Justin Brent, Devin Butler

Irish A-to-Z: Justin Brent

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There are good debut seasons. And then there are debut seasons like the one Justin Brent just had.

The Indianapolis native enrolled early in South Bend, exciting fans with his physicality and size that made him look like a potential fit in a receiving corps lacking a college-ready body like the one Brent already possesses. But Brent’s season was a roadmap of what not to do at Notre Dame, making headlines for all the wrong reasons as a mostly anonymous special teams performer.

(It’s not worth going over again, so just move on from here if you don’t know what happened…)

While he worked his way out of Brian Kelly’s doghouse before the bowl game, Brent enters his second season in a similar spot—looking for reps in a competitive wide receiving depth chart, and now having some negative headlines to overcome.

There were signs of a turnaround this spring, including a nice touchdown in the Blue-Gold game. But entering his second season, let’s take a look at the crossroads where Brent finds himself.

 

JUSTIN BRENT
6’1.5″, 205 lbs.
Sophomore, No. 11, WR

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Brent committed to Notre Dame waaaaay early, a full summer ahead of most early commits. But his recruiting profile rose steadily, especially when he lit up The Opening and the Rivals Five-Star Challenge in Chicago.

Brent didn’t have overwhelming offers, but that comes with pledging to the Irish after your sophomore season and playing running back out of need as a senior. He was a high four-star prospect according to Rivals regardless, and he looked it from the moment he stepped on campus.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Played in nine games, mostly on special teams. Did not make a catch at wide receiver.

 

WHAT WE PROJECTED LAST YEAR

So the Irish coaching staff didn’t redshirt Brent, but you could’ve made the argument that it made more sense to do so, especially considering he played only on special teams.

The Crystal Ball looked pretty sharp, especially with depth chart issues and the craft of playing wide receiver likely contributing to the logjam in front of Brent.

It may have been a foolish prediction around Signing Day, but I get the feeling that Brent might spend the year redshirting. It’s a decision that Kelly pulled off with DaVaris Daniels, another receiver with NFL potential who was stuck behind Michael Floyd so this isn’t a referendum on his talent. But there just might not be enough footballs to make it worth using a year of eligibility.

Where Brent might slide into the mix is after Daniels heads to the NFL, which may be after the 2014 season. That would leave Will Fuller, Corey Robinson and Chris Brown as outside receivers, along with the unknown quantities that are Torii Hunter Jr. and Corey Holmes (and an incoming freshman class). If Brent projects inside, he’ll likely have both Prosise and Carlisle still in the mix, though the staff believes he’s an outside receiver in the current system.

Snippets of UND.com practice videos aren’t necessarily the best evaluation tool, but Brent has some work to do sharpening his routes and getting more comfortable playing as a true wideout. But physically and athletically he looks the part of a dominant offensive weapon, and that’s a great place to start.

Brent starts fall camp in a pretty similar place, and that’s without considering the talent coming in as true freshmen to compete.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

There’s still a ton to like about Brent as a football player, though I worry a bit about his smoothness in space and his hands, two things you don’t want to worry about for a receiver. So while he’s made some dazzling plays in practice, he’s also shown some struggles getting in and out of routes and catching the football, two traits that turn wideouts into safeties.

That’s not looking like the career path for Brent, but a detour could be in the making—especially if his maturity and decision making doesn’t take a very big step forward. Notre Dame’s in a tight spot with scholarships, and malcontents aren’t going to stick around anymore.

Brent’s best gift is an NFL body that he’s clearly spent hours crafting. But the development between the ears is what’ll be most important, and was certainly what Kelly challenged during spring drills every time he mentioned the Indianapolis native.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

While I’ve been pretty hard on Brent, I actually think the thing that struck me the most was the celebratory hug he shared with his head coach after the Music City Bowl victory. That didn’t look like an embrace you got from an exiled freshman with one foot out the door, but rather the look of a kid who seemed ready, willing and engaged.

