Keith Arnold

C.J. Sanders CJ Sanders
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CJ Sanders ahead of schedule after hip surgery

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Notre Dame’s slot receiver position hinges on the health of rising sophomore CJ Sanders. And according to a few updates from head coach Brian Kelly, Sanders is ahead of schedule as he recovers from surgery that repaired his hip flexor.

“CJ is ahead of schedule by almost three weeks, which is really good news,” Kelly told Blue & Gold’s Lou Somogyi.

Sanders, who returned both a punt and a kick for a touchdown during his freshman season, will spend more time at receiver—assuming he’s healthy. Six weeks ago, Sanders showed some of the progress he was making, running on an anti-gravity treadmill for the first time since surgery. That trajectory seems to have held, with Kelly hopeful that Sanders can train with his teammates this summer.

As the Irish restock a depth chart that needs to replace starters Will Fuller, Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle, having Sanders as an option in the slot is key to opening up a depth chart that needs Torii Hunter Jr. on the outside.

Notre Dame’s receiving corps will be coming into focus over the next few weeks. Senior Corey Robinson will announce on Wednesday his intentions for next season, deciding whether to continue to play football or end his career after multiple concussions. Even Robinson’s decision to return might not change the decision to keep Alizé Jones on the outside, with the tight end spending time this spring at the boundary receiver spot.

From there, the Irish receiving corps is high on potential but low on experience. Assuming he stays healthy, Hunter will fill one starting spot. From there, intriguing talents like Equanimous St. Brown and freshman Kevin Stepherson look like players capable of contributing, but they’ll be learning on the fly. Neither project to be slot receivers.

Freshmen Chase Claypool and Javon McKinley both arrived on campus over the weekend, though neither is a traditional slot receiver. Corey Holmes spent some time working in the slot this spring, though his deep speed might be better used on the wide side, replacing Fuller at the field receiver position.

With Sanders out this spring, walk-on receiver Chris Finke earned plenty of reps. Finke is also in the mix to replace Sanders as the team’s punt returner.

 

Torii Hunter Jr. drafted by Angels in 23rd round

PHILADELPHIA, PA - OCTOBER 31: Torii Hunter Jr. #16 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish catches a pass and is tackled by Avery Williams #2 of the Temple Owls on October 31, 2015 at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish defeated the Temple Owls 24-20. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
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Notre Dame’s presumptive No. 1 wide receiver was given some props for his baseball skills on Saturday. Torii Hunter Jr. was selected by the Los Angeles Angels on Saturday, a 23rd round pick in the MLB draft.

Hunter is a reserve outfielder on the Irish baseball team, playing sporadically for Mik Aoki. In 19 games this season, Hunter hit just .182, though flashed a nice glove and stole two bases in as many attempts. He balanced baseball with a football career that came first, even during spring practice.

The pick came from a team that had Torii Hunter Sr. roaming centerfield through the prime of his career. The Angels actually had their former centerfielder announce the pick Saturday afternoon, surely a special moment for father and son. The pick came a round before the Mariners drafted Trey Griffey (son of Ken), a receiver at Arizona, who hadn’t played baseball since high school.

Like the pick of Griffey, Hunter’s selection was likely more ceremonial than a bet on his professional future. Hunter was also selected out of high school by the Detroit Tigers, a 36th round pick in 2013.

 

Brian Kelly doesn’t want to juggle two quarterbacks

Brian Kelly, Malik Zaire
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Brian Kelly has two starting quarterbacks. And while the depth chart of DeShone Kizer, Malik Zaire and Brandon Wimbush is the envy of most programs in college football, it’s a headache for a head coach who understands more than anyone the balancing act that comes with keeping the most important position in the game happy.

But keeping people happy won’t be possible this fall. And from the sounds of Kelly’s recent comments to Irish Illustrated’s Tim O’Malley, that means not entertaining a two-quarterback system to keep both Kizer and Zaire involved in the offense.

From Irish Illustrated:

Kelly pointed to the struggles Ohio State and Urban Meyer had last season as they bounced between Cardale Jones and JT Barrett:

“I worry about that, quite frankly. I saw what happened at Ohio State as the measuring stick. There was no real identity in that offense until they went with (JT) Barrett.

“Once they said ‘He’s our guy, we’re going with him,’ they were able to say, ‘Okay, here’s what we’re going to do in this offense.’

“And then they played us,” Kelly chuckled.

