Orlando Sentinel

Irish A-to-Z: Dexter Williams

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With Notre Dame’s running back depth chart down Greg Bryant, freshman Dexter Williams has a clear line to the football field this fall. While wide receiver Justin Brent has converted to the backfield and Tarean Folston returns as a starter, Williams and fellow freshman Josh Adams couldn’t ask for a more advantageous situation, especially with C.J. Prosise taking time to heal an ailing hip flexor.

Of course, playing a freshman in the backfield is another story. With Brian Kelly requiring his running backs to understand pass blocking schemes and an offense filled with checks and line changes, Williams may have all the physical gifts in the world, but he’ll need to master the mental side of the game before he sees action.

With the Irish just over two weeks away from their opening game, let’s take a closer look at the Florida native and see what’s in store for Williams this season.

 

DEXTER WILLIAMS
5’11”, 200 lbs.
Freshman, No. 34, RB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A top-100 prospect in 247’s composite rankings, Notre Dame won a late-cycle recruiting battle when Williams sent his fax to the (574) instead of Miami. He visited South Bend in mid-January, the final recruiting win for Tony Alford in a battle for a heralded running back.

Williams played for West Orange High School in Orlando, helping to lead the team to an 11-1 record and their first 8A playoff victory in school history. He had offers from Florida, Ohio State and USC as well.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

Williams has all the sizzle and shake you want from a running back, and pairs it with a physicality that had Paul Longo talking on Media Day.

“Dexter Williams [has] a frame that I’m really excited to work with. He’s fast and explosive already, so I can see where more upper body strength and adding stamina, and getting some body fat down, he’s going to really make some good jumps,” Longo told Blue & Gold’s Jordan Wells.

Also adding to Williams’ potential is a depth chart that’s really advantageous. The lack of depth at the position could help him get his feet wet in 2015. But more realistically, it’ll also let him take his shot at a starting job after Tarean Folston departs.

Of course, judging a running back based on star-rankings and YouTube clips is a foolhardy exercise. We’ve seen elite guys struggle to get on the field while three-star prospects turn into great players. But Kelly talked positively about Williams’ ability to be a breakaway back at the second level on Signing Day, and there’s no reason to think that the Irish didn’t land a potential home run hitter when he arrived in South Bend this June.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

One freshman running back looks like he’s going to play this season. And while a single day of practice reps hardly tells a story, Williams is running behind Josh Adams so far in training camp. And while Josh Anderson earning a scholarship doesn’t necessarily mean he’s going to get onto the field, Anderson was also taking major practice reps, a veteran who could show young guys (Brent included) how things are supposed to look.

At this point, you can make a valuable argument for saving a year of eligibility or getting some part-time experience. Notre Dame’s redshirt running backs haven’t utilized that fifth year, with neither George Atkinson or Cierre Wood sticking around for it. (Of course, Atkinson and Wood made moves that weren’t necessarily based on what was best for their future from an on-field perspective.)

Life has to be quite a whirlwind for Williams right now. New places, classes starting soon and a playbook that looks quite different than high school. But working with new position coach Autry Denson, he’ll be able to make what he wants from his freshman season. Right now, I’d be surprised if that’s a role that’s on field, though Williams will dictate that by his work on the practice field.

 

