Author: Keith Arnold

Quenton Nelson

Bars and Nelson impressing at left guard


Matt Hegarty’s unexpected departure opened up a job along the offensive line. With fifth-year center Nick Martin back in the middle, Hegarty choosing to go somewhere else to play center opened up the competition at left guard.

Sophomores Alex Bars and Quenton Nelson were pegged early by head coach Brian Kelly as the two likely candidates to fill the left guard job. And one-third of the way through spring practice, Notre Dame’s head coach has seen nothing that leads him to believe that the two first-year competitors won’t be ready come September.

It’s just a matter of how he’ll pick just one for the job.

Both highly-touted redshirt freshmen are as good as they came into South Bend advertised. Yet they both bring a different style of play to the game.

Here’s how Kelly described his two freshmen, and where they stood moving forward in the battle for the left guard job.

“I would probably handicap it in this respect. Quenton Nelson is extremely explosive, strong, and can overwhelm a defender,” Kelly said of the 325-pounder. “Alex Bars is extremely efficient and technically so far above the normal redshirt-freshman. Technically he’s so good.

“You have two guys here, one who physically at times can be dominant, and one who you think he’s a junior, that he’s been in the program three or four years.You turn on the film and to me, it’s going to be hard to make a call because you like what they both do at that position.”

If Ronnie Stanley didn’t return for his senior season, it’s likely Bars would be playing left tackle right now. But Stanley’s return keeps Notre Dame’s best offensive lineman on campus, and allows Bars to fight for the final open spot in the starting lineup before likely shifting outside in 2016.

While Bars isn’t the prototype that Kelly and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand look for in an interior player, he’s too good not to play. Kelly was candid about making sure that both Bars and Nelson are going to play in 2015.

“They’ll have to both play. They’re going to have to get in the game,” Kelly said. “It might be that Bars plays some tackle, too.

“If he’s the guard he’s the guard. We don’t see Q as a tackle right now, but they’re just guys that are going to have to play. They’re both going to see some playing time for us.”




Expectations for Jerry Tillery sky high

Jerry Tillery‘s recruitment was anything but ordinary. Long committed to the Irish, Notre Dame held off LSU, with Les Miles and the Tigers’ coaching staff doing everything they could to talk  the local product into staying home.

In the nonstop news cycle that covers recruiting, Tillery never wavered from his commitment to Notre Dame. But that didn’t stop countless reports and stories from focusing on the blue-chipper, especially as Tillery utilized his official visits to see campuses near and far, checking things out in Baton Rouge, along with visits to Arkansas, Texas A&M and… Dartmouth.

The final visit likely gives you an idea why Notre Dame ended up landing Tillery. But most Irish fans weren’t convinced he was coming until he was moved into his dorm and enrolled in classes, a last-minute flip that never came.

But if there was a flip, it was the big change during Tillery’s recruitment—his future position. Long expected to be an offensive tackle prospect, Tillery and the Irish coaching staff concluded that the freshman would start out on the defensive side of the ball.

To most fans watching, that seemed like a concession made by a staff doing whatever it took to keep Tillery happy. But as we’ve seen and heard through the early days of workouts and spring practice, the Irish staff believes they have something special in Tillery the defensive lineman.

Brian Kelly confirmed that praise Wednesday morning when he talked about some of the impressive performances he’s seen this spring.

“Far and away the story is Jerry Tillery. He’s just a unique player. One that I can’t remember that I’ve coached,” Kelly said Wednesday. “He’s running with our first group and continues to impress. Today in our 3 on 3 drill, they had a tough time blocking him.”

With Jarron Jones out and Sheldon Day on a coaches-imposed pitch count, young defensive linemen like Tillery and Jay Hayes have had all the reps they could ask for at the three-technique. But in Tillery, Notre Dame has an athlete with the size to play inside by the length and athleticism to play on the edge.

At a legit 6’6″, 300 pounds (Tillery’s officially 6’6.5″ on Notre Dame’s spring roster, shorter than only Mike McGlinchey on the scholarship roster), the freshman has a body that looks far leaner than most 300-pounders, let alone freshmen.

And while some thought he’d be raw as a defensive lineman, Kelly raved about his advanced skill set, crediting the work he did as a high schooler for having him so prepared to compete.

“He has a unique ability at such a young age to use his hands,” Kelly said. “He has had incredible teaching. One of the all-time great defensive line coaches is Pete Jenkins, if you research him at all, he’s revered as one of the great ones, and he’s gotten the chance to coach him. You can see it, in his ability to use his hands.”

With Ronnie Stanley and Mike McGlinchey locked into the offensive tackle jobs, Tillery looked like a redshirt candidate as an offensive player. But along a defensive line that’s still incredibly young, Tillery is quickly making it hard for Kelly to tamp down expectations.

“Where we spend the first year-and-a-half trying to get these kids to not drop their head and be over-extended, he immediately can shoot his hands and use his size to his advantage,” Kelly said. “I don’t want to put him in the hall of fame, I’m so leery to talk about a freshman, but he’s a unique talent.”




After injury detour, Jarrett Grace looks to be back on track

Temple v Notre Dame

While our inside looks at Notre Dame’s spring practice have been few and far between (blink and you could miss the footage from the YouTube practice reports), the little news that’s been coming out of the Gug has been good.

Not about a quarterback battle that nobody inside the program wants to talk about. But rather about the return of linebacker Jarrett Grace.

