Daniel Cage (UND's photo)
Property of Notre Dame Athletics

Irish A-to-Z: Daniel Cage

3 Comments

With the departure of Sheldon Day and Romeo Okwara, Notre Dame’s defensive line will have a new identity. And if the Irish front four is going to return to its stout ways against the run, they’ll need Daniel Cage to be a major part of it.

Jarron Jones’ return will likely keep Cage out of the starting lineup. But if the Irish are going to play improved football on the defensive side of the ball—no easy task considering the personnel loses—it’ll be because Cage steps forward in the trenches.

A nose guard who is more than capable of playing physical at the point of attack, after two seasons hampered by injury, Cage will need to take a big step forward as a junior for the Irish to reach their goals.

 

DANIEL CAGE
6’1″, 315 lbs.
Junior, No. 75, DT

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Late to his recruitment, Notre Dame beat out Michigan State for Cage on Signing Day, winning at the fax machine after a late-January recruiting visit.

Cage’s recruitment started when Brian VanGorder took over for Bob Diaco. The three-star prospect picked the Irish even without a long-established relationship, with the Cincinnati native putting his trust in Brian Kelly, VanGorder and then position coach Mike Elston.

 

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Played in 11 games, one of six true freshmen to do so on defense. Pitched in four tackles including a half-TFL against USC. Missed the Louisville game with a knee injury and didn’t play against LSU.

Sophomore Season (2015): Played in 11 games, making 18 total tackles including four for loss. Battled a late-season injury that hampered him, taking just 13 snaps against Stanford and only six against Ohio State. Per PFF College, Cage was the defense’s fifth-most productive player, earning a +7.5 rating, with excellent games against USC and Temple.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

This still feels like Cage is on track, even if an apprenticeship to Jones will happen a year later than expected.

It’s an important season for Cage, and really for the entire defensive line. We tend to forget the success of September and October, but the Irish defensive line was tough to run against, and that should be the case again in 2015.

But there’s no training wheels on to start this season, and that means Cage better be ready to go come jump street, because the opening seven weeks will test the Irish, especially against Georgia Tech and Navy. (Boston College, one of the nation’s best running attacks, is a November opponent as well.)

As for Cage, playing behind Jones will allow him to stay fresh and keep both players at optimal levels. And adding more importance to Cage’s play is the fact that Jones is still making his way back from a significant foot surgery, all but absent during spring drills.

Cage looks like a good one. We’ll find out if he projects to be great after this season.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

Get ready to hear a whole lot about fitness, with “work volume” a phrase likely to be uttered by Kelly during August’s press conference season. Paired with Jones, it’s safe to think that Cage will find himself in the 30-40 snap range this season, after playing 25+ snaps in seven games in 2015. But that’ll necessitate a 100-percent Jones, something we haven’t seen in the past 18 months.

While the stat sheet doesn’t necessarily show this type of progress, Cage has the ability to be an impact player. He showed flashes against USC and Temple during an impressive October, wreaking some havoc behind the line of scrimmage while also showing himself to be a load in the middle. But an injury derailed the end of his season. He tried his best to play against Ohio State but ended up on the field for less than 10 snaps.

Ultimately, this is a season where Cage will either ascend, especially utilized in a specialty role, or level out. That could turn him into an NFL prospect or a middle-of-the-road BCS-level starter.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I think a season like the one Jarron Jones had in 2014 might be a nice ceiling for Cage, with a 7.5 TFL and 40 tackles being a really nice year. (Remember, that was done in 11 games, too.) Realistically, Cage might get some of his productivity eaten up by a highly-motivated Jones, who is playing a fifth-year that’s essentially an audition for NFL talent evaluators.

Reading between the lines, Keith Gilmore and VanGorder have talked about a larger rotation up front for the defensive line. That’ll likely be some by necessity—Sheldon Day isn’t walking through those doors anymore—and the fact that there’s some versatility among the group of linemen who will hopefully provide answers this season.

Cage is a huge piece of that ensemble. Even last season, he was Notre Dame’s fifth-most productive player, per the PFF College rankings. He’s got the bulk and strength to play in the trenches, assuming his fitness and health cooperate this year.

He’s not going to get confused for a NFL-sized monster like Jones, though he does have the ability to flash at the level of someone like Ian Williams—a guy who is wearing a ‘C’ on his jersey in the NFL right now. So all in all, Cage is a good player who could put together a great season.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin
Justin Brent
Devin Butler
Jimmy Byrne

Irish A-to-Z: Jimmy Byrne

Byrne247
Property of Irish 247
3 Comments

Notre Dame’s offensive line depth is often discussed through the lens of the impressive prospects it churns out. First round picks like Zack Martin and Ronnie Stanley. Early-round selections like Chris Watt and Nick Martin. Promising All-American prospects like Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey.