One thing that might actually help Brent is starting quarterback Malik Zaire. It’s unlikely that Brent caught too many passes from Everett Golson in practices last season. But Zaire? The duo’s chemistry was on display in the Blue-Gold game, and could also help Brent’s confidence come training camp.

While I mentioned physical play as a way for Miles Boykin to get on the field, Brent’s the perfect body type to mangle defensive backs as a blocker on the edge. That’s a thankless job that requires pinpoint technique and buy-in, something we’ll see if Brent possesses.

This career could go two ways—a transfer or a four-year career that puts in the rearview a bumpy debut season. Next season will go a long way towards determining that path.

 

THE 2015 IRISH A-to-Z
Josh Adams, RB
Josh Barajas, OLB
Nicky Baratti, S
Alex Bars, OL
Asmar Bilal, OLB
Hunter Bivin, OL
Grant Blankenship, DE
Jonathan Bonner, DE
Miles Boykin, WR

Offseason Q&A: Georgia Tech

Justin Thomas, Synjyn Days
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Last year, Paul Johnson’s Georgia Tech team burst onto the scene, nearly wrestling the ACC championship away from Florida State in a primetime showdown. While the Yellow Jackets didn’t pull out the victory, they sprinted away from Mississippi State in the Orange Bowl and won by double-digits, capping off an 11-win season.

The year came at a perfect time for Johnson, and a long term contract extension followed. The momentum came at the worst time for Notre Dame, with the option maestro ready to take on his former Navy enemy, adding a showcase game to the September slate and another test to see how Brian Kelly, Brian VanGorder and the Irish defense do against an option attack.

To get us up to speed on Tech’s offseason, Tyler Duke of From the Rumble Seat joins us. With Johnson’s mad scientist offense and a defense that could be really stout coming to South Bend, the third week of the season looks like a crossroads for both program’s College Football Playoff Hopes.

Let’s dig into a juicy September matchup.

 

 

After averaging seven wins a season since 2010, last year Georgia Tech won 11 games, including a one-sided victory over Mississippi State in the Orange Bowl. With 13 starters coming back on both sides of the ball, just how excited are Yellow Jacket fans for the 2015 season?

I’d say the optimism is much, much higher than it was at this time a year ago. Last year, fans were very uneasy about the state of the program and even the future of Paul Johnson. After the surprisingly fantastic season of 2014, fans once again believe in what Johnson does and especially what he can do with this unit. There have been plenty of talented departures, but with Justin Thomas under center, the general belief is this team can play with anyone.

 

At the helm of the program is Paul Johnson, a coach Notre Dame fans know well from his time at Navy. His option offense also puts fear into the hearts of Irish fans—and I’m guessing Notre Dame’s coaching staff as well.

Georgia Tech hiring Johnson in the first place was an interesting move. And with a contract extension that takes him through 2020, Johnson will likely retire after his time at The Flats. How is Johnson viewed by GT faithful, and has that opinion been reshaped after last season?

Johnson’s support has shifted much like the optimism of the team, but some are still hesitant to believe he can keep it up. The fans that were on the fence definitely had their opinions reshaped because of the success last year.

His detractors still think that Johnson’s success is dependent upon having a star quarterback, and these fans would probably always find something to criticize Johnson for. Typically, their main reasoning is they just don’t like the style of the offense.

 

We’ll get back to the offense in a minute. But it looks like Georgia Tech’s defense could be one of the better units Notre Dame will face next season. After being the weak link in 2014, how tough will the Irish have it against Ted Roof’s defense?

The defense should be much improved in 2015 which is a huge relief for Jackets’ fans. Some improvement was already evident towards the end of last season when they became one of the most opportunistic defenses in the nation at forcing turnovers.

Nine starters are returning, and Jabari Hunt-Days will be back on the roster after being ineligible in 2014. The former linebacker will be moving to the defensive line and should be an impact player right away. I’m reluctant to say the defense will be the strength of Georgia Tech this year, but I do believe they’ll be much more consistent and dependable because of the experience returning.