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
Justin Brent, WR
Greg Bryant, RB
Devin Butler, CB
Jimmy Byrne, OL
Daniel Cage, DL
Amir Carlisle, RB
Nick Coleman, DB
Te’von Coney, LB
Shaun Crawford, DB
Scott Daly, LS
Sheldon Day, DL
Michael Deeb, LB
Micah Dew-Treadway, DL
Steve Elmer, RG
Matthias Farley, DB
Nicco Fertitta, DB
Tarean Folston, RB
Will Fuller, WR
Jarrett Grace, LB
Jalen Guyton, WR
Mark Harrell, OL
Jay Hayes, DL
Mike Heuerman, TE
Kolin Hill, DE
Tristen Hoge, C
Corey Holmes, WR
Chase Hounshell, TE
Torii Hunter, Jr. WR
Alizé Jones, TE
Jarron Jones, DL
DeShone Kizer, QB
Tyler Luatua, TE
Cole Luke, CB
Nick Martin, C
Greer Martini, LB
Jacob Matuska, DL
Mike McGlinchey, OT
Colin McGovern, OL
Peter Mokwuah, DL
John Montelus, OL
Nyles Morgan, LB
Sam Mustipher, OL
Quenton Nelson, OL
Tyler Newsome, P
Romeo Okwara, DE
James Onwualu, LB
C.J. Prosise, WR/RB
Doug Randolph, LB/DE
Max Redfield, S
Corey Robinson, WR
Trevor Ruhland, OL
CJ Sanders, WR
Joe Schmidt, LB
Avery Sebastian, S
Elijah Shumate, S
Jaylon Smith, LB
Durham Smythe, TE
Equanimeous St. Brown, WR
Ronnie Stanley, LT
Elijah Taylor, DL
Brandon Tiassum, DL
Jerry Tillery, DL
Drue Tranquill, S
Andrew Trumbetti, DE
John Turner, S
Nick Watkins, CB
Nic Weishar, TE
Ashton White, CB

Suspension behind him, Russell ready to dominate

KeiVarae Russell
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Don’t talk to KeiVarae Russell anymore about his suspension. He’s not all that interested. He discussed it with Sports Illustrated, he discussed it at the opening of training camp and he continued to answer questions about it on Media Day.

And for as much as Russell enjoys talking—and the free-flowing senior enjoys it quite a bit—he’s glad that he can finally let his play on the field do the talking, instead of being defined for the academic predicament he found himself in for the past 12 months.

“It got annoying when people would come up to you and ask how you were doing. It got kind of redundant,” Russell explained. “Just talk to me like I’m normal.”

That’s not to say things were always easy. Or that the easygoing lockdown cornerback was always at ease with things. But once he got home to Washington, he established a routine and found some clarity in a very uncertain process.  

“The tough time for us was last year. When we didn’t know what was going on. When I didn’t know if I was coming back for sure. When I was back home, I didn’t think it was that tough of a time.”

When Brian Kelly dropped into the middle of his press conference that Russell was formally cleared by the NCAA to continue his football career, it allowed Russell to finally put the last 12 months behind him.

I know for a fact that I’m going to play in 2015,” Russell said with a smile. “With that, it just really excites you. When you have that fire inside, you go so hard.”

That fire has never been an issue for Russell. And the senior cornerback is now intent on making sure his name is synonymous for the brand of football he plays, not for a poor academic decision that he made.

Want to get Russell talking? Just ask about football. That megawatt smile turns on and the words just let loose.

Ask him about this defensive scheme, and how excited he is to play in it. Ask him about matching up with the opponents’ top receiver, and he’ll run you through the slate of receivers on his upcoming schedule.

Put him on an island or move him inside to the slot? Russell will do whatever is asked of him, feeling like the luckiest man in the world that he gets to play in Brian VanGorder’s aggressive scheme.

I definitely want to be on an island. I’d love that. But I’m going to do whatever coach wants me to do. If he wants me to play one side, I’ll play one side,” Russell said.

But Russell made it clear that he wants the responsibility of taking on opponents’ top targets. That could be Pitt’s Tyler Boyd, or USC’s JuJu Smith or Adoree Jackson.

“Being a senior corner and also having an understanding of the game beyond our other defensive backs, I feel like I would rather have that pressure rather than put that on Cole Luke or a younger guy or on our safeties. I think I’d like to have that pressure.”

Russell returns to a secondary that doesn’t look like the last one he played in. He’s played exactly one game next to Max Redfield. Cornerback Cole Luke was a freshman learning behind Russell and Bennett Jackson that year while Elijah Shumate struggled with injuries for much of 2013. But Russell found his way back onto this roster with little difficulty, and he’s quickly added some much-needed leadership to a secondary that struggled in 2014 as it learned a brand new system.

Now he’s infusing confidence. And demanding his teammates give the same effort that he does.