After suffering a catastrophic leg injury that had some assuming that a medical hardship scholarship was going to end his career, Grace is working with the Irish defense, getting his chance to play linebacker again after spending the 17 months rehabbing.

With Grace back on the field and in full gear, defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder spoke about Grace’s return to action, making it seem that Notre Dame’s starter from 2013 will have a chance to contribute to a linebacking corps that could be the strength of the defense.

“He’s been excellent. He’s a very intelligent player who couldn’t play last year so all he did was study, study, study,” VanGorder said of Grace. “He’s way ahead of guys that have played because of that.

“He’s an amazing guy. There was a point and time where I didn’t know if he would ever play football again. I had my doubts. So to see him out there, says everything about who he is.”

With Joe Schmidt limited for spring as he recovers from a broken ankle, Grace gets additional reps that’ll give the coaching staff every look they need at a linebacker some believed was the heir apparent to Manti Te’o.

Where and how Grace fits into the defense remains to be seen. Brian Kelly laid out what he thought the linebacking depth chart would look like as he opened spring.

James Onwualu will be the same linebacker, though when defenses demand a larger presence on the edge Greer Martini will be that player. Jaylon Smith is staying at Will linebacker, backed up by freshman early enrollee Te’Von Coney. At Mike, Schmidt may be capable of moving inside or out, but he’s not coming off the field. So until further notice, he’ll be leading a deep position, with Nyles Morgan and Grace both playing catch up.

The mental reps Grace took throughout 2014 when it looked like his playing career was in jeopardy say so much about one of the team’s best natural leaders. And they’ve allowed him to thrive this spring, even as he works his way back into playing shape.

Grace’s recovery and story won’t be complete until he’s on the field next season. And after so many positive updates from Kelly—each incremental step of progress never getting him closer to the football field—it appears that the fifth-year senior’s detour is finally (almost) over.

“I see Jarrett Grace of old with how he’s moving,” linebackers coach Mike Elston told Irish Illustrated. “He’s never really been an elite athlete like a Jaylon Smith. What he’s lacked in that, he’s made up in his grit, competitiveness and knowledge of the offense and knowledge of the defense he’s playing. All that stuff is starting to come out.”






Elston ready to make his mark on Notre Dame recruiting

USA Today

Notre Dame landed three recruiting commitments coming out of the weekend’s Junior Day. And if it’s up to Mike Elston, there’ll be plenty more where that came from.

Elston spoke after Monday’s practice with the assembled media to talk about spring football, his role in the recruiting department and how Notre Dame’s efforts to continue to land elite talent are only going to be ramped up.

Along with Mike Denbrock, Elston is Brian Kelly’s longest-tenured assistant at Notre Dame, working with Notre Dame’s sixth-year head coach at both Central Michigan and Cincinnati before joining him in South Bend. After a few staff reshuffles and more than one opportunity to move to another program, Elston was promoted to recruiting coordinator while taking over the linebackers as Keith Gilmore joined the coaching staff.

Elston talked about returning to a job he held at Cincinnati, and his thoughts on what makes for productive recruiting with

“I was the recruiting coordinator at Cincinnati. The biggest thing was just reorganizing, and making sure that everybody within the recruiting department knew and understood the roles that they needed to play, so that we could function at a really high level,” Elston said.

After Tony Alford left to join Ohio State, Elston takes over the position, previously held by Chuck Martin before that. While Elston’s reputation on the recruiting trail isn’t as celebrated as Alford’s, Elston has won more than his share of battles for good players. He also makes the very good point that being a great recruiter and being a great recruiting coordinator aren’t the same thing.

“Typically your best recruiters, if you take and tie them down with all of the constraints that you have as a recruiting coordinator… You take your best recruiters and put them in that role, then you’re limiting what they can do,” Elston explained.

“You don’t have to be the best recruiter on the staff to make sure that everybody is doing what they are supposed to. It’s about holding people accountable and having leadership for the people that are working under you for the recruiting department. I’m excited because I think those are my strengths. I think that I’m able to do those things. I’m excited about where the recruiting department is headed.”

We saw some of those organizational skills in action as the Irish hosted players from 11 different states, no small feat when you consider that travel on unofficial visits is paid for by the recruit.

Another area of focus is connecting with recruits on social media. With just about every teenager and seemingly every bluechip recruit taking to Twitter, Instagram or Facebook to talk about their recruiting status, it’s critical that college coaches become as comfortable building relationships on those platform as they are in traditional manners, not necessarily the easiest thing for grown men of a very different generation.

Elston made it clear that the Irish have established a presence. And he believes it’ll be more proprietary and ground-breaking than just sending out updates in 140 characters or less.


“We’re taking this thing to a whole different level,” Elston said, not wanting to go into details. “One area of a massive improvement is our social media.”

You can see that effort when you follow Notre Dame’s assistants on Twitter. And as he does after every commitment, Brian Kelly took to Twitter yesterday to blast out #WeAreND, after accepting the commitment from Tony Jones Jr.

Even with spring practice midswing and important on field work taking place, Notre Dame’s recruiting efforts are just getting started for the class of 2016.

“We’ll be all over. We’re already talking about where we’re coaching this summer. We’re going to be at a few camps,” Elston said. “We got a bunch of kids coming in this weekend, a bunch of big players, so we’re excited about those guys. We’ve got our coaches clinic, so coaches will be bring players with them, and that will be great. We have a busy, busy, busy next couple of months.”