<span class="vcard">Keith Arnold</span>

Demetris Robertson
Rivals / Yahoo Sports

Late push could finalize elite recruiting class for Notre Dame

26 Comments

Notre Dame’s 2016 recruiting class was supposed to be a small one. Yet with two weeks to go until Signing Day, Brian Kelly has put together another Top 10 recruiting class, one that could turn into a contender for the best group in the nation.

A strong 2015 season helped—so did a large exodus at season’s end. That’s allowed the 2016 class to have the potential to swell into one of the largest groups signed by Kelly since he arrived in South Bend.

With the Irish coaching staff spread coast to coast chasing some of the nation’s elite prospects, the first Wednesday in February is just around the corner. With five early-enrollees already on campus and the 22-man class potentially adding as many as four more members, let’s take a look at the remaining targets on the board.

 

 

DEMETRIS ROBERTSON

The five-star athlete could be the heir apparent to Will Fuller. Or at least that’s the pitch Notre Dame’s coaching staff gave on Monday night, using Kelly’s in-home visit to try and secure a commitment from one of the nation’s most tantalizing athletes. Robertson welcomed a large contingent of Irish coaches into his home in Savannah, where Notre Dame’s head coach was joined by offensive coordinator Mike Sanford and area recruiters Scott Booker and Autry Denson as they sold Robertson on replacing the Irish All-American.

Rivals’ Woody Wommack caught up with Robertson after the visit:

“They think I can come in and take over the X-receiver spot from Will,” Robertson told Rivals. “Coach Kelly compares me to him a lot, especially my deep threat ability and my route-running and things like that. He said that I have more upside coming in than Will had, even though I’m about the same size he was coming out.”

Robertson stood out on the East team during the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, a game that featured an impressive kick return from the Georgia native, who is still being chased by Alabama and Georgia. It wrapped up an impressive week in San Antonio for the elite prospect, who would be the best offensive players signed by the Irish since Charlie Weis reeled in Jimmy Clausen.

 

CALEB KELLY

Notre Dame hasn’t had much luck recruiting Fresno. But the Irish staff believes things could be different with Kelly, a five-star linebacker who could add another high-end prospect to a linebacker position that’ll need to reload after the loss of Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt and Jarrett Grace.

Bob Stoops—who has built a pipeline into Fresno—already used his in-home visit. Notre Dame saved Brian Kelly’s, hopeful that the Irish head coach can help close on Kelly and finally get one of Central California’s top athletes onto the football field in South Bend.

Anna Hickey of Irish Illustrated spoke with the talented linebacker about how he’s been recruited—starting on the outside with the potential to perhaps grow into a pass rusher.

“He talked to me about his coaching style and position-wise how he does things at Notre Dame,” Kelly said. “He said things could change depending on how I grow, but right now he likes me at Sam. I could develop into a defensive end. He said the defense varies a lot, so all of the players have to know every position.”

Here’s a look at Kelly in action.

 

JEFFREY MCCULLOCH

Notre Dame has been in on the Houston linebacker since he opened eyes at The Opening with some freakish test scores. They finally got McCulloch on campus and managed to open his eyes as well, with the potential fit at Notre Dame a good one.

But Texas has come on, with Charlie Strong selling McCulloch on the virtues of staying home and playing immediately for the Longhorns. McCulloch also earned admission at Stanford, likely a key in a Signing Day decision that pushed back from the original plan to announce at the Under Armour All-American game.

It’ll come down to the wire for McCulloch—with the Irish needing to regain some momentum if they want to add this explosive linebacker who could come in and contribute off the edge right away.

 

BEN DAVIS

Notre Dame did all they could by getting Davis on campus last weekend and giving the Alabama native a look at what life could be like in South Bend. Hosted by Jerry Tillery and given an honest appraisal of what the academic rigors entail, Davis left Notre Dame putting them in a top three with Alabama and Georgia, where former Crimson Tide defensive coordinator Kirby Smart has made him a priority.

Leaving Notre Dame running third doesn’t necessarily give you warm and fuzzy feelings. But this Irish staff has pulled a rabbit out of the hat once or twice on Signing Day in SEC upsets and if they could pull that off with Alabama legacy Davis, they’ll have executed their finest magic trick yet.