I demand that however I play, I demand the same from them. I demand a dominance. I demand a confidence, I demand that you work on your technique and your craft every day,” Russell said. “I want them to be like that with me, too. The more they’re on me, the better I’m going to be. This defense won’t be as good unless I’m going to be the best I can possibly be and unless they’re the best they can possibly be.”

That mindset was evident at practice on Tuesday and Kelly has talked about the level of competition he’s seen when his heralded receiving corps goes up against the defensive backs in practice.

With expectations sky high in 2015, Russell knows this is his best chance to return to the national stage that he experienced as a freshman. And while some worry about rust, Russell’s spent fall camp refining his technique, adding a final piece to an elite physical skill-set that Russell spent the last calendar year building.

So it’s finally time. Suspension over, escape from purgatory complete. Now Russell can get back to telling his story in the way he’s always wanted, reminding the college football world that he’s a fearless cornerback whose game matches his words.

“I don’t really care who you are. Tall, big, fast, anything. I know that when I play with good technique I can run with you, I can jump with you and I’m just as strong as anybody.”

And come September 5th, he can finally prove it.

 

Freshman CB Shaun Crawford lost for season with ACL tear

Shaun Crawford, Tyree Kinnel, Andre Douglas
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Talented freshman cornerback Shaun Crawford tore his ACL at practice on Wednesday and is lost for the season. Brian Kelly made the announcement Wednesday night via the sports information department.

Crawford was one of the young standouts in fall camp, impressing with his aggressive coverage skills and nose for the football. Both he and fellow cornerback Nick Coleman had been singled out by Kelly for their fine work during fall camp.

The injury will preserve Crawford’s freshman year of eligibility, meaning he’ll essentially redshirt. The Irish have now suffered two significant injuries on the defensive side of the football with Crawford joining veteran defensive tackle Jarron Jones with serious knee injuries.

While the injury robs the Irish of a potential playmaker, the secondary is well equipped from a depth perspective. Grad student Matthias Farley is also a slot cornerback, the place where Crawford projected to help immediately. Starters Cole Luke and KeiVarae Russell will man the outside spots with sophomore Nick Watkins providing immediate depth as well.

Irish A-to-Z: Ashton White

Rivals.com
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As part of a talented group of freshman defensive backs, Ashton White has made his presence felt on campus quickly, joining Shaun Crawford and Nick Coleman in their attack on the depth chart. Another cornerback with good length and athleticism, White’s career begins as the freshman class looks to make an unlikely imprint on the 2105 season.

Coming from one of the premier programs in Maryland in Bishop McNamara, White earned his offer at Notre Dame’s camp and walked away from a commitment to Virginia Tech to come to South Bend.

Let’s take a closer look at the freshman cornerback.

 

ASHTON WHITE
5’11”, 182 lbs.
Freshman, No. 26, CB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

White was a three-star prospect, but (as mentioned before) was an early target and commit at Virginia Tech before visiting and falling in love with Notre Dame. The Irish staff got eyes on White before offering him, and he ended up choosing the Irish over offers from Ohio State, West Virginia, and Iowa, among others.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

At this point, I’m fully giving the benefit of the doubt to this coaching staff and their evaluation measures. And while White feels to be playing a click below Crawford and Coleman, he’s got all the tools that you look for in a cornerback, and he’s actually as big as advertised, a nice perk when usually recruits shrink an inch or two between their online profiles and getting onto campus.

This freshman class could be a key building block for future secondaries, especially as turnover seems sooner than later with veterans Cole Luke, KeiVarae Russell, Max Redfield, Elijah Shumate and Avery Sebastian all playing major minutes.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

While I think that Coleman and Crawford are going to play this season, I wouldn’t be surprised if White redshirted. With the depth at cornerback, White would need to do something impressive to jump in front of Devin Butler or Nick Watkins (not to mention his classmates) and you’ve got to wonder if there are snaps available to make that worth it.

That’s not to say that White isn’t competing. He earned an ear-full from Brian VanGorder when he didn’t step out of the way in a seven-on-seven passing drill after blitzing untouched at the quarterback, but he’s fully involved in one-on-ones  and mixing and matching with a large group of moving pieces.

Ultimately, saving a year now and learning could be what’s best. Especially when looking at the turnover in the secondary come 2016 and 2017.

 

 

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
Justin Brent, WR
Greg Bryant, RB
Devin Butler, CB
Jimmy Byrne, OL
Daniel Cage, DL
Amir Carlisle, RB
Nick Coleman, DB
Te’von Coney, LB
Shaun Crawford, DB
Scott Daly, LS
Sheldon Day, DL
Michael Deeb, LB
Micah Dew-Treadway, DL
Steve Elmer, RG
Matthias Farley, DB
Nicco Fertitta, DB
Tarean Folston, RB
Will Fuller, WR
Jarrett Grace, LB
Jalen Guyton, WR
Mark Harrell, OL
Jay Hayes, DL
Mike Heuerman, TE
Kolin Hill, DE
Tristen Hoge, C
Corey Holmes, WR
Chase Hounshell, TE
Torii Hunter, Jr. WR
Alizé Jones, TE
Jarron Jones, DL
DeShone Kizer, QB
Tyler Luatua, TE
Cole Luke, CB
Nick Martin, C
Greer Martini, LB
Jacob Matuska, DL
Mike McGlinchey, OT
Colin McGovern, OL
Peter Mokwuah, DL
John Montelus, OL
Nyles Morgan, LB
Sam Mustipher, OL
Quenton Nelson, OL
Tyler Newsome, P
Romeo Okwara, DE
James Onwualu, LB
C.J. Prosise, WR/RB
Doug Randolph, LB/DE
Max Redfield, S
Corey Robinson, WR
Trevor Ruhland, OL
CJ Sanders, WR
Joe Schmidt, LB
Avery Sebastian, S
Elijah Shumate, S
Jaylon Smith, LB
Durham Smythe, TE
Equanimeous St. Brown, WR
Ronnie Stanley, LT
Elijah Taylor, DL
Brandon Tiassum, DL
Jerry Tillery, DL
Drue Tranquill, S
Andrew Trumbetti, DE
John Turner, S
Nick Watkins, CB
Nic Weishar, TE

Five things we learned: Notre Dame’s Media Day

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It was the standard Media Day dog-and-pony show in South Bend on Tuesday, with national reporters descending on Notre Dame to pay proper respects to the Irish football program, all while likely wondering if this is indeed “the year.” And perhaps it’s because Brian Kelly already delivered a lengthy state of the union address to open camp—or more likely—because he’s already sick of talking about the enhanced expectations for his sixth team, Tuesday afternoon felt like a redundancy that coaches and players alike wanted to put in the rearview mirror.

That’s not to say there was any visible frustrations as coaches and players answered a similar question asked a few dozen different ways. Rather, it’s just beyond plainly clear that this football team is starving for a game.

The win against LSU has long been forgotten. Facing off against your own guys has become stale. This team needs to see an opponent, and to a man appear to be counting the days until Texas, their first opportunity to play as well as they think they can.

To that point, it’s clear that certain messages have taken hold inside the program. You can’t spend sixty seconds talking to a player or coach without a leadership discussion, all but an acknowledging that last seasons failures may have happened because of injuries but were allowed to mount not just because of the body count, but because of a deficiency in culture.

That’s not something that Brian Kelly will allow to happen again. Nor will his assistant coaches, or the players who have emerged as potential captains. It’s a more crowded field of candidates than the Republican party is trotting out there.

With that in mind, let’s do our best to cut through the Crash Davis cliches and coachspeak we heard on Tuesday. Here are five things we learned after a two-hour open practice and interviews with assistant coaches and players.

 

Brian Kelly believes this team is more talented than the one he took to the BCS Championship game. 

Since camp opened, you need to credit Kelly for repeatedly acknowledging that talented components don’t necessarily lead to winning teams. But as we try to get a grasp on what he thinks the ceiling is for this roster, Kelly all but summed it up when Fox Sports’ Bruce Feldman asked him to compare this team to the 12-1 team that played for the national title.

