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Could Kelly move a receiver to cornerback?

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Before the weekend, Notre Dame already had 10 receivers on its depth chart, all with at least two seasons of eligibility remaining. Cornerback, meanwhile, is a position where the roster seems to be lacking, with only seven currently on scholarship. The only fact staving off panic is that all seven also have two years of eligibility in hand. Nonetheless, an additional body in the defensive backfield at practice would seem to be a reasonable want, if not quite a necessity.

Thus, the addition of graduate transfer receiver Freddy Canteen—himself having two seasons of potential college football to go—brought the return of wonderings: Should one of the plethora of Irish receivers switch to breaking up passes?

Aside from balancing the roster and easing some concerns should an injury strike, such a move could also present the player a chance at increased playing time. By no means would the maneuver need to be a selfless one.

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly has had success with such positional flipping. Specifically, Kelly and his coaching staff have overseen the successful switches of receiver-turned-cornerback Bennett Jackson and receiver-turned-safety-and-then-linebacker James Onwualu. Furthermore, defensive backs Matthias Farley and KeiVarae Russell both arrived at Notre Dame expecting to be on the offensive side of the ball before changes early in their careers.

BENNETT JACKSON
A three-star receiver recruit, Jackson stuck with Notre Dame during the transition from Charlie Weis to Brian Kelly, signing with the Irish only weeks after Kelly took the lead of the program. In his freshman season, Jackson carried the ball plenty, as the kick returner. Aside from fielding kickoffs, he had only one carry for 20 yards. That was it for his offensive playmaking.

On special teams, however, he excelled without the ball, too. Jackson finished with 10 tackles, including four against Purdue to start the season. That nose for the ballcarrier prompted the coaching staff to switch Jackson’s positional group. In the following three seasons, he amassed 147 tackles, 11 pass break-ups and two interceptions.

Before Notre Dame faced Alabama in the 2012 BCS National Championship Game, Jackson looked back on his career change.

“I liked receiver. Obviously, I wanted to be a guy with the ball in my hands,” he said. “At first, I wasn’t mad about it, but I wasn’t fond of it.

“As time went on, I actually liked the position a lot more. I had a lot more fun and I got to compete a lot more.”

JAMES ONWUALU
A four-star recruit with the ambiguous “athlete” designation in 2013, Onwualu—like Jackson—spent his freshman season as a receiver. Unlike Jackson, he actually caught some passes. Two, to be exact, for a total of 34 yards. Continuing on a parallel to Jackson, Onwualu totaled six tackles on special teams.

Years later, it is easy to see the receiving depth in Notre Dame’s class of 2013. Onwualu aside, the Irish brought in Corey Robinson, Torii Hunter, Jr., and Will Fuller. It was going to be a tough road to featured playing time for Onwualu. Realizing this, he set to finding a different path.

“I honestly wasn’t sure receiver was the spot for me anyway, so I walked right up to coach Kelly’s office and we had a talk about where I wanted to go and what my thoughts were for my career,” Onwualu told und.com early in his senior season. “We ended up agreeing that the defensive side, we might as well give it a shot, and it worked out.”

Initially, that conversation landed Onwualu at safety. At 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds, he found himself at linebacker pretty quickly thereafter.

“That was a tough one for me because he’s so valuable offensively in a number of ways,” Kelly said before 2014 spring practice. “He’s such a consistent player and he loves to compete. But he’s got great contact skills.”

Onwualu ended his Notre Dame career with 143 total tackles, including those pivotal six his freshman season, along with six sacks.

MATTHIAS FARLEY & KEIVARAE RUSSELL
Both Farley and Russell entered Notre Dame as “athletes”, the former a three-star recruit and the latter a four-star prospect. While Farley was expected to line up at receiver and Russell at running back, each switched to safety and cornerback, respectively, before ever joining the Irish offense. Safe to say it worked out rather well for each.

WHO NOW?
Far be it for the internet to speculate, but that seems to be one of its three primary purposes in the 21st century.