But maybe a better illustration is the talent that is blocked from seeing the field. And rising junior Jimmy Byrne might be a perfect example of just how strong Harry Hiestand is recruiting the offensive line. Because an All-State offensive lineman from an Ohio powerhouse program that turned down Ohio State is a long, long way from seeing the field.

Entering his third year in South Bend, Byrne is still looking for an avenue to the playing field. And it’s a testament to the depth chart in front of him.

 

JIMMY BYRNE
6’4″, 300 lbs.
Junior, No. 67, OL

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Byrne committed to Notre Dame during the 2012 season though he didn’t sign until 2014, an early target and land by the Irish staff. His offer list was limited at that time but he he had already weighed an offer from Urban Meyer and Ohio State, and had other options like Illinois and Michigan State.

Byrne’s a St. Ignatius product, a school that’s sent players to both South Bend and Columbus. It was a very nice win for the Irish coaching staff, with Hiestand beating Ed Warinner for the interior offensive lineman.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Did not see action, preserving a year of eligibility.

Sophomore Season (2015): Did not see action.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

Byrne hasn’t been mentioned at center, which is probably a good thing because Sam Mustipher and Tristen Hoge are there for the foreseeable future.

Ultimately, makeup plays a big role in how an offensive lineman turns out. For every early contributor like Zack Martin or Steve Elmer, there’s a guy who finds his way into the lineup later in his career and thrives, a la Mike Golic. That’s the path Byrne is on—and frankly, that’s the more likely path for everybody on this offensive line, especially if Hiestand keeps cherrypicking elite talent.

Again, if I’m an offensive lineman at Notre Dame, I’m teaching myself to snap. Because after Nick Martin departs, it’ll be a wide open competition, with Sam Mustipher a converted center and Tristen Hoge the first true center the Irish have recruited under Kelly.

Byrne’s essentially the same guy that we were guessing on last year. He’s 10 pounds heavier, likely in a lot better shape, and still doing battle in one of the best depth charts we’ve seen along the offensive line in years.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

Put Byrne in the category of “program player” for me. I haven’t seen enough of him to say whether or not he can be a starter. But Hiestand and the Irish haven’t swung and missed at linemen that have stayed in the program for their entire career all that often.

At this point, the road to the field could be dictated by guys like Quenton Nelson (how long does he stay in college?) and the battle at right guard. If the starting job goes to Hunter Bivin, maybe Byrne slides in behind him and turns into a potential one-year starter as a fifth-year guy. If it goes to someone younger? He’ll need an injury to hit or an unforeseen opportunity to arise.

It’s the offensive line. There are five jobs. It’ll be up to Byrne to put himself into a scenario where he’s got a chance to be the “next man in.”

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I see a season of special teams duty for Byrne, an interior offensive lineman on long snaps and some time as a second-stringer or garbage time participant. One player to watch that could impact Byrne’s future is Tommy Kraemer. The Irish staff thinks they have a special player in Kraemer. They also really, really want to redshirt him if possible.

Byrne’s development at this point in his career doesn’t mean his fate is sealed when it comes to playing time. It should take well into a lineman’s career to earn snaps and starts. But it’s telling that the right guard job opened up and Byrne wasn’t all that close to competing for the gig.

It’s year seven of the Kelly era. Harry Hiestand has been recruiting like an ace, making limited offers and landing at a very very high rate. Byrne’s a victim of circumstance—getting a starting job on the O-line is one of the hardest to earn at Notre Dame. That means Byrne is going to have to show patience, all while working his way slowly up the ladder.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin
Justin Brent
Devin Butler

Irish A-to-Z: Devin Butler

Purdue v Notre Dame
Getty
3 Comments

 

As he enters his senior season, some have forgotten Devin Butler. That should be hard to do, considering the amount of football he has played. Notre Dame’s rising senior cornerback has seen the field in 37 games, missing just two in his three seasons in South Bend.

Of course, Butler’s time has been sporadic. Bit roles, special teams work, and some mop-up duty were more the norm than his three career starts. Butler’s chance in 2015 came after KeiVarae Russell went down against Boston College and Butler started against Stanford.  Yet Butler was injured in Arizona in the days leading up to the Fiesta Bowl, a foot injury robbing him of another potential start against Ohio State.