 

Is it safe to say that Georgia Tech’s offense is all about Justin Thomas? In Thomas, does Johnson have his perfect trigger man? It looks like graduation — and some spring injuries — put a dent in the skill players but the OL returns four starters.

Irish fans are anticipating terrifying productivity from their more talented option opponent. Do you see things the same way?

The offense absolutely looks like it should be the Justin Thomas show in 2015. There’s a problem with that though. As we know, defenses can typically choose a part of the option they want to take away to force another unit to do the damage. Defenses will likely use this approach as much as possible to force the ball out of Thomas’ hands when possible.

I’m sure Johnson will come up with strategies to make this harder for defenses, but the inexperienced skill position players for the Jackets have to step up if the offense want to be anywhere close to as productive as they were last season. Irish fans shouldn’t expect the Tech offense to be quite as scary and efficient as they were in 2014.

 

The subplots of this game are fairly mesmerizing. Johnson is still under the collective skin of Irish fans. Johnson also has a bone to pick with Brian VanGorder, Notre Dame’s second-year defensive coordinator who took over the Georgia Southern program and removed the option offense, a decision that short-circuited.

Brian Kelly has struggled against the option, spending the offseason deploying one of his former assistants to find solutions for stopping it. With some really interesting games on Notre Dame’s schedule, this one might be the most intriguing. It’s only early June. But are Yellow Jacket fans just as excited?

The anticipation for this game is definitely returned from Georgia Tech fans. Notre Dame is always an intriguing game no matter the talent level on either side, but this game should really be a huge contest for both sides in trying to throw their name into playoff contention.

Going into a hostile environment in South Bend and getting a win would be huge for a Tech team that will be 2-0 in all likelihood. If the Irish come out victorious against Texas and Virginia to start out, this should be one of the premiere matchups early on in the season. Notre Dame will have the edge on getting into gear with two much tougher games to start out, so Tech will have to get out of cupcake mode and get ready quick to be competitive. It should be fun.

OLB/DE Jamir Jones commits to Notre Dame

Notre Dame v Syracuse
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Notre Dame’s quick-growing 2016 recruiting class is adding another familiar name. Rochester defensive end Jamir Jones, brother of starting defensive tackle Jarron Jones, committed to the Irish coaching staff on Tuesday, fresh off receiving his offer. He joins Julian Okwara—brother of Romeo—as younger siblings of Irish players in the 2016 recruiting class.

Jones had early offers from Pitt, Rutgers, Syracuse, UConn and Boston College. He worked out at Notre Dame’s summer camp before being offered by the Irish staff and made his decision public via Twitter.

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“There is no school better than Notre Dame. You get everything at Notre Dame it’s worldwide,” Jones told BlueandGold.com. “My mom is about to start crying.”

At 6’4″ and 220 pounds, Jones isn’t the in the trenches type that his older brother is. And after playing quarterback and tight end for his Aquinas Institute program, Jones will likely start as an outside linebacker or edge rushing defensive end.

It’s worth pointing out the success Kelly has had recruiting younger siblings. After landing the elder Jones and Okwara, that families trusted Notre Dame’s staff with their next son. (If Urban Meyer did that, both Jaylon Smith and Mike Heuerman would be Buckeyes.)

Notre Dame’s recruiting class moves to nine commitments with the addition of Jones, giving the Irish another potential edge rusher in a class that needs to secure multiple options.

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Irish A-to-Z: Miles Boykin

Property of Sun-Times media
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Notre Dame protected the Chicagoland area when they landed receiver Miles Boykin. An All-State performer and a summer riser on the recruiting trail when he picked Notre Dame, Boykin’s a big-bodied physical receiver who has the look of an offensive mismatch.

At 6’3 and 225 pounds, Boykin has plenty of size—a bigger player than tight end Mike Heuerman already. But the Irish coaching staff believes Boykin has a future at the X receiver spot, capable of doing big things in space and in the red zone.

Let’s take a look at the incoming freshman.