None of the current 11 receivers entered college deemed “athletes” by recruitniks. One does mirror Jackson and Onwualu in that he excelled on special teams last year. Rising sophomore Chase Claypool recorded 11 tackles in his debut season to go along with his five catches for 81 yards. Claypool notched multiple tackles against Nevada, Syracuse and Virginia Tech.

Kelly and new defensive coordinator Mike Elko very well may choose to test fate in 2017 and rely on only seven cornerbacks. After all, how often would the Irish ever have more than four on the field, anyways?

But if Kelly and Elko err on the side of caution, whoever makes the positional switch should not cringe in doing so. It has worked out pretty well both for his predecessors and for Notre Dame.

Michigan WR Canteen announces transfer to Notre Dame

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When Notre Dame and Michigan meet to kick off the 2018 season, receiver Freddy Canteen will be lined up opposite a uniform he used to wear. The former Wolverine receiver announced a graduate transfer commitment to Notre Dame on Saturday evening. Canteen will have two years of eligibility remaining once he graduates from Michigan this spring.

A former rivals.com four-star recruit, Canteen enrolled early at Michigan in the spring of 2014, furthering his ability to now graduate early. He caught five receptions over six games his freshman year before a shoulder injury early his sophomore season ended his Michigan career. Canteen told Irish Illustrated he could have returned to the field for the Wolverines in 2016, but opted to instead preserve a year of playing eligibility.

“Really, I’m just looking for a program where I can display my talents best,” Canteen said. “I’m graduating from Michigan in three years. Why not pursue a master’s at a school as prestigious as Notre Dame?”

Canteen will bolster depth at a position headlined by juniors Equanimeous St. Brown and C.J. Sanders. Though Canteen would not likely project in St. Brown’s place, he could possibly challenge Sanders in the slot or sophomores Kevin Stepherson and Javon McKinley out wide.

He could also, theoretically, flip to defense where Notre Dame needs help at defensive back. At 6-foot-1 and 185 pounds, Canteen’s skill set could translate to the position without much lapse.

“Ask anybody about me, I bring speed to the game,” he said.

In his 2014 recruitment, Canteen chose Michigan over offers from Maryland and Tennessee, among others.

After losing rising senior receiver Justin Brent to a transfer in January, Notre Dame added two receiver recruits on National Signing Day, Michael Young and Jafar Armstrong. Later that day, Irish coach Brian Kelly said Notre Dame set aside a scholarship with hopes of bringing in a graduate transfer. Presumably, Kelly was referring to Canteen and Notre Dame now has a full roster of 85 scholarship players.

With two years of eligibility remaining—rather than the typical one of a graduate transfer—Canteen will alter the approach to next year’s recruiting. Notre Dame’s class of 2018 was already likely to be a smaller group than usual.

2018: 6 commits & counting, but how high

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Let’s put 2017 recruiting in the rearview mirror.  It is over and done with. In four years, hindsight will tell us if this Notre Dame class was better or worse than its No. 13 rivals.com ranking. Perhaps that slot will be proven exactly accurate, but only because three-star receiver Michael Young vastly exceeds his ranking, making up for a four-star’s disappointment or early departure.

Let’s move on to 2018. There are, after all, only 363 days until National Signing Day.

Irish coach Brian Kelly has already received six commitments in the class of 2018, led by consensus four-stars quarterback Phil Jurkovec (Pine-Richland High School; Gibsonia, Pa.) and linebacker Matthew Bauer (Cathedral Prep; Erie, Pa.).

A numbers crunch may limit how many peers join Jurkovec, Bauer and their four quick-to-commit comrades. Working backward from the current roster of 84 scholarships (pending a possible graduate transfer, but that would not affect this exercise as he would presumably exhaust his eligibility in 2017), only nine Notre Dame players will play their fourth year of college football this fall:
Fifth-year tight end Durham Smythe
Fifth-year offensive lineman Mike McGlinchey
Fifth-year offensive lineman Hunter Bivin
Senior quarterback Montgomery VanGorder
Senior tight end Tyler Luatua
Senior defensive lineman Andrew Trumbetti
Senior defensive lineman Daniel Cage
Senior linebacker Nyles Morgan
Senior linebacker Greer Martiniti

Additionally, senior offensive lineman Quenton Nelson will, injury-notwithstanding, be projected as a high NFL Draft pick. While the Irish coaching staff would certainly jump at the chance to bring Nelson back for a fifth year, one should not expect him to.