Nick Watkins got the call against the Buckeyes, playing well when given the opportunity. Shaun Crawford looked to make up for lost time this spring, competing even as he recovered from his August ACL tear. That duo—not to mention the other inflow of young talent like Nick Coleman and Ashton White—will compete with Butler as he tries to win a starting job opposite Cole Luke.

 

DEVIN BUTLER
6′.5″, 200 lbs.
Senior, No. 12, DB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Butler was a Bob Diaco recruit, a good physical fit for the Cover 2 scheme Notre Dame’s former defensive coordinator deployed.  There were questions about his speed even then, but Butler chose Notre Dame over some solid offers, with Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska, Penn State and Wisconsin all chasing the Washington, D.C. native.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2013): Played in 12 games, missing only Purdue. Made five tackles and broke up a pass against Pitt. Also appeared on special teams.

Sophomore Season (2014): Played in all 13 games, starting against Arizona State and USC. He made 23 tackles—seven against USC alone—forced a fumbled in the season opener and made an interception a week later against Purdue.

Junior Season (2015): Played in 12 games, earning a start against Stanford. Made 11 tackles, broke up two passes and recovered a fumble against Navy. Played a season-high 46 snaps against the Cardinal, broke 20 snaps against Texas, Virginia and UMass.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

I could probably copy and paste this below and not do much better.

I see a lot of special teams in Butler’s future. He is a good tackler and has the type of stretch speed that’s needed on cover teams. It’s also not fair to write him off as a cornerback, plenty of young backups get beaten deep by talented players.

But Butler needs to take a step forward mentally, especially if he’s unable to run stride for stride with top-end wide receivers. You can’t teach his length and the Irish could use a long cornerback, especially after Russell leaves for the NFL after 2015.

There’s been talk of mixing Butler into the safety mix. And while the secondary doesn’t have many free safety types, I’d have to see more from Butler to project him being able to make it into the mix, though there seem to be a lot of strong safety types, and that’s not Butler’s game.

As we look at the evolution of Notre Dame’s secondary, seniors like Jalen Brown and Josh Atkinson became forgotten men, playing out their eligibility mostly as practice players. I think Butler’s going to be much more productive than that, though he’ll need to continue refining his game to keep up with top-flight starters in Russell and Cole Luke and the young kids recruited by VanGorder.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

I don’t think Butler’s athleticism allows him to be the answer at cornerback. While he’s got length and solid ball skills, asking him to cover in space has proven to be a challenge. While he’ll certainly have the ability to improve the technique issues that have led to some problems, there’s not much you can do when you’re a step slower than the guy you’re asked to cover, and that feels like Butler’s matchup when he goes one-on-one with a talented receiver.

That said, Butler could have a place in this defense. Brian Kelly spent last fall camp talking about how Butler won the outside cornerback job on third downs and nickel when they wanted to slide KeiVarae Russell inside, but then proceeded to never play nickel until they had Torii Hunter ready to help for a half-dozen snaps. With Shaun Crawford back and other young cornerbacks ascending, this problem seemed to be among the first that needed solving for the Irish staff.

Is a move to safety possible? Sure, but no more than in years past, and now there’s a handful of young freshmen competing there, too. Matthias Farley’s departure leaves a special teams unit to anchor. That might be the perfect place for Butler, who has shown a knack for the third phase of the football game.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

If everybody stays healthy, I think Butler’s role is that of a special teams regular, making one or two big plays throughout the season that help impact a ball game. But he’s at best a dime back with the Irish’s upgraded skill-set in the secondary, though that’s certainly not a declaration I’d put in stone, especially with guys like Crawford, Coleman and Watkins still needing to prove they can play.

Unlike some of the other veterans who had been marooned on the bench, Butler’s role in the secondary—and in the program—seems on solid footing. That’ll allow him to mentor some of the younger players coming up, even if they’ve already passed him on the depth chart.

But if injuries hit, Butler seems like the type of program player who’ll be ready if needed. And that ultimately says quite a bit about where Brian Kelly has things entering 2016.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin
Justin Brent

Harrison Smith now highest paid safety in NFL

EL PASO, TX - DECEMBER 30:  Safety Harrison Smith #22 celebrates a pass interception with Robert Blanton #12 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during play against the Miami Hurricanes at Sun Bowl on December 30, 2010 in El Paso, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Getty
14 Comments

Former Notre Dame safety Harrison Smith has signed a five-year, $51.25 million contract extension with the Minnesota Vikings, multiple outlets report. The contract reportedly comes with a $10 million signing bonus and makes Smith the highest paid safeties in the NFL.