 

JONATHAN JONES

Jones certainly doesn’t have the recruiting accolades of the talented trio just discussed, but he’s certainly no slouch. With Michigan still running in the lead for the Orlando native, Jones has seen a lot of the Irish staff, including a recent visit by position coach and recruiting coordinator Mike Elston.

The 247 Crystal Ball still points Michigan’s way, but Jones has one key family member in Notre Dame’s corner, according to Blue & Gold’s Andrew Ivins.

“My dad is Notre Dame all the way,” Jones told B&G. “He loves all of the other schools. He like Michigan and [Coach Harbaugh] but he likes that life after football aspect at Notre Dame. My mom she just wants me to where I’m comfortable and that’s what I want.”

Jones may be a bit undersized, but projects as a possible Mike or Will option. He was a productive high school player with a slew of impressive offers and even if he’s not the “big name” that Kelly, McCulloch or Davis is, once the ink is dry and the faxes are in, the stars disappear.

 

 

JORDAN FULLER

Few corners look like Jordan Fuller. And even with a stacked defensive back group in the 22-man recruiting class, the jumbo-sized DB could look pretty good in a Notre Dame uniform.

Fuller may not have played at an elite level in San Antonio at the Army Bowl, but his intriguing skill set still has Notre Dame in a battle with Michigan, Penn State, Rutgers and Ohio State, who just entertained Fuller last weekend. The New Jersey native has been on campus twice, the last visit for Notre Dame’s ECHOES awards banquet.

This could be a situation where the Irish might not have room come Signing Day. But with a fifth-year class looking minimal, extending past the 25-man limit could be a possibility, especially with five early enrollees potentially counting against last year’s group.

 

NATE JOHNSON

Notre Dame’s most recent target could come at Michigan’s expense. Tennessee receiver Nate Johnson has been a name to watch of late, and taking one look at his senior highlights helps you understand why.

This kid can fly.

With the loss of Fuller, Chris Brown, Amir Carlisle and Corey Robinson a senior in 2016, a reload is necessary in the receiving corps. And finding a way to score a late visit from Johnson and receive his fax on Signing Day morning could be the type of late addition that helps make this class special.

 

Report: Knee won’t push Jaylon Smith out of Top 20

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 19: Jaylon Smith #9 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish returns a fumble against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in the third quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 19, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Georgia Tech 30-22. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
19 Comments

As Jaylon Smith begins his rehabilitation process after surgery to repair two torn knee ligaments, the “where will he fall to?” conversation seems to be quieting down. Notre Dame’s All-American linebacker, who opted into the NFL Draft even after suffering a major knee injury, seems to have made the decision knowing teams won’t take the multi-talented linebacker off of their board.

Sure, Smith’s days as a potential top-five pick might be over. But a recent report by NFL Network’s Albert Breer has one AFC scouting director believing Smith is a lock to still go in the top 20, with the in-state Colts at No. 18 seemingly the floor.

“He’s fast, athletic, instinctive and versatile,” the scouting director said. “He can close quickly against the run and shows very good athletic ability and speed in coverage.” When asked for a weakness, the scouting director sarcastically texted, “Knee injury.”

While Smith won’t be working out at the upcoming NFL Scouting Combine, the late-February cattle call will be an opportunity for teams to meet with Smith and take a look at the progress he’s made in his recovery.

“A lot will really depend on how the docs see the repair and recovery,” the scouting director told Breer.

After rumors of nerve damage were quickly shot down, Smith’s medical team made their confidence in a complete recovery well known. While that conclusion will certainly need to be shared by team doctors around the league, it’s worth pointing to Todd Gurley‘s draft-day ascent into the Top 10 last season as a good reason to believe that Smith’s slide won’t be too precipitous.

While an insurance policy protects Smith if he slides out of the first round all together, the game tape he supplied over the past three years will likely do more to make sure he’s one of the first linebackers off the board.

Irish get visit from 5-star LB Ben Davis

Ben Davis
Rivals / Yahoo Sports
15 Comments

Linebacker Ben Davis very well might end up at Alabama. But the 5-star prospect was on campus this weekend in South Bend, as Notre Dame’s staff rolled out the red carpet for one of the nation’s top linebackers.

Many expect Davis to end up as a member of the Crimson Tide, where his father is the school’s all-time leading tackler. But the Gordo, Alabama native spent the weekend touring campus, and the early returns from the visit were promising.

