As Notre Dame’s finishes up a May spent on the road visiting recruits, one of the keys to a successful 2016 recruiting campaign is to restock the safety position. While graduate transfer Avery Sebastian comes onto campus providing immediate experience, the position is one of the lone worrisome spots on the fully-stocked Irish roster.
As Brian Kelly moves into his sixth season in South Bend, struggles at safety seem to be an evergreen issue. While some Signing Day losses last February kept the haul to just Mykelti Williams and Nicco Fertitta, Notre Dame is targeting three safeties in the 2016 recruiting cycle. The Irish lost out on three-star prospect Kenney Lyke to Michigan State last week, though it doesn’t sound like the Irish are giving up on his recruitment any time soon.
Regardless of Lyke coming around or not, the Irish need to restock the position. Both Elijah Shumate and Sebastian will be gone after the season, so will Swiss-Army defender Matthias Farley. Max Redfield will complete his eligibility in 2016. And the future of mismatched John Turner and injury-plagued Nicky Baratti are cloudy at best.
The struggles at safety go back to the roster Kelly inherited from Charlie Weis. In 2010, the Irish had a two-deep with only four scholarship safeties: Harrison Smith, Jamoris Slaughter, Dan McCarthy and Zeke Motta.
Before Smith was a first-rounder and All-American caliber player, he was a guy who Irish fans had given up on and relegated to linebacker. And when Slaughter was injured in the season opener against Purdue in 2010, Kelly was left with Motta learning on the fly while McCarthy—a guy who some might say never got completely healthy after a serious high school injury—struggled to find a role on the field.
While Smith and Motta provided stability on the back end, it’s been a challenge filling their shoes. The 2013 defense didn’t get great safety play, though Austin Collinsworth finished the season strong. And after Farley shifted to nickel cornerback, the Irish were short-handed from the start last season when Collinsworth was injured 48 hours before the season opener, putting the back-end of Brian VanGorder’s defense both shorthanded and inexperienced with the loss of their fifth-year captain.
We’ve heard all the right things about Shumate and Redfield, who separated themselves in spring ball, especially with Drue Tranquill recovering from an ACL injury and Baratti not a full participant. But the health of this duo is critical, especially if it’ll allow Sebastian to play a complementary role and Farley to stay closer to the line of scrimmage as a slot cornerback.
We’ll get to know names on the recruiting trail like Southern California’s Chacho Ulloa and Devin Studstill, a former high school teammate of freshman Te’von Coney. But with Todd Lyght in his first big-time college job, he’ll be thrown into the deep end trying to upgrade a position group that’s proved to be a challenge from the moment Kelly arrived.
Just like spring marks the end of winter, it also begins another unofficial season on the gridiron. The emergence of spring stars. These breakout stars sometimes burn out before fall rolls around, but it doesn’t make their emergence any less interesting.
It may be a linebacker freed by a graduating veteran. Or a lineman who had a monster offseason in the weight room. Perhaps it’s a freshman, more than ready to take off that redshirt.
Every spring, a handful of players emerge. Some turn out to be mirages. Some, like Joe Schmidt last spring, give all the clues they’ll be ready to be frontline players when fall comes around, and when they do it’s all the more fulfilling.
While Notre Dame’s quarterback situation ruled the headlines, there was still plenty of room for some spring stars to emerge. So let’s take a look at three standouts and see where they’ll be come fall camp.
Overview: With only two scholarship running backs on the roster, Prosise spent the spring cross-training in the backfield. What may have started as an emergency provision turned into a legitimate running option, with Prosise using his game-breaking speed and impressive size to throw a wild card into the running back rotation.
Money Quote: “He’s a guy you are going to fear,” Brian Kelly said after the spring game.
Legit or Mirage? This is looking very legit, with both Kelly and associate head coach Mike Denbrock calling Prosise one of the team’s best offensive players. And with Everett Golson’s transfer, adding a versatile piece to a running game that’ll likely now be accentuated, Prosise’s stock is definitely on the rise.
With Malik Zaire getting another option in the zone-read game, either off the edge or from the backfield, the idea of getting Prosise ten touches on the ground—in addition to his potential as a deep threat—has to have Mike Sanford sketching plays like John Nash.
Outlook for the Fall: Full-time starter, part-time running back.
While Amir Carlisle took the majority of reps as slot receiver this spring, it’s difficult to understand taking Prosise off the field, unless he’s going to spend the majority of his time at running back.
But with Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant a more than capable two-deep, keeping Prosise in the slot allows Kelly to get his best 11 on the field, something he’s talked about doing. With Will Fuller on the outside and Prosise in the slot, that could leave some very appealing match-ups, especially for Chris Brown and Corey Robinson.
