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A refresher of Notre Dame’s early signing period success

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Eight days from now, Notre Dame will finish off its recruiting class, likely signing three more prospects to reach 25 in the class of 2018. Before looking ahead at those possibilities, it seems pertinent to offer a refresher of December’s early signing period. The first of its kind, the Irish coaching staff put the three-day stretch to better use than nearly any other program in the country.

Notre Dame expected 20 commits to sign the week before Christmas, and all delivered on that pledge. Consensus four-star receiver Braden Lenzy finished off the early period with a last-minute signing, announced via an essay on The Players’ Tribune. Lenzy joined two other four-star receivers in Kevin Austin and Micah Jones, creating perhaps the strongest position group in the class, rivaled by the linebackers.

Three of the four linebackers enrolled early — Jack Lamb, Bo Bauer and Ovie Oghoufo — the core of seven early enrollees.

RELATED READING: Seven early enrollees set a new Notre Dame high, but will they make an impact?

Though he did not enroll early, consensus four-star quarterback Phil Jurkovec remains the most hyped and discussed recruit in the class thus far. The chances of him starting as a freshman may be unlikely, though, as they are for any freshman quarterback.

That hurdle will not be as high for consensus four-star safety Derrik Allen. One of five defensive backs, Allen and consensus four-star Houston Griffith will have an early chance to contribute at safety, given that position’s struggles of late. Griffith will likely spend most of his career at cornerback, even if not beginning there, where he and two others in the class, Joe Wilkins Jr. and Tariq Bracy, help salve the error of not recruiting any cornerbacks a year ago. Local product Paul Moala will add further depth to the sub-par safety situation.

A similar, though less extreme, issue may be developing at running back and defensive end, with only one of each in this class at the moment. Typically, consensus three-star running back Jahmir Smith would be enough to fill that need for a year, but with the dismissals of sophomore running back Deon McIntosh and freshman running back C.J. Holmes in the interim since the early signing period, the roster desperately needs depth at the position.

RELATED READING: Stepherson may get the headlines, but loss of two RBs will cost Notre Dame most

Notre Dame does not desperately need depth at defensive end, but adding a couple to the depth chart each cycle creates better odds of finding success at arguably the most necessary and volatile position in college football aside from quarterback. As of now, only consensus three-star defensive end Justin Ademilola fits that billing of the 21 signed commits. His twin brother, consensus four-star defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola, joins at defensive tackle, along with consensus three-star defensive tackle Ja’Mion Franklin.

Per usual, there are no concerns at either tight end or offensive line. The Irish signed two tights and two offensive linemen, with another tackle, consensus three-star Luke Jones (Pulaski Academy; Little Rock, Ark.) committing shortly after the early signing period, still needing to put finger to cell phone screen next Wednesday, Feb. 7.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame’s eight offensive signees — Brian Kelly’s take
Notre Dame’s 12 defensive signees — Brian Kelly’s take
Friday at 4: Context shows Notre Dame succeeded in the early signing period (Dec. 22)

With Jones bringing the class total to 22, Notre Dame’s focus the last the last six weeks has been on defensive linemen and defensive backs, adding running backs to that fray when McIntosh and Holmes were removed from the program. Of course, those three positions are not the end-all, be-all. There are exceptions in which the Irish coaching staff will take the best players it can get.

“Which true freshmen could you see making significant contributions this upcoming season?” — popelovesnd

Let’s first issue the necessary disclaimer: This answer could and likely will change based on how the seven early enrollees fare in spring practice, what remaining roster turnover will occur between now and August, and who Notre Dame signs with those three remaining spots in the class of 2018.

The obvious answer is Allen. The Irish need someone to step forward at safety, and there has been little-to-no indication that will be either of the current sophomores, Jalen Elliott or Devin Studstill. Notre Dame made Allen a recruiting priority because he just might be up to that task from the outset.

Sticking with defense, Lamb and Bauer will have a chance this spring to earn a starting spot, or at least a spot in the linebacker rotation. That would be quite a leap for someone who would normally be a high school senior, but it is a possibility, nonetheless.

If neither does offer that surprise, it will increase the odds of current senior Drue Tranquill moving from rover to inside linebacker. At that point, consensus four-star linebacker Shayne Simon enters this contribution conversation at rover.

Lastly, Lenzy very well could have a freshman season a la Kevin Stepherson in 2016. Comparisons to Stepherson may feel off-putting, but this is in discussing on-field performance only. Lenzy has outstanding speed, the type that can force its way up the depth chart regardless of age, immaturity or positional competition.

So, if a betting man were offered worthwhile odds, Allen and Lenzy seem the smartest wagers.

Further mailbag questions are welcome at insidetheirish@gmail.com.

Monday’s Leftovers: Notre Dame lands a 2019 CB; Auburn hires an Irish AD

rivals.com
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Sanity is a commodity worth preserving. Thus, this space generally keeps any Notre Dame recruiting updates limited to the current recruiting class. Otherwise, two-thirds of these words would revolve around various offers, commitments, subsequent de-commitments, 16-year-old’s decisions and the other endless minutiae of the internet’s third-favorite niche industry.