Andrew Ivins of BlueandGold.com caught up with Davis who said the following:

“It was way better than anything I could have expected,” Davis told Ivins. “That was my first time up there and everybody was just so great, and so opening. Notre Dame is just something that you really can’t explain, you just have to see it. It was great overall trip and I had a great time. Notre Dame is in it.”

Davis is the No. 1 middle linebacker in the country per Rivals’ rankings and a Top 15 player overall, per 247’s composite rankings. Autry Denson landed the on-campus visit, a testament to the young assistant’s recruiting acumen. Davis is just one of three elite prospects the Irish are still chasing at linebacker, with Fresno’s Caleb Kelly and Houston’s Jeffrey McCulloch the others.

Davis has pushed the Irish into his top three schools (Georgia and Alabama are the others, with a visit to Auburn still upcoming). That puts the Irish in the mix to land a game-chasing talent, with Notre Dame still in the mix on a handful of key prospects, an opportunity to make some noise on Signing Day in a class that’s already a Top 10 group.

 

Last Look: Front Seven

Sheldon Day, John Fadule
47 Comments

With Jaylon Smith and Sheldon Day playing at All-American levels, Notre Dame’s front seven featured two of the most dynamic playmakers in college football. Smith’s junior campaign may have ended in heartbreak, but he made 114 tackles, easily pacing the team. Day’s senior season finally unlocked the potential we’d heard about for three years, with the veteran leading the team with 15.5 TFLs, making it through all 13 games healthy.

Four pieces of the front seven were essentially every-down players: Smith, Day, Joe Schmidt and Isaac Rochell. Per PFF College, Schmidt led the defense in snaps played at 873. Rochell led the defensive line with 816 snaps, while Smith finished with 801 and Day had 786.

Senior Romeo Okwara led the team in sacks, finishing with 12.5 TFLs about eight official sacks. It was the type of breakout senior that the Irish desperately needed from a pass rusher.

Some of the defense’s inconsistencies are also revealed in these statistics. From a productivity standpoint, Schmidt’s 78 tackles may be second on the team, but he graded out as Notre Dame’s worst regular in PFF’s rating system. Some of that may be on Schmidt’s physical limitations. Some of it is on the defensive tackles playing in front of him.

Without Jarron Jones, Notre Dame was forced to play Daniel Cage and true freshman Jerry Tillery. While that duo’s future looks bright, Tillery made just 12 total tackles while Cage was slightly more productive with 18 stops. Compare that with the 40 tackles and 7.5 TFLs Jones had in his first season starting and you start to see some of the effects of losing a 330-pound run-stuffer who also protects your middle linebacker.

Notre Dame’s front seven will be rebuilt this offseason. While Rochell returns, the Irish will need to replace their Smith, Schmidt, Okwara, Day and Jarrett Grace. Before we turn our focus to the future, let’s hand out some year-end rankings.

Front Seven

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MVP: Jaylon Smith. Smith’s elite skill-set makes this feel like a no-brainer, but Sheldon Day’s value to this front seven made this a much harder decision than you may have thought. But Notre Dame’s latest Butkus winner did so much for this defense, especially in a linebacking corps that so heavily relied on him.

Without Smith, Notre Dame’s linebackers would’ve been beyond ordinary. While most of the focus this offseason will be on his recovery from knee surgery, Smith’s ability to drop and cover, read and react and — maybe most importantly — cover for mistakes with speed and athleticism, allowed him to erase plays. That will be missed.

 

Co-MVP: Sheldon Day. These are my awards, so I get to make one up for the season Day had. For years we’ve heard Aaron Donald referenced as a comp for Day. Finally in 2015, Day made that reference not seem laughable.

No, he won’t likely become one of the NFL’s most dominant interior players. But Day’s senior season has him popping up in the first round of some mock drafts, a credit to the dominance Day displayed this season—not always evident in the stat line he put up.

How good was Day? Consider PFF College’s grading system. Day doubled Smith’s overall grade, earning a +59.0 to Smith’s +29.4. Day ranked as PFF’s No. 1 defensive tackle this season, while Smith finished as the No. 5 OLB.

Paired with two young players with next to no experience, Day still managed to dictate terms in the trenches. While we can only wonder what this group would’ve done with Jones by his side, it was a special season.

