked up by this coaching staff—a group that isn’t known for pom poms when the player isn’t deserving.

But it’s Day’s senior season. For all his ability and explosiveness he’s coming off a junior season with just one sack. So while 7.5 tackles-for-loss and nine quarterback hurries are nice, they’re hardly elite numbers that go along with a national awards watchlist player.

But lined up next to Jarron Jones, Day will have his chances. And with some leaky offensive lines on the Irish schedule, it’s time for the Irish captain to put down some game tape that shows what the Irish staff has been seeing in practice.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

For two seasons, Day played in a system that wasn’t great for an undersized defensive end asked to hold the point of attack. Last year, Day shifted inside to a position that better suited him physically, but he was a step slow on a dozen plays that likely would change the way we view him as a player.

When Notre Dame’s staff visited with Day before he made his decision to return, they talked about the little things that Day would need to do to be viewed as a top-level NFL prospect. They included measureables—explosive training numbers that Day will likely hit when he goes to Indianapolis for the NFL scouting combine. But they also likely included stats and big plays that come with that ability, something Day’s still working to achieve.

Ultimately, I’m having a hard time saying with certainty that Day’s breakout is inevitable. Health is a tricky thing and Day’s struggled to stay on two feet. But if Notre Dame’s defensive line surrounding Day plays up to their ability, there’s no reason to think Day can’t turn in a double-digit TFL season, and do a better job of getting after the quarterback. If he does, the Irish defense will be the group we saw in the first half of last season, not the MASH unit filled with leak from last November.

 

THE 2015 IRISH A-to-Z
Josh Adams, RB
Josh Barajas, OLB
Nicky Baratti, S
Alex Bars, OL
Asmar Bilal, OLB
Hunter Bivin, OL
Grant Blankenship, DE
Jonathan Bonner, DE
Miles Boykin, WR
Justin Brent, WR
Greg Bryant, RB
Devin Butler, CB
Jimmy Byrne, OL
Daniel Cage, DL
Amir Carlisle, RB
Nick Coleman, DB
Te’von Coney, LB
Shaun Crawford, DB
Scott Daly, LS

Offseason Q&A: Navy

Keenan Reynolds, Joe Nauert, James Kelly
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As it does annually, Notre Dame’s game with Navy is a terrifying proposition. While the Irish haven’t lost to Ken Niumatalolo’s team since 2010, the Midshipmen have pushed the Irish to the max—and the Navy hangover is beginning to be a thing.

Last year, the Irish beat Navy by 10, but lost the following week. The year before Notre Dame beat the Midshipmen by a touchdown, but lost the next Saturday to Pitt. “The body blow theory,” coined by Bruce Feldman, is picking up steam, and it’s not just a Notre Dame thing, but rather the collateral damage of playing Navy, a very difficult game that garners little national respect.

Gene Wang of the Washington Post gets us up to speed on the Midshipmen and what Notre Dame fans can expect from their annual battle.

 

Let’s start here: Even though Notre Dame has won four-straight against Navy, it’s still a game that terrifies Irish fans, and likely the coaching staff as well.

Do most Navy opponents feel this way? Or is this some kind of Notre Dame thing?

Navy scares the heck out of most opponents because the triple option is nearly impossible to prepare for during the course of a season. With the athletes Navy has executing the offense flawlessly, the triple option is almost impossible to stop too. Just ask Urban Meyer, who said as much following a game in which the Midshipmen played Ohio State toe-to-toe in the first half last season.

 

To stop Navy you need to stop Keenan Reynolds, now a senior and a long, long, long way from the kid who looked a little lost in Ireland to kick off the 2012 season.

We’ve seen some very good Navy option quarterbacks. But is it hyperbole to put Reynolds at the top of this group? What’s the ceiling on his 2015 senior season? Dark-horse Heisman contender?

Keenan Reynolds is without question the best triple option quarterback in Navy history. He holds every meaningful scoring record and could have been a dark-horse Heisman contender last year had he not suffered a series of ailments that were nagging all season. Still, he posted record-setting numbers and is poised to be even better this season assuming he stays healthy, so a dark-horse Heisman run isn’t out of the question.

 

This seems like an evergreen question. But for as good as the Navy offense should be, what’s the state of Buddy Green’s defense? If Navy’s blueprint for victory needs to include a few stops and a forced turnover, does this group look like one that can make that happen?

With Notre Dame likely bringing a heavy dose of ground game and a veteran offensive line, will Navy’s rebuilt from seven be able to hold up?

There’s frequently turnover along Navy’s front seven, but this year it’s especially pronounced at linebacker with three starters gone, including both outside positions. Buddy Green always seems to find a way to patch together a defense that most often bends but doesn’t break. This year will be another test for certain, and at this point, it doesn’t seem as if Notre Dame would encounter much resistance running the ball.

 

Notre Dame’s defense imploded after the Navy game, with Joe Schmidt lost for the year with a serious ankle injury and the blocking scheme of the Midshipmen taking a toll on an already beaten up defensive line.

Ask an Irish fan about Navy football and it takes about 10 seconds to hear about the cut blocks. As we watch the sport try everything to make it a safer game, do you see this fundamental component of the triple-option offense ever being eliminated?

Cut blocking is a vital part of triple option because Navy isn’t going to beat teams with size and strength, and it’s not going away anytime soon. The Midshipmen win at the line of scrimmage using leverage, not brute force. I found it interesting last season when Brian Kelly was asked about cut blocking, and his response was basically to stop crying and deal with it. Very well put.

 

Ken Niumatalolo feels like he’s been at Navy forever. He’s shown some great coaching chops, and has built on the impressive foundation Paul Johnson laid. Is he a lifer at Navy? Do you think there’s a job that could entice him to leave?

Niumatalolo is a Navy lifer simply because there are very few other places where he’d be able to implement the triple option as well as it runs at the academy. He has said repeatedly how much he enjoys living in Annapolis and that once he leaves Navy, he’ll retire to Hawaii. He already is the school’s all-time victories leader and has a blueprint for winning that would be difficult if not impossible to replicate elsewhere. It would be shocking if he accepted a position at another school.

 

It’s still too soon to know how a team will be next year. But for Irish fans used to seeing Navy each season, can you ballpark the expectations for the 2015 Midshipmen?

The offense has potential to be even more explosive than usual given a healthy Reynolds and what could be a more wide-open passing game. As difficult as it may be to envision, it shouldn’t come as a surprise if Navy tries to stretch the field with more throws to WR Jamir Tillman, who is 6-feet-4, 206 pounds and can separate downfield. The defense remains a question, but the Midshipmen can win shootouts if necessary. Nine wins is a realistic expectation.