“So I worry about that. I think I’m more convinced that there’ll be a No. 1 and a No. 2 and the No. 2 will have to play when the No. 2 is called upon.”

This isn’t necessarily a new line of thinking for Kelly. It’s on par with what he said nearing the end of spring ball, especially when he was candid about rebooting the competition to allow Zaire to get back up to speed after missing the season’s final 11 games after breaking his ankle against Virginia.

But it’s interesting to note that this is where Kelly’s head is at nearing mid-June. And it’s also another data point to suggest that even though Kelly has had wonderful touch and success juggling at the quarterback position (his work at Cincinnati especially), it isn’t what he wants to do.

 

Irish A-to-Z: Daniel Cage

Daniel Cage (UND's photo)
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With the departure of Sheldon Day and Romeo Okwara, Notre Dame’s defensive line will have a new identity. And if the Irish front four is going to return to its stout ways against the run, they’ll need Daniel Cage to be a major part of it.

Jarron Jones’ return will likely keep Cage out of the starting lineup. But if the Irish are going to play improved football on the defensive side of the ball—no easy task considering the personnel loses—it’ll be because Cage steps forward in the trenches.

A nose guard who is more than capable of playing physical at the point of attack, after two seasons hampered by injury, Cage will need to take a big step forward as a junior for the Irish to reach their goals.

 

DANIEL CAGE
6’1″, 315 lbs.
Junior, No. 75, DT

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Late to his recruitment, Notre Dame beat out Michigan State for Cage on Signing Day, winning at the fax machine after a late-January recruiting visit.

Cage’s recruitment started when Brian VanGorder took over for Bob Diaco. The three-star prospect picked the Irish even without a long-established relationship, with the Cincinnati native putting his trust in Brian Kelly, VanGorder and then position coach Mike Elston.

 

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Played in 11 games, one of six true freshmen to do so on defense. Pitched in four tackles including a half-TFL against USC. Missed the Louisville game with a knee injury and didn’t play against LSU.

Sophomore Season (2015): Played in 11 games, making 18 total tackles including four for loss. Battled a late-season injury that hampered him, taking just 13 snaps against Stanford and only six against Ohio State. Per PFF College, Cage was the defense’s fifth-most productive player, earning a +7.5 rating, with excellent games against USC and Temple.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

This still feels like Cage is on track, even if an apprenticeship to Jones will happen a year later than expected.

It’s an important season for Cage, and really for the entire defensive line. We tend to forget the success of September and October, but the Irish defensive line was tough to run against, and that should be the case again in 2015.

But there’s no training wheels on to start this season, and that means Cage better be ready to go come jump street, because the opening seven weeks will test the Irish, especially against Georgia Tech and Navy. (Boston College, one of the nation’s best running attacks, is a November opponent as well.)

As for Cage, playing behind Jones will allow him to stay fresh and keep both players at optimal levels. And adding more importance to Cage’s play is the fact that Jones is still making his way back from a significant foot surgery, all but absent during spring drills.

Cage looks like a good one. We’ll find out if he projects to be great after this season.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

Get ready to hear a whole lot about fitness, with “work volume” a phrase likely to be uttered by Kelly during August’s press conference season. Paired with Jones, it’s safe to think that Cage will find himself in the 30-40 snap range this season, after playing 25+ snaps in seven games in 2015. But that’ll necessitate a 100-percent Jones, something we haven’t seen in the past 18 months.

While the stat sheet doesn’t necessarily show this type of progress, Cage has the ability to be an impact player. He showed flashes against USC and Temple during an impressive October, wreaking some havoc behind the line of scrimmage while also showing himself to be a load in the middle. But an injury derailed the end of his season. He tried his best to play against Ohio State but ended up on the field for less than 10 snaps.

Ultimately, this is a season where Cage will either ascend, especially utilized in a specialty role, or level out. That could turn him into an NFL prospect or a middle-of-the-road BCS-level starter.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I think a season like the one Jarron Jones had in 2014 might be a nice ceiling for Cage, with a 7.5 TFL and 40 tackles being a really nice year. (Remember, that was done in 11 games, too.) Realistically, Cage might get some of his productivity eaten up by a highly-motivated Jones, who is playing a fifth-year that’s essentially an audition for NFL talent evaluators.

Reading between the lines, Keith Gilmore and VanGorder have talked about a larger rotation up front for the defensive line. That’ll likely be some by necessity—Sheldon Day isn’t walking through those doors anymore—and the fact that there’s some versatility among the group of linemen who will hopefully provide answers this season.