That math gets the 2018 Notre Dame roster to 11 open scholarships.

Senior offensive lineman Jimmy Byrne has yet to see the field for the Irish, so do not expect him to receive an invite to spend a fifth year with the team. Senior defensive lineman Pete Mokwuah saw action in only four games last season, making one total tackle. His odds seem low, as well. Senior tight end Nic Weishar may provide depth at the position, but Notre Dame just signed two of the top-three tight end recruits in the country. Even if both Brock Wright and Cole Kmet do not see the field this year, youth should make its demands by 2018. Weishar will likely miss out on a fifth year as a result.

That makes 14 open scholarships.

Acknowledging the realities of college football, it is unrealistic to expect the fifth-year returns of all seven of offensive linemen Alex Bars and Sam Mustipher, defensive linemen Jay Hayes and Jonathan Bonner, defensive backs Drue Tranquill and Nick Watkins and punter Tyler Newsome. Yet, all seven could bring either on-field production or needed roster depth. Rather than speculate who does not join Notre Dame in 2018, let’s simply give a head nod to the possibility some do not. For that matter, injuries, academics and transfers annually open up space on the Irish roster. Suddenly that 14 may approach a more traditional 20 without any extra effort.

2018’s Points of Emphasis
Naturally, after not signing any cornerbacks in the 2017 class, Notre Dame will need to make up for that in 2018. Aside from that, Irish coach Brian Kelly indicated his staff will focus on playmakers more than anything else.

“The corner position will be a point of emphasis for us,” he said last Wednesday. “Elite speed on offense will be a primary goal for us. Guys that can change the game on one possession. I think we’ll see that.

“We’ve got very good size. We’ve got guys that can run. We want a couple of home run hitters. We don’t care if they’re Darren Sproles’s size. We’re going to come off the board in terms of profile. We want some guys that can change the game on offense with elite speed.”

This focus on speed makes sense when considering Notre Dame signed four offensive linemen and two tight ends in 2017, meaning the 2018 roster is already stocked with 11 linemen and three tight ends. Adding a couple lineman and a tight end to bolster reserves would make sense, but neither position needs to be a driving concern.

“On the defensive side of the ball, we continue to move toward the needs that [new Irish defensive coordinator] Mike [Elko] needs defensively relative to the positions,” Kelly said. “Continue to develop the back end of the defense, especially at the cornerback position.”

Currently, Notre Dame has two linebackers in each class, and scout.com four-star linebacker Ovie Oghoufo (Harrison; Farmington, Mich.) joins Bauer to make the class of 2018 fit that trend. With Elko’s “Rover” position, though, adding another linebacker or two to the class should come as no surprise.

The other three commits in Notre Dame’s class of 2018:
Consensus four-star defensive lineman Jayson Ademilola (St. Peters Prep; Jersey City, N.J.)
Consensus three-star defensive lineman Justin Ademilola (St. Peters Prep; Jersey City, N.J.)
Consensus four-star running back Markese Stepp (Cathedral; Indianapolis)

Yes, the Ademilola defensive linemen are twins.

84 & Counting: A Scholarship Chart

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After signing 21 incoming freshmen last week, Irish coach Brian Kelly quickly indicated the Notre Dame roster may not yet be done growing. In a radio interview on Weekday Sportsbeat, Kelly spoke of a possible transfer to Notre Dame, likely a graduated senior taking advantage of the NCAA’s stance on graduate student’s having immediate eligibility.

“We’ve put a scholarship aside,” Kelly said. “We think we’re in a very good position with one right now that we’ll be able to close on within the next couple of weeks.”