“It’s a faster team. It’s a more athletic team. We were deeper at virtually all positions across the board, both on the offensive line and the defensive line,” Kelly said.

That’s certainly not pulling your punches.

Kelly went on to talk about the singularity of a star like Manti Te’o and the unique traits that turned that 2012 team into a group that’s be remembered in school history. But if you’re looking for a main idea from Tuesday, it’s that Kelly is openly acknowledging this team is faster, more athletic and deeper than the one he ran the (regular season) table with, and he’s not afraid to acknowledge it.

 

The competition on this roster is fierce. 

Showtime is scheduled to air their first episode looking inside Notre Dame’s program on September 8th. And if I were a betting man, a large focus of that pilot will be the constant competition that takes place in every facet of a Notre Dame football practice.

I am not a regular on the practice scene. So it took me a while to get adjusted to the number of players running in and out, skill players and front-seven defenders that came and went at the blink of an eye, intermixing between the first and second team.

So while I was doing my best to keep up, here are a few battles worth watching as we move closer to Texas.

*  Don’t assume that Elijah Shumate has been handed the starting strong safety job opposite Max Redfield. (And according to Brian VanGorder, you can’t assume Redfield has won his job, either—even if I don’t believe him.) Cal transfer Avery Sebastian took the majority of first-team reps with the defense, and from talking to people today, this isn’t a motivational ploy. While they’re both going to play, Kelly acknowledged late last week that Sebastian has impressed him. And while it’s hard to say the strong safety play jumped out today, Sebastian is going to take a lot more snaps than many expected.

*  Freshman Josh Adams is taking No. 2 reps at running back with C.J. Prosise on the mend, and he doesn’t look like he’ll be redshirting at this point. Adams’ is a taller back, but runs with much more fluidity than Justin Brent, who looks really stiff and rigid as a runner. Dexter Williams may very well be a better long-term player, but he doesn’t seem to have a great grasp of things just yet, completely fair for a freshman.

*  The 1-on-1s between receivers and defensive backs was a joy to watch. And the best rep I saw wasn’t between KeiVarae Russell and Will Fuller (who did do battle), but between freshmen CJ Sanders and Shaun Crawford. Sanders won, pulling down a really well thrown pass in the corner of the end zone, and it put Crawford in a rotten mood. (And even if he’s only 180 pounds, you don’t want to see him play football in a rotten mood.)

There was great competition taking place around the goal line as the receivers and defensive backs went to war, and it was really fun to hear both Mike Denbrock and Todd Lyght coach up their position groups. For as talented as the receiving corps is, they didn’t dominate the secondary.

 

I don’t care what the recruiting rankings say, this freshman class is an elite group. 

It’s very clear that Notre Dame’s freshman class is a loaded group. While we’ve talked about a transcendent talent like Jerry Tillery, it’s also clear that top-to-bottom this group is going to find a way to help this football team win.

Receiver Equanimeous St. Brown has opened eyes thus far in camp. Listening to Mike Sanford, you’d think he found a new sports car in his garage. He’s got straight-line, vertical speed that’ll show itself this year, especially if defenses are going to focus on some of the Irish’s other weapons. In single coverage going vertical, that’s a 50-50 ball I want my quarterback’s throwing. Fellow freshmen receivers Miles Boykin and Jalen Guyton also looked really smooth, and Sanders might play more than all of them.

Defensively, Nick Coleman was a steal. That the Irish saw a great potential cornerback in a high school running back shows some great scouting. Crawford drew a compliment from Sanford, an offensive coordinator marveling at how a freshman defensive back manages to always find his way to the football. (That’s a good sign.) Ashton White isn’t likely to play, nor is Mykelti Williams ready to fully absorb VanGorder’s defense, but both have nice skill sets. And while Josh Barajas has been limited almost from jump street, Te’von Coney is a guy that this staff thinks the world of. There isn’t a recruit in this group that looks every bit as good as advertised.

And right now, I’m buying the Justin Yoon hype. He kicked a rocket from 46-yards that would’ve been good from the mid-50s, and his accuracy was all that was advertised.

(Lastly, you want to sound smart around your die-hard friends? Get ready for the legend of Chris Finke. The freshman walk-on (and Coleman’s high school teammate) drew some praise from Kelly last week, mostly for his sure hands as a punt-safe return man. But Finke can do a heckuva lot more than that, a lightning bug receiver and a pretty dynamic return man. His high school highlight tape tells you the story, and with a 31 ACT and a 1360 SAT, Finke could be tearing up the Ivy League right now. Instead he’s opening eyes on the LaBar Practice Fields.

 

No, players and coaches weren’t interested in talking about defending the option or hurry-up offenses. But rest assured that this coaching staff has spent a lot of time working on both deficiencies. 

I spent a lot of my day on Tuesday trying to get a feel for how the Irish planned to slow down their two triple option opponents. I might as well have been asking where Jimmy Hoffa was buried. Talking triple option clearly wasn’t a part of the approved talking points on Tuesday, and while I wasn’t asking for any trade secrets, you can’t blame VanGorder or his players from wanting to get to the next question as quickly as possible.

There’s no doubt that this group understands the challenge ahead of them, especially with elite-level triggermen in Georgia Tech’s Justin Thomas and Navy’s Keenan Reynolds. And while the details on the recon work Bob Elliott did this summer were left out, Kelly did drop an interesting nugget to Jack Nolan on the UND.com broadcast.

You won’t likely hear Rob Regan‘s name called on a broadcast or see him take the field anytime soon. But Regan will play a critical role for the Irish this season, recruited by Kelly to be the scout team quarterback who’ll pilot the option attack. Regan was a two-year starter for Hinsdale South, an All-Area performer and the quarterback who led his team to their first Illinois state quarterfinal appearance in a decade. So while that’s not necessarily an option quarterback that’s as elite as Thomas or Reynolds, he’s certainly a much better proxy than a fourth-string running back or a converted wideout for the week.

As for up-tempo solutions, there wasn’t much disclosure when asking for an explanation, either. But in one practice period, the Irish offense moved at hyper-speed, and the defense countered. It looked nothing like the fire drill that took place when North Carolina moved up and down the field, nor did it necessitate defensive linemen sprinting to the sidelines to get a subpackage in. So while we’ll need to see that practice pay off come Saturdays this fall, it looks as if this group has done its share of self-scouting.

 

This team will not be looking backwards. 

If you thought last year’s swoon served as motivational material during grueling summer workouts, I didn’t get that vibe. VanGorder essentially shook off the question, and Mike Elston was particularly interesting when asked if he thought his young linebackers—Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini—were better for being thrown into the fire last season. Elston wasn’t sure.

That’s not to say that the experience won’t take away some of the growing pains when it’s time for Morgan and Martini to step onto the field. But any Freshman All-American kudos or talk of Morgan being a returning starter or potential impact player isn’t how either of the young, ascending players are viewed—either by their teammates, their coaches or by themselves.

Believe it or not, this team likely sees last season for purely what it was: a young defense forced by injuries to play guys who weren’t ready; and an offense that lost its ability to win games when its quarterback lost his self-confidence and control of the football.

In many ways, this team felt like the one Kelly was asked to compare it to—eerily similar to the 2012 team that entered that season will a large chip on its shoulder. After giving away a bowl game to Florida State and facing a schedule that most thought was unwinnable, this group rallied around stellar leadership and self-belief.

This team has done the same thing, with Kelly rebuilding the psyche of this group brick by brick, not coincidentally focusing on leadership principles derived by the military. That’s why you see a guy like Marcus Lattrell in training camp or you find out that the final two days of summer workouts were military training exercises designed to form cohesive bonds.

So while Notre Dame fans might be quick to flinch the moment things go wrong, don’t expect the team to do the same. That’s not to say a roster that’s essentially unchanged from last year forgot what happened. But they’ve long let it go.