That’s a long way from the young player Brian Kelly, Bob Diaco and Chuck Martin inherited. When Kelly arrived in South Bend, Smith had just finished a junior season that forced the Tennessee native to play outside linebacker, the only way to keep the productive-yet-struggling athlete on the field.

But Notre Dame’s new head coach made it very clear that wasn’t going to be the plan with Smith moving forward.

“He’s always been a safety. If he can’t play safety, he can’t play. It was pretty easy for that one,” Kelly said before his first spring practice.

Smith proved Kelly correct in short order, putting together one of the finest seasons in the country in 2010. He intercepted seven passes, broke up seven others and made 93 total tackles  in his first season under Kelly. He followed up that breakthrough season with another 90 tackle season, breaking up 10 passes and tallying three tackles-for-loss before being selected by the Minnesota Vikings in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft.

Since breaking into the NFL, Smith’s been one of the league’s most productive players. In 2015, ProFootballFocus rated Smith as the NFL’s top overall safety. He was No. 2 in 2014. While he had another season on his rookie contract, resigning Smith was Vikings general manager Rick Spielman’s top offseason priority.

The 27-year-old Smith will now be under contract through the 2020 season.

 

Irish A-to-Z: Justin Brent

Justin Brent, Devin Butler
AP
2 Comments

Justin Brent enters the second half of his Notre Dame career, with just about everybody hoping that the Indianapolis native makes headlines these next few years for better reasons than the last two. A physically gifted and versatile offensive player, Brent’s struggled to break into the two-deep—and to break out from Brian Kelly’s doghouse.

But there’s hope for the future. Brent just completed a redshirt season, spending his sophomore year learning the craft while staying out of trouble. It’ll allow him to enter 2016 with what amounts to a fresh start, still trying to find a role in the offense, but capable of contributing on special teams and at multiple offensive positions.

 

JUSTIN BRENT
6’1.5″, 220 lbs.
Junior, No. 11 RB/WR

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A four-star recruit, Brent didn’t have many offers, but that’s a product of committing to Notre Dame the summer before his junior season, a full calendar year before most early commitments. Brent’s performance at both The Opening and the Rivals Five-Star Challenge turned him into a borderline top prospect, understandable when you saw him workout or in non-football situations.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Played in nine games, mostly on special teams. Did not make a catch or record a carry.

Sophomore Season (2015): Did not see action, joining fellow sophomore Corey Holmes as a redshirt.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

I suppose this deserves some credit, if only because Brent is still on campus fighting for playing time, not transferring to a new school.

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.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

To be all-in on Brent the late bloomer feels a little bit pollyanna at this point. But it’s worth noting that in a career that feels like dog years right now, he’s still got three seasons of competition remaining.

Brent spent the spring working as a running back, showing a nice bit of playmaking in the Blue-Gold game with an improvised scramble drill that turned into a big play when Brent came back for the football and made a nice catch in traffic. He’ll likely start next season in the backfield, though he’ll be working behind Tarean Folston, Josh Adams and Dexter Williams.

If you think that stockpile at running back could turn Brent back into a wide receiver, you might be right. With the boundary position lacking bodies, perhaps Brent’s physicality could help him take a few snaps on the outside as well. (At this point, it’s not ridiculous to consider a move to the defensive side of the ball—especially as a group of young safeties get to campus and start swimming in the deep end.)

Watching Brent in person, you’re not spending your time worrying about the physique of a kid who stepped onto campus with an NFL body, but just wondering when he’s going to break through. But there’s also a lack of flexibility and limberness that stands out when you watch him, especially as he learns how to run the football as a taller back, susceptible to the big hit without the proper pad level.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Sign me up for Justin Brent on every special teams unit the Irish have, with the junior hopefully capable of making an impact as a blocker or tackler. From there, he’ll likely need to take advantage of some adversity to see the field.

If a running back goes down (and after seeing the past few years, we should be ready for one to go down), Brent will get his shot. The same goes on the outside, where redshirt preservation of a young freshman might make Brent—now three seasons into his college career—a better bet on quickly absorbing the job.

The hardest part of Brent’s career is over—making it through a redshirt season after finishing his freshman year in one of the more ridiculous off-field stories we’ve seen in a long, long time. With the tabloid fodder behind him, now all Brent has to do is find a way into the mix on offense, with hopes that taking advantage of some limited opportunities and turning them into regular playing time.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin