Drop your questions below. Or on Twitter @KeithArnold.
Drop your questions below. Or on Twitter @KeithArnold.
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.”
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 BlueandGold.com.
“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.”
This weekend’s Junior Day netted another recruit, with Notre Dame’s coaching staff accepting the commitment of Florida running back Tony Jones Jr. The IMG Academy runner was in South Bend this weekend, and is the first running back in the fold for the Irish in the 2016 class.
With offers from Florida, Miami, Ole Miss, Mississippi State and South Carolina, Jones has some impressive early offers before he hits the combine and camp circuit. At 210 pounds already, Jones fits the mold of a potential power back, a welcome addition to a depth chart.
Jones had early interest in Notre Dame especially after earning an offer, and took in campus with his parents. The first big fish landed by new running back coach Autry Denson, Jones saw all he needed this weekend, according to Blue and Gold’s Andrew Ivins.
“It just felt right to me and my family. I like the tradition, the coaching, the players, it felt right,” Jones told B&G. “I committed to Autry Denson and head coach Brian Kelly at the same time. They’re very excited.”
Jones has started to see his star rise, impressing at an Orlando event last month. Scout.com views him as the top running back in Florida, while he’s a three-star prospect according to Rivals and isn’t ranked by 247 Sports yet.
Jones joins Julian Love and John Shannon as commitments from the weekend, joining Tommy Kraemer to make four commits in the 2016 class.
Here’s a highlight reel from Jones’ junior season.
Notre Dame’s 2016 recruiting class took a big step forward on Saturday, gaining commitments from cornerback Julian Love and long snapper John Shannon. Both Love and Shannon pledged their commitment after receiving offers this afternoon from the Irish staff.
In Love, Notre Dame adds another cornerback to the fold. A state champion last season after leading his Nazareth Academy squad to a 6A Illinois title, an offer from the Irish was all Love needed to chose Notre Dame over early offers from programs like Boston College, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas and Northwestern.
Love took to Twitter to announce his decision.
In Shannon, the Irish find their replacement for long-snapper Scott Daly. Another Illinois product, Shannon camped at Rubio Long Snapping camp, named the No. 1 long snapper by Rubio’s rankings.
Per Andrew Ivins of Blue & Gold, Shannon is also the grandson of former Irish All-American Dan Shannon, who played in the 1950s. From a program building perspective, Shannon’s entry into the program will allow him to redshirt for a season while Daly plays out his fifth year, a strategic scholarship offer and quick acceptance that will finalize the line-change of specialists with Justin Yoon and Tyler Newsome about to take the field.
Both commits hail from Illinois, with the Irish drawing strongly from their base in the Chicagoland area.
In Love, the Irish seem to be following a similar tactic that they have in recent years, among the first to offer—and land—profile athletes that may not be the most highly-touted recruits at this stage, but recruits that fit what they’re looking for nonetheless.
Love and Shannon join Tommy Kraemer as the three commitments in the 2016 class.