 

MILES BOYKIN
6’3″, 225 lbs.
Freshman, No. 81, WR

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A Semper Fidelis All-American, Boykin was a consensus four-star prospect. He had offers from Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, Ole Miss, Florida and Oregon among others.

UPDATE: As our buddy JJ Stankevitz points out, Boykin was named the Chicago Tribune’s Athlete of the Year — No big deal.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

It’s hard not to think of Michael Floyd when you see a big, strong receiver like Boykin—especially with that size. But that’s not necessarily a fair comp to give a young guy who’ll have a much longer road to get onto the field.

Yet Boykin certainly impressed the Irish staff with his ability to go get the football and to do it in a physical manner. Notre Dame’s receivers have been missing that piece of the puzzle since Floyd went to the NFL, and Boykin certainly has the type of potential to do some great things.

I see a bit of Maurice Stovall in Boykin’s game, and deciding how large Boykin gets will likely dictate if he stays outside as a receiver, or grows into a flex player who could eventually turn into a versatile tight end prospect.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Physicality will likely dictate if Boykin sees the field this season, as it’s hard to see too many balls coming his way. But thinking back to how James Onwualu got on the field and how Daniel Smith was utilized, Boykin might not be the receiver with the biggest recruiting profile, but if the Irish plan on running with Malik Zaire and a talented offensive line and Boykin shows himself willing, he could be taking those snaps.

But to pin Boykin’s future as a blocker doesn’t do much service to his athletic traits. On Signing Day, Brian Kelly talked about the mismatches Boykin can creates. While it might take a season or two for the Irish to need Boykin to provide the offensive boost, it looks like Notre Dame has a good one in the Illinois native.

 

THE 2015 IRISH A-to-Z
Josh Adams, RB
Josh Barajas, OLB
Nicky Baratti, S
Alex Bars, OL
Asmar Bilal, OLB
Hunter Bivin, OL
Grant Blankenship, DE
Jonathan Bonner, DE

Offseason Q&A: Virginia

Mike London
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Part two in our series looking at Notre Dame’s 2015 opponents. Check out our entry on Texas here. 

 

You can understand if Virginia fans aren’t dying to talk about the football season. That’s because the Cavaliers are back playing for the College World Series title, a return to Omaha and a chance to win the title for former Notre Dame assistant Brian O’Connor.

If O’Connor’s ability to bring the Hoos to the top of the mountain fulfilled the promise that the top-notch assistant showed when he worked under Paul Maineri in South Bend, Mike London’s tenure in Charlottesville has been a little less cheery.

Since taking over the program in 2010, London has had a winning record only once, an eight-win season that ended in a lopsided loss to a 7-5 Auburn team. So with one of the country’s most difficult schedules ahead of them and a head coach on the hot seat, forgive Virginia fans for enjoying these final days of the baseball season, especially if they can sneak pass Vanderbilt.

Nice enough to give us the intel on Virginia during the middle of a title run is Jay Pierce of Streaking the Lawn, the SBNation home for all things Virginia sports.

Let’s get to it.

 
Let’s start with pretty much the only connectivity between these two programs:

JON TENUTA.

Charlie Weis’ former defensive coordinator is now running the UVA defense, meaning that sunny press conference personality is now on display in Charlottesville.

How has the Tenuta era been at Virginia? And what type of defense will he utilize against Notre Dame? (Safe to guess, a blitz until you can blitz no more approach?)

Considering all of the frustration UVa fans have with the football program, Tenuta’s one of the more appreciated members on the coaching staff. Tenuta’s defense at UVa last season improved from allowing 433.1 yards per game in 2013 to 353.2 ypg. Turnover production is up, sacks are up, and the defense has a more aggressive style of play all around.

While they haven’t won too many games recently, no one would put that on the quality of the defense – and at the very least, I’ve enjoyed the team’s penchant for beating the crap out of the opposing QB weekly. The Hoos will run primarily out of a nickel set and certainly you can expect plenty of blitzes from any position out there.

 

After a relatively hard-luck 5-7 season, Mike London was brought back for a sixth season, a somewhat controversial decision. AD Craig Littlepage cited progress that wasn’t necessarily reflected in the won-loss record.

Tell Notre Dame fans a little bit about London the head coach. And if you think Littlepage made the right decision.

To put it bluntly: London is a great guy, solid recruiter, wonderful figurehead for a program, and has produced very little in terms of success on the field. Aside from an 8-5 2011 season, every one of his years at UVa has been a losing season, including some abysmal records in conference games.

He’s 23-38 in five years overall and has managed to win 11 ACC games in that timespan. Was keeping him the right decision? Perhaps there are/were pressures (financial, political, or otherwise) that led it, but to me, it says nothing more clearly than an acceptance of mediocrity by the athletic department.

 

Big news came last week with the transfer of Greyson Lambert after starting nine games last season. Matt Johns won the job out of spring practice, but what’s the state of a quarterback position that’s seemed like a rollercoaster since London came to town?

For most of Mike London’s tenure, UVa has used multiple starting quarterbacks each season, often switching out QBs every few series. Rarely does this ever work and as such, it’s brought little success to the position for the Wahoos. While Greyson Lambert was a leader on the team and probably the most talented of the quarterbacks, UVa fans can take solace in the fact that now there’s a legitimate QB1 with (hopefully) no threat of an in-game carousel.

Johns showed some moxie last year, appearing in 12 games, starting 3, and throwing for 1109 total yards with a 54.9% completion rate. While he brings a little more of a gunslinger mentality than recent UVa QBs, he did struggle with some costly turnovers at times, throwing 5 picks to match his 8 touchdowns.

Where does that leave the team this year? I like Johns. Especially now that he’ll have a whole summer and fall to know that he’s the go-to guy. However, if he gets hurt, or the wheels really come off, UVa’s only got RS-Fr Corwin Cutler, incoming Fr Nick Johns, and newly-committed transfer Connor Brewer as the scholarship quarterbacks on the roster. That said, with an experienced guy in Brewer transferring in this summer, perhaps the coaching staff can start shuffling again soon.

 

One gambling website put the over-under on Virginia wins this season at 4.5. The schedule is a meat grinder. The roster lost some talented players. But what are your expectations after a three-year stretch of 11-25 football?

Bet the farm on the under.

Really, like most fans, I try to be optimistic going into each season. But, as they say: “fool me five times, shame on me.” Like you said, the schedule is brutal.

At first glance, there’s one (should be) definite win and maybe one or two probable wins but there’s just way too many “ifs” to think this team will win five games.

If the defense can replace two star DEs, if Matt Johns stays healthy and shows a year’s worth of progression, if we continue whatever voodoo hex we have on Miami, if we catch a UCLA team replacing their star QB off guard, if we avoid disastrous time management blunders, if we finally manage to beat our coastal division overlords (that would be Duke, of course, not Virginia Tech). The list could go on and on.

UVa usually wins a game or two that they’re not supposed to each season, but getting to five wins would require that – plus not losing the game or two that they’ll be favored in. My expectation is a four-win season.

 

A handful of graduate transfers. Former 5-star recruits Andrew Brown and Taquan Mizzell. The home opener. I could make the argument that this game sure feels like a trap for Notre Dame.

Will you?

Absolutely. Would I bet on it? No.

But, considering our knack of handing one team a year a big upset, you can’t completely ignore the possibility of a UVa win here. As you said, there’s talent on the roster – though the defense is replacing a lot in the front seven. The team should come out amped for their home opener and the crowd should be lively with a big-name school in town.

I really like the potential of TJ Thorpe and Canaan Severin as the starting wideouts having months of reps with one (and only one) starting QB. You force a few turnovers (as we know Tenuta’s defense can do)…make a few plays here and there…get the desperate-for-a-winning-team crowd behind you…

I’ll say this: I’d be shocked if UVa pulled out the upset, but the players wouldn’t be. There’s enough talent and experience to keep it closer than most fans might expect. That said, the differences between the two programs should be clear by the second half and the Irish should get a double digit win – if they show up ready to play.