It’s been a while, so let’s reopen the mailbag.
There’s plenty to talk about, so if you have a question about the Fiesta Bowl, recruiting, who’s staying or going to the NFL, the coaching carousel, Season 2 of Fargo — I’m all ears.
It’s a Holiday Mailbag.
Notre Dame received a commitment from Florida defensive back Devin Studstill Tuesday evening, the 20th recruit in the 2016 class. Studstill made the news official on a local ESPN radio affiliate, giving the Irish one of Florida’s most talented and versatile defensive backs.
At 6’1″ and 180 pounds, Studstill picked Notre Dame over Texas, West Virginia, North Carolina and Miami, among other offers. He was one of the first defensive backs to get offered in the 2016 recruiting cycle by this Irish coaching staff and will be an early enrollee, set to arrive in South Bend in early January.
Studstill hails from the same high school that brought Notre Dame Te’von Coney. He’s been on campus multiple times, first visiting for the summer camp Irish Invasion before taking an official visit in October. Autry Denson was his main recruiter.
Studstill credited Showtime’s “A Season With Notre Dame” as a big factor in his commitment, a feather in the cap for Brian Kelly and the Irish coaching staff’s strategy of letting people inside the walls of the program.
Studstill brings another defensive back to a class that’s heavy at the position—a group that needs numbers as they prepare for the departure of Elijah Shumate and the potential loss of KeiVarae Russell. Notre Dame isn’t done chasing corners and safeties either, they’ll stay on national targets like Damar Hamlin and Jordan Fuller, who was on campus last weekend.
Studstill is Notre Dame’s fifth prospect from the state of Florida in the 2016 recruiting class, a group that showcases Notre Dame’s ability to still succeed there even without Tony Alford.
Notre Dame cornerback KeiVarae Russell has not announced his intentions for 2016. But if Russell wishes to return for a fifth-year in South Bend, he’ll require a waiver from the NCAA to do it.
Russell’s entanglement in the Frozen Five academic fiasco made his return to Notre Dame an accomplishment, with Russell on track to earn his diploma after serving a two semester academic suspension last year. But if the senior cornerback wants to play out his four seasons of competition for the Irish—and perhaps bolster his NFL Draft status in the process—he’ll need to ask the NCAA first.
“He’d have to appeal to get another year through the NCAA,” head coach Brian Kelly explained on Sunday. “We’re going to submit one, but it’ll have to be a wait and see.”
Notre Dame’s fifth-year process is much different than most universities. Each candidate applies for admission into graduate school, with each student-athlete having his undergraduate degree work complete. We’ve seen players like Joe Schmidt, Nick Martin and Matthias Farley return as graduate students. We’ve seen many others—Everett Golson the most high-profile—leave and play out their eligibility elsewhere.
The deadline to declare for the NFL Draft for underclassmen is January 18. Notre Dame expects to hear back from the NCAA on their waiver before that date, so Russell isn’t put into a precarious situation where he’ll need to gamble on his future.
Heading into this season, the prevailing sentiment—with Russell all but saying it from the day he returned to South Bend—was that this was the cornerback’s final season in college football. Projected as an early round pick, Russell may have been Notre Dame’s most dependable defensive back, but he was hardly bullet proof, with opposing quarterbacks completing 34 of 60 throws his way, per CFB Film Room’s analysis. Add in Russell’s recovery from a significant leg injury and losing time to train for the scouting combine in Indianapolis and a return for a fifth season might make good business sense.
Notre Dame’s coaching staff plans on having discussions with all senior and fifth-year candidates in the near future. Neither Kelly nor Russell has discussed the cornerback’s future status, other than to say that the senior will not be healthy enough to play against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl.
Malik Zaire‘s recovery from an ankle injury is ahead of schedule. The junior quarterback returned to practice this week and worked in seven-on-seven drills, Brian Kelly revealed on Saturday afternoon.
“Malik is taking some reps and he’s well ahead of schedule,” Kelly said Saturday. “He will not play, but he is in there taking reps and has been phenomenal in terms of the way he has gotten back, moving around and throwing the football.”
Zaire’s return to practice points to a healthy spring for the returning quarterback, a key objective after badly breaking his ankle in just the second game of the season. And while Kelly wasn’t willing to commit Zaire to helping on the scout team as the Irish look to replicate J.T. Barrett’s skill-set, Zaire getting into the mix now allows him to return to a positional depth chart that may find this season’s opening day starter chasing his understudy.
The season started brightly for Zaire. He completed 19 of 22 throws for 313 yards and three touchdowns against Texas. While he struggled passing in his first road start against Virginia—completing less than 50 percent of his throws—he was averaging nearly nine yards a carry when his season ended.
In his place, Kizer won nine football games, pulling out the victory against the Cavaliers with a late-game touchdown pass to Will Fuller. He rallied the Irish three more times in the fourth quarter, finishing the regular season with 19 touchdown passes against nine interceptions while completing 63.4 percent of his throws and rushing for nine scores.
Kelly expects to have a formidable depth chart this spring, with Brandon Wimbush also getting time to develop during bowl preparations. Kelly talked about the meaningful reps Wimbush will receive this week as being helpful to his development, meaning both quarterbacks who saw limited on-field action are ahead of the game heading into 2016.
Junior Will Fuller was named Notre Dame’s Most Valuable Player on Friday night, the headliner of the 95th Fighting Irish awards show, the ECHOES ’15. Fuller is the team leader in receptions, receiving yards, touchdowns and yards from scrimmage. His 13 touchdown catches rank sixth in the country. He’s already been named a second team All-American by Sports Illustrated, CBS Sports and USA Today.
Junior linebacker Jaylon Smith was named the defensive player of the year while left tackle Ronnie Stanley was named the offensive player of the year. Smith’s 113 tackles led the Irish, a season where he’s already collected the Butkus Award and multiple first-team All-American kudos. Stanley was named to CBS Sports and the Walter Camp All-American first-teams as well.
The complete list of award winners is as follows:
Scout Team Player of the Year: Offense — Tristen Hoge
Scout Team Player of the Year: Defense — Asmar Bilal
Newcomer of the Year: Offense — DeShone Kizer
Newcomer of the Year: Defense — Jerry Tillery
Special Teams Player of the Year — Matthias Farley
Offensive Lineman of the Year — Nick Martin
Irish Around the Bend — Joe Schmidt
Moose Krause Lineman of the Year — Sheldon Day
Father Lange Iron Cross — Romeo Okwara
Pietrosante Award — Chris Brown
Rockne Student-Athlete — Jarrett Grace
Offensive Player of the Year — Ronnie Stanley
Defensive Player of the Year — Jaylon Smith
Next Man In — C.J. Prosise
Most Valuable Player — Will Fuller
The Awards were hosted by the talented husband and wife duo of Dan Hicks, NBC’s play-by-play voice for the Irish and ESPN’s Hannah Storm, a Notre Dame alum. The awards show will air next week on NBCSN, but a few of these tweets will get you up to speed on the fun of the event.