Overview: The early-enrollee freshman looked like a great left tackle prospect. But after deciding to start his career on defense, Tillery was the defensive lineman that stood out this spring the most, taking advantage of Jarron Jones’ recovery from surgery and limited reps by Sheldon Day. With length, size and (maybe even better) athleticism that reminds people of Stephon Tuitt, Tillery was the talk of spring on the defensive side of the ball.
Money Quote: “He’s just a unique player. One that I can’t remember I’ve coached,” Brian Kelly said. “I don’t want to put him in the Hall of Fame yet, but he’s a unique talent.”
Legit or Mirage? Most likely legit, though we may need to temper our expectations for a first-year defensive lineman. Tillery isn’t necessarily a pass rushing threat, though the Irish will use all the help they can get on the edge. But reaching a half-dozen TFLs during his first season would be an incredible debut for Tillery, especially playing on a defensive line that features Jarron Jones and Sheldon Day as senior starters.
Outlook for the fall: First defensive tackle off the bench.
While it was Jay Hayes that was activated last November when he took his redshirt off, I tend to think that Tillery is the first guy off the bench for the Irish defensive front, playing a slightly larger role than Day played in 2012 when he was the third-man in the defensive end rotation, joining Tuitt and Kapron Lewis-Moore.
Tillery’s versatility will be critical, especially as Brian VanGorder mixes and matches up front with multiple looks. The Irish don’t seem to have a true pass-rushing defensive end, so putting Tillery across from Isaac Rochell would allow the Irish to line up four 300-pounders, an imposing front four.
Putting a lot on the shoulders of a first-year defensive lineman is a risky move. But not many early-enrollee freshmen set off for South Africa on three-week classes, choosing to see the world instead of return home for a brief break.
Just about everybody inside the program expects Tillery to become a star. How soon remains to be seen.
Overview: Most thought Redfield’s strong spring last year would lead to a big season. It didn’t, with Redfield spending a large portion in the dog house before being freed when the position became a MASH unit.
A five-star talent as an athlete, Redfield’s jumped between two different systems when Brian VanGorder took over for Bob Diaco, neutralizing his natural talent with a brain that required too much processing. But a strong Bowl Game and a nice spring have Redfield on track for a big junior season, at a position with absolutely zero margin for error in 2015.
Money Quote: “So much different than where we were at any time during the season,” Kelly said, talking about the improvements Redfield and fellow safety Elijah Shumate made.
Legit or Mirage? With Nicky Baratti and Drue Tranquill each coming off of major surgery, there’s nobody at the position to push Redfield. That said, even if there was, it’s Redfield’s third season in the program and it’s time for the former blue-chip prospect to turn into the type of player everybody expected him to be.
Kelly credited a lightbulb going on for Redfield in his preparations for the Music City Bowl. After a strong spring and an entire summer to continue to learn his role on the defense, Redfield should be ready to be a standout.
I’m not buying in totally just yet, but Redfield has all the tools needed.
Outlook for the Fall: Full-time safety and a Top-Five Defender.
If Redfield is playing as well as he can, he’ll have a chance to be one of the Irish’s top five defensive players. That doesn’t sound like resounding praise, until you consider some of the personnel. All-American Jaylon Smith. Team MVP Joe Schmidt. Returning star cornerback KeiVarae Russell. Captain Sheldon Day. Throw in a ball-hawking centerfielder and the Irish defense could be a very, very good unit.
After high-profile academic mistakes, Notre Dame wisely examining new options
Monday, Notre Dame announced that 16 student-athletes would be spending three weeks in South Africa, earning credits in a new study abroad program examining the cultural, historical and social effects racism has had on South Africa. Five more will be going to Greece, learning about archaeological sites and museums in Ancient Corinth.
Of all the recent headlines garnering attention in the world of major college athletics, press releases like these tend to go straight to the recycling bin. Students-athletes acting like students? Isn’t there a unionization effort to discuss or a pay-for-play plan that gets people excited?
There are many broken parts to the NCAA’s amateurism model. But ignoring some of the virtues that come from a free collegiate experience is just as destructive as avoiding the charade some major college athletic departments have become.
Notre Dame isn’t just sending a slew of walk-ons and benchwarmers to make the university look good. Of the 21 athletes setting sail for far off places, nearly half are football players. Jaylon Smith, Corey Robinson and Jerry Tillery are among the contingency going to South Africa. Max Redfield and Romeo Okwara are going to Greece.
But for as hard as Notre Dame is working to balance a first-rate academic experience with elite collegiate athletics, it’s failures have garnered far more headlines that trips like this. So while the university proudly (and understandably) continues to trumpet its successes, most eyes only focus on the high-profile mistakes that have taken place over the past few years.
Very high profile.
Everett Golson followed up his national-championship debut season with a season-long (fall semester) suspension from the university for an Honor Code violation.
Last season’s basketball hero Jerian Grant was pulled from the floor and school at the semester break after his own mistake.
The hockey team’s top-scoring defenseman, Robbie Russo, was lost for the same amount of time because of his own poor judgment.
And that’s before KeiVarae Russell, DaVaris Daniels, Ishaq Williams and Eilar Hardy were taken down during the two-month investigation that led to lost seasons and multiple-semester suspensions for most of the group.
Some of the school’s most prominent athletes, all caught up in embarrassing academic failures. (You can’t blame journalists from seizing on the opportunity with a misguided take-down column.) But those academic failures were a two-way street, forcing the university to look at the growing divide between the academic profile of student-athletes and the rest of the student body.
“When we recruit student-athletes, we have an obligation to provide them with the resources necessary,” head coach Brian Kelly told Sports Illustrated. “And if we don’t, then we have fallen short. And I think that in these instances, there’s culpability for everyone.”
While the story was a profile on KeiVarae Russell, Pete Thamel’s reporting uncovered some changes taking place at Notre Dame, reacting to the struggles and high-profile mistakes that have been happening all too often. And while there was no official comment out of the university to expand on SI’s reporting, it’s clear that both the athletic department and the university leadership has learned from the mistakes made by both the student-athletes and those struggling to provide the resources for them to succeed both on and off the field.
In Kelly’s conversation with Sports Illustrated, Notre Dame’s head coach pegged the average GPA of his incoming freshman class at 2.8 with a score of 24 on the ACT. Compare that to the freshman class’s average ACT score of 33 (Notre Dame doesn’t track GPA for incoming freshmen, but it’s certainly a full letter grade above a 2.8). It’s not hard to see the great divide.
Adding to that divide is a workload for Notre Dame football players that’s beyond significant. Talking with former and current football players, a routine day was often times 15-hours from alarm clock to pillow, including a full class load, organized study hours, lifting, film study and practice that command far more time than any NCAA 20-hour weekly limit can fully encapsulate.
As Irish fans seethed throughout the two-month investigation and lengthy appeals process that ate up much of the 2014 season, Notre Dame’s administration took an honest look at their role in this dilemma. And it appears that they took dead aim at fixing some of the problems facing student-athletes, especially those coming from “at-risk” academic profiles.
From Sports Illustrated:
In the spring of 2014, Swarbrick co-chaired a 17-member task force created to examine effective ways to support “at-risk student-athletes.” The takeaways proved more evolutionary than revolutionary, focusing on intensive individualized attention, a stronger summer bridge program, expansion of a writing and rhetoric tutorial, and faculty mentors. Faculty athletic representative Patricia Bellia, a law professor who was the task force’s other chair, says the process made the school realize it needs to take a “case management” approach to each student, with information pooled from trainers, assistant coaches, nutritionists and anyone close to them. “We’ve determined they can succeed [by admitting them],” she said. “How can we make that happen on an individual level? What kind of support and resources does that individual need?”
For all the talk of Kelly’s frustration with the process last fall, the reality sounds to be quite the opposite. Working alongside athletic director Jack Swarbrick and university president Rev. John Jenkins, Kelly talked about the “transformative conversations” that took place, a mind-blowing concept for those who remember the Notre Dame ruled by Monk Malloy and former admissions director Dan Saracino.
“We’ve done so many things here to put Notre Dame back in a position to compete nationally, and I kind of look at this as that last piece in making sure we’re taking care of our student-athletes,” Kelly told SI. “It strengthened my resolve in, We’re going to get this right.”
What that entails remains to be seen. The worry of diluting a Notre Dame degree is a real one. And there’s no desire to create a “general studies” major like the one at Michigan that Jim Harbaugh so famously torched while he was Stanford’s head coach.
When asked for expanded clarity on the university’s task force, a spokesman for the football program preferred to let the article speak for itself.
But 15 years ago, Notre Dame was insulting student-athletes—elite players like T.J. Duckett and future Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer, who was ready to commit to Notre Dame on the spot. Now they’re trying to find a way to balance the challenges of the academic course work with the rigors of playing major college football.
That’s quite a change. And one for the better.
“Are there other ways to do it?” Kelly asks. “Can we cut back on credit hours? Instead of taking 15 [the current practice to start a semester], can we take 12 and make it up in the summer? Are there other course offerings that could come about and be offered in lieu of a specific class? Those are conversations that had never taken place.”