Before rampant speculation about just who that may be gains too much steam, it is prudent to consider where such a player may have an imminent impact. A look at the Irish roster as currently constructed—categorized by both class and position—may indeed help narrow that speculation. Hence, the below. First, some notes regarding the below:

  • All classes are listed as they will be next season. For example, quarterback Brandon Wimbush is currently a sophomore at Notre Dame, but below lists Wimbush as a junior since that will be his standing come fall.
  • Today’s best guesses at starters are listed in italics.
  • Asterisks next to seniors names indicate that player will have a fifth-year of eligibility after this season. The chart only notes seniors with that possibility, rather than marking all players who have preserved a year to-date. Predicting such for years in the future often bears little-to-no resemblance to what reality transpires once injuries and other events are factored in down the road.
Position 5th-Yr Senior Junior Sophomore Freshman
QB M. VanGorder B. Wimbush I. Book A. Davis
RB J. Adams T. Jones C.J. Holmes
D. Williams
Receiver E. St. Brown K. Stepherson J. Armstrong
C. Finke J. McKinley M. Young
C.J. Sanders C. Claypool
M. Boykin D. McIntosh
Tight End D. Smythe N. Weishar* A. Jones B. Wright
T. Luatua C. Kmet

Bringing in two of the top-three tight ends in the class of 2017 presents an interesting quandary of, will one red-shirt this season? Four upperclassmen at the position only increases the likelihood of such. Since Brock Wright enrolled early and will thus take part in all of spring practice, he is the more likely of the two to see the field in 2017, though do not be surprised if Cole Kmet’s talent forces new Irish offensive coordinator and tight ends coach Chip Long to deploy him, as well.

Position 5th-Yr Senior Junior Sophomore Freshman
Tackle M. McGlinchey A. Bars* L. Eichenberg A. Banks
T. Kraemer J. Lugg
Guard H. Bivin Q. Nelson* T. Hoge P. Boudreaux R. Hainsey
J. Byrne* T. Ruhland D. Gibbons
Center S. Mustipher*

Spring practice will provide a better handle on offensive line coach Harry Hiestand’s latest alignment. The biggest question is not who will start, but where will the back-ups cross-train. Hiestand has often relied on only three or four actual second-stringers, believing a player or two was his best secondary option at multiple positions. Barring a rash of injuries—and the offensive line is perhaps the only position group to avoid that epidemic in recent years—this strategy holds up just fine.

Position 5th-Yr Senior Junior Sophomore Freshman
Def. End A. Trumbetti D. Hayes K. Wardlow
J. Bonner* J. Okwara MacCollister
J. Hayes* A. Ogundeji
K. Kareem
Def. Tackle D. Cage J. Tillery K. Hinish
P. Mokwuah * E. Taylor Tagovailoa-Amosa
M. Dew-Treadway D. Ewell
B. Tiassum
“Rover” D. Tranquill* A. Bilal J. Owusu-Koromoah

Simply learning who new Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko trots out at his “rover” position (a safety-linebacker hybrid of sorts) will tell us the most about this spot’s role and future. He has also mentioned senior linebacker Greer Martini as a possibility there, but the need at linebacker may be too great to give Elko a genuine chance to try Martini at the rover.

Position 5th-Yr Senior Junior Sophomore Freshman
LB N. Morgan T. Coney Jo. Jones D. Adams
G. Martini J. Barajas Ja. Jones D. White
Corner N. Watkins* S. Crawford J. Love
A. White T. Pride
S. Perry
D. Vaughn
Safety N. Coleman D. Studstill I. Robertson
N. Fertitta J. Elliott J. Genmark-Heath
D.J. Morgan
PK J. Yoon
Kickoff J. Doerer
Punter T. Newsome*
LS     J. Shannon

‘Anywhere from 5 to 15’

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Five of Notre Dame’s nine current assistant coaches had only weeks to recruit this cycle. Factor in quarterbacks coach Thomas Rees’s pending promotion from graduate assistant to assistant coach and that makes six new Irish coaches chasing recruits for a full year by the time National Signing Day 2018 rolls around. That is Feb. 7, 2018, for those of you already bypassing an entire football season.

It was with this increased time—and theoretically the chance for stronger relationships with fickle high school personalities—in mind a reporter asked Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly about a potential shift in recruiting strategy. Kelly’s response began by focusing on 15 of the 21 recruits the Irish had signed earlier that day. Quickly, though, Kelly pivoted to discussing recruiting rankings.

“Since I’ve been here, if you look at the average rankings, we’re anywhere from 5 to 15,” he said Wednesday. “We’re going to fall somewhere in that range because there’s a line there we can’t get over based upon what our distinctions are here. That line is going to keep us between 5 and 15.

“We know where we’re going to fall. We’re going to continue to recruit the right kind of kids here.”

Kelly then returned to the line of questioning, regarding the value of long-term relationships in recruiting compared to making offers late in the cycle. Versions of the latter strategy bolstered Notre Dame’s class this year, but it innately comes with a high risk :: reward ratio.

His comments regarding “anywhere from 5 to 15” could be considered as an attempt to temper future expectations. More likely, Kelly was acknowledging realities he has come to know intimately after seven full recruiting cycles as the head of Irish program (and an eighth abridged cycle when he had only 55 days to recruit between accepting the job and National Signing Day in 2010).

Are those comments accurate? In Kelly’s time, largely.

For this exercise, let’s rely on the subsidiary of an NBC Sports partner: rivals.com. Yes, some recruiting services rank Notre Dame higher some years than other services do. The same goes for individual recruits. Over an eight-year stretch, that should trend toward evening out. If nothing else, this allows for something of a standard of comparison.

2012: No. 20
In Kelly’s time, Notre Dame has fallen below that range only once, the class of 2012. Rivals ranked that class of 17 recruits No. 20 in the country. Part of that low ranking undoubtedly ties to the size of the class, the smallest of Kelly’s tenure, as Rivals focuses its rankings on a class’s top 20 commitments. (This year’s 21 is the next smallest.)

Five-star quarterback Gunner Kiel and four-star defensive back Tee Shepard never took a snap for the Irish, and four-star athlete DaVonte’ Neal transferred after his freshman season. Neal played in 13 games, finishing with one rush for seven yards, one reception for a loss of five and 21 punt returns for a total of 46 yards.

Removing those players from that class would have dropped Notre Dame to somewhere around No. 32 in the rankings*. This revisionist history, however, fails to account for the exceeded expectations of:
– Four-star offensive lineman, first-round draft pick and current NFL starter Ronnie Stanley
– Four-star defensive lineman and current Jacksonville Jaguar Sheldon Day
– Three-star defensive lineman and current New York Giant Romeo Okwara
– Three-star defensive back, eventual Notre Dame running back and current Seattle Seahawk C.J. Prosise
– Four-star defensive lineman Jarron Jones
– Three-star receiver and current Dallas Cowboy Chris Brown

A thorough retroactive recruiting rankings would also need to include these disappointments and surprises at other schools.

2013: No. 3
The Irish rode the momentum of appearing in the BCS National Championship Game following an undefeated regular season to the peak of Kelly’s recruiting in South Bend. Four five-star recruits highlighted the 24 signees, though defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes never made it to Notre Dame Stadium. Even factoring in Vanderdoes’s departure, the Irish class would have ranked fourth according to rivals, with Florida advancing a position by a slim margin.

Again, if accounting for an abrupt, premature departure, one must look at the other end of the spectrum and acknowledge those who possibly outperformed recruiting expectations:
– Four-star defensive lineman Isaac Rochell
– Four-star running back Tarean Folston
– Four star athlete, eventual Notre Dame linebacker James Onwualu
– Four-star offensive lineman and 2017 captain Mike McGlinchey

Only Eight Average Better
Over Kelly’s eight years signing recruits at Notre Dame, only eight schools have averaged a better finish than his 11.875, per rivals.com. The list includes five SEC programs, alongside traditional powers Florida State, USC and Ohio State.

Alabama: 1.625 (with six No. 1 finishes)
Florida State: 5.25
USC: 6.875 (with one No. 1 finish)
LSU: 7.375
Ohio State: 7.5
Auburn: 8.625
Georgia: 9
Florida: 9.375

Perhaps Kelly’s Signing Day range projections do not sit well with some. They do appear to be consistent with results, though.

*Rivals changed its recruiting points formula heading into the class of 2013. The previous formula was more obscure than the current version, thus this altered ranking is only an estimate.