 

Biggest Disappointment: Nyles Morgan’s disappearance. Joe Schmidt’s value to this defense was made clear anytime reporters asked Brian Kelly or Brian VanGorder why Morgan couldn’t get on the field. But even if Schmidt’s acumen and ability to direct the unit will forever go under-appreciated by fans, you can’t help but wonder what a sophomore season spent playing special teams did to Morgan’s development schedule.

Let’s be clear: Morgan’s freshman season—or even his ceiling as a linebacker—aren’t based on anything we’ve seen with our eyes. But you still would’ve liked to find some snaps where Morgan could’ve contributed situationally. That he didn’t doesn’t necessarily reflect poorly on player or coach solely. But it puts the onus on the rising junior to have a big spring practice, hopefully stepping into both the middle linebacker job and a leadership role.

 

 

Brightest Future: Jerry Tillery. Notre Dame’s freshman defensive tackle ended the season on a sour note, suspended for a rules violation in Scottsdale that forced Notre Dame’s only healthy defensive tackle to watch the Fiesta Bowl from the sidelines. But Tillery’s going to be a key piece of the defensive puzzle in 2016, asked to fill the role of his travel roommate and (try to) replace Day’s production.

A starting front-four of Tillery and Jones on the inside surrounded by Rochell and Trumbetti should be able to hold up in the trenches. Now it’s time for Tillery to take the sting of missing the bowl game and carry that into spring football, where he’ll no longer be an overachieving freshman and will be asked to take the type of leap Stephon Tuitt did in his second season.

 

Williams gets his long-awaited NFL audition

USC v Notre Dame
14 Comments

Ishaq Williams found himself in an unfamiliar place these past few days. After a two-year hiatus, he was back on a football field.

The one-time 5-star recruit had his chance to breathe life into his football career this week, down in Texas participating in the College Gridiron Showcase. It’s the first time Williams will have played in a competitive football game since the Pinstripe Bowl, the last two seasons ruined by the academic dishonesty probe that froze the football careers of five Irish players.

Williams spoke with the South Bend Tribune’s Eric Hansen to talk about the opportunity to audition for potential employers. He also discussed the road he’s traveled the last two years, finding his way back to Notre Dame and on track to earn his degree in May.

“I’m a totally different person,” Williams told Hansen. “I’m positive, hard-working, have a passion for stuff. This situation has changed my life for the better.”

Do yourself a favor and read the entire article. It’s a testament to the work Williams put in to even give himself this chance.

Williams’ football career essentially ended in August of 2014, when Notre Dame pulled he and four of his teammates from participation while the university worked through an investigation into improper academic activity. The drawn-out results of that investigation led to a two-semester ban from school for Williams, KeiVarae Russell, Kendall Moore and Davis Daniels. Only Russell returned to Notre Dame to play football in 2015.

Williams was free to return to the university after the suspension. His eligibility was a different story. Details remain murky to this day, but Williams’ appeal to play in 2015 was denied by the NCAA, who also ruled that Williams couldn’t even participate as a scout team player.

While he could lift weights in the Gug and spent time with his former teammates in the locker room, he needed to find a way to prepare for his potential football future. That led Williams to former Irish quarterback Evan Sharpley, who spent the fall semester working with him at Sharpley’s training facility in Elkhart.

The work paid off. Williams has slimmed down, now carrying around 260 pounds on his 6-foot-5 frame. He’s also cleared his head of any negativity that could carryover from the entire incident—two seasons of football lost for an academic mistake.

“I watched every Notre Dame football game this year, but never at the stadium, always from home,” he said. “Those guys welcomed me into the locker room, welcomed me to work out at the Gug (ND’s football facility). They never gave up on me. So how could I give up on myself?

Williams, a philosophy major, is familiar with the famous quote “It’s never too late to become who you might have been.”

But it’s no longer about justifying that old five-star recruiting tag. It’s about new beginnings, wherever they take him.

“I can’t put into words what it’s like to have this chance to overcome,” Williams said. “It means everything to me. There are so many people to thank, however and wherever it ends.”

Williams will be back at Notre Dame this spring, when he’ll audition for scouts at the Irish Pro Day. There’s no question his size and athleticism will draw some interest from a league where teams covet untapped potential.

Credit goes to Williams for doing his best to get back on track.