Cage is a huge piece of that ensemble. Even last season, he was Notre Dame’s fifth-most productive player, per the PFF College rankings. He’s got the bulk and strength to play in the trenches, assuming his fitness and health cooperate this year.

He’s not going to get confused for a NFL-sized monster like Jones, though he does have the ability to flash at the level of someone like Ian Williams—a guy who is wearing a ‘C’ on his jersey in the NFL right now. So all in all, Cage is a good player who could put together a great season.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin
Justin Brent
Devin Butler
Jimmy Byrne

Irish A-to-Z: Jimmy Byrne

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Notre Dame’s offensive line depth is often discussed through the lens of the impressive prospects it churns out. First round picks like Zack Martin and Ronnie Stanley. Early-round selections like Chris Watt and Nick Martin. Promising All-American prospects like Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey.

But maybe a better illustration is the talent that is blocked from seeing the field. And rising junior Jimmy Byrne might be a perfect example of just how strong Harry Hiestand is recruiting the offensive line. Because an All-State offensive lineman from an Ohio powerhouse program that turned down Ohio State is a long, long way from seeing the field.

Entering his third year in South Bend, Byrne is still looking for an avenue to the playing field. And it’s a testament to the depth chart in front of him.

 

JIMMY BYRNE
6’4″, 300 lbs.
Junior, No. 67, OL

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Byrne committed to Notre Dame during the 2012 season though he didn’t sign until 2014, an early target and land by the Irish staff. His offer list was limited at that time but he he had already weighed an offer from Urban Meyer and Ohio State, and had other options like Illinois and Michigan State.

Byrne’s a St. Ignatius product, a school that’s sent players to both South Bend and Columbus. It was a very nice win for the Irish coaching staff, with Hiestand beating Ed Warinner for the interior offensive lineman.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Did not see action, preserving a year of eligibility.

Sophomore Season (2015): Did not see action.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

Byrne hasn’t been mentioned at center, which is probably a good thing because Sam Mustipher and Tristen Hoge are there for the foreseeable future.

Ultimately, makeup plays a big role in how an offensive lineman turns out. For every early contributor like Zack Martin or Steve Elmer, there’s a guy who finds his way into the lineup later in his career and thrives, a la Mike Golic. That’s the path Byrne is on—and frankly, that’s the more likely path for everybody on this offensive line, especially if Hiestand keeps cherrypicking elite talent.

Again, if I’m an offensive lineman at Notre Dame, I’m teaching myself to snap. Because after Nick Martin departs, it’ll be a wide open competition, with Sam Mustipher a converted center and Tristen Hoge the first true center the Irish have recruited under Kelly.

Byrne’s essentially the same guy that we were guessing on last year. He’s 10 pounds heavier, likely in a lot better shape, and still doing battle in one of the best depth charts we’ve seen along the offensive line in years.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

Put Byrne in the category of “program player” for me. I haven’t seen enough of him to say whether or not he can be a starter. But Hiestand and the Irish haven’t swung and missed at linemen that have stayed in the program for their entire career all that often.

At this point, the road to the field could be dictated by guys like Quenton Nelson (how long does he stay in college?) and the battle at right guard. If the starting job goes to Hunter Bivin, maybe Byrne slides in behind him and turns into a potential one-year starter as a fifth-year guy. If it goes to someone younger? He’ll need an injury to hit or an unforeseen opportunity to arise.

It’s the offensive line. There are five jobs. It’ll be up to Byrne to put himself into a scenario where he’s got a chance to be the “next man in.”

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I see a season of special teams duty for Byrne, an interior offensive lineman on long snaps and some time as a second-stringer or garbage time participant. One player to watch that could impact Byrne’s future is Tommy Kraemer. The Irish staff thinks they have a special player in Kraemer. They also really, really want to redshirt him if possible.

Byrne’s development at this point in his career doesn’t mean his fate is sealed when it comes to playing time. It should take well into a lineman’s career to earn snaps and starts. But it’s telling that the right guard job opened up and Byrne wasn’t all that close to competing for the gig.

It’s year seven of the Kelly era. Harry Hiestand has been recruiting like an ace, making limited offers and landing at a very very high rate. Byrne’s a victim of circumstance—getting a starting job on the O-line is one of the hardest to earn at Notre Dame. That means Byrne is going to have to show patience, all while working his way slowly up the ladder.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin
Justin Brent
Devin Butler