In other words, discussing high school juniors today is 10 days earlier than usually allowed. Consider this an exception not setting a precedent, but rather granted because of a commitment so closely following this question submitted Sunday morning:

“Big junior day this weekend. Do you think any in attendance may be on commit watch? It seems last year the class of 2018 was already mostly in place, but there are only two commits thus far. Will that change soon?”

— William from Cypress, Texas.

Indeed, William, at least one junior at Notre Dame on Saturday was ready to commit shortly thereafter, with rivals.com three-star cornerback K.J. Wallace (Lovett High School; Atlanta) making that decision Sunday afternoon. Wallace chose the Irish over offers from Auburn, Penn State and Stanford, among many others.

“Honestly, I expected to commit at the beginning of [his senior] season, but I know this is the place for me,” Wallace told Blue & Gold Illustrated. “… I loved everything about the campus and the coaches. We met a few players and I like their strength and conditioning program, too. I couldn’t find much wrong about it.”

Securing a cornerback’s commitment so early in the class continues Notre Dame’s recovery from not getting any cornerbacks in the class of 2017, with three signed this cycle and another yet possible before next Wednesday.

William’s memory of a year ago is a bit inaccurate. Of the 21 players who signed with the Irish during December’s early signing period, only five had committed by this point a year ago. Broadly speaking, there tend to be a few key periods for recruits to commit. The earliest do so before their junior football season. Then there is typically a lull until the winter. For the majority of high school juniors, that silence lasts until after National Signing Day, at which point schools finally make the juniors a priority.

For example, Notre Dame secured three commitments the two weeks following National Signing Day 2017. December’s early signing period may have skewed that rush forward a few weeks, leading to decisions like Wallace’s, but it is too soon to gauge that effect of the new recruiting timetables. Either way, a handful of commitments coming to the surface in February would be logical.

— Bet you weren’t expecting to think about Auburn basketball this morning.

With a 25-point win over LSU on Saturday, the No. 19 Tigers won their third straight and 17th of their last 18. The winning streak coincides with the hiring of former Notre Dame baseball star Allen Greene as athletic director. Obviously, the hiring has nothing to do with the winning streak except the spot at the top of the SEC standings underscores the biggest challenge Greene will immediately face at Auburn.

Tigers head basketball coach Bruce Pearl appears to be more than tangentially-involved with the FBI investigation into basketball recruiting tactics, meaning Greene may soon face the unenviable prospect of pondering a coach’s future even as he wins the SEC and gets a high seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Greene is one of 10 Irish graduates serving as athletic directors somewhere in the Division I realm. Two others just made changes with head football coaches, neither necessarily voluntarily, but the Pearl dilemma will likely be a whole other type of ordeal.

Those other nine:
Gene Smith at Ohio State.
Stan Wilcox at Florida State.
Jack Swarbrick at Notre Dame.
Bubba Cunningham at North Carolina.
Mike Bobinski at Purdue.
Tom Bowen at Memphis.
Danny White at Central Florida.
Bill Scholl at Marquette.
Boo Corrigan at Army.

— Let’s turn to another reader question … “I miss the days when ND was Tight End U. Any chance of rekindling that? — nmmargie

An undeniable return to being considered “Tight End U” in 2018 will likely hinge on current Notre Dame junior Alizé Mack. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Yes, there is a chance. Notre Dame will have six tight ends around in 2018, and based off last season, Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long does genuinely prefer to include tight ends as often as possible. If current junior Alizé Mack can finally realize some of his physical potential, then he should certainly join the four Notre Dame products at tight end already in the NFL.

That number should even rise to five this spring. Durham Smythe caught three passes for 48 yards and a touchdown in this weekend’s Senior Bowl, and would appear to be trending upward as far as NFL draft thoughts may go.

That is not to say Smythe will be drafted, but, at the very least, he will get his shot in an NFL training camp of some variety.

Smythe and Mack combined to lead an under-the-radar productive season for Irish tight ends in 2017. The position group may have been inconsistent, but so was every other aspect of the passing game. The tight ends as a whole caught 45 passes for 476 yards and four touchdowns. They were certainly a part of the offense, even if not featured as expected entering the season.

Admittedly, nmmargie’s point holds merit. Notre Dame essentially abandoned the position in 2015 and 2016, much to Smythe’s detriment. However, the stretch of Ben KoyackTroy NiklasTyler Eifert – Kyle Rudolph – John Carlson – Anthony Fasano does stretch from 2014 back to 2003. Two years of relying on Will Fuller and Equanimeous St. Brown does not ruin that reputation by any means.

— Get ready for a Brian VanGorder defense in 2019.

The former Irish defensive coordinator landed that position at Louisville over the weekend. Notre Dame opens the 2019 season at Louisville on Labor Day.

— Need Tuesday night plans? The St. Brown Master Plan:

— Further mailbag questions are welcome at insidetheirish@gmail.com.

A call for mailbag questions; words from Jeff Quinn; links to read

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Of the many pertinent effects of the early signing period back in December, lowest on the list would be it created more of a January lull when discussing college football.

Yes, Notre Dame has three spots left in this recruiting class and hopes to fill them yet with the likes of consensus four-star linebacker Solomon Tuliaupupu (Mater Dei High School; Anaheim, Calif.), consensus three-star receiver Lawrence Keys (McDonogh 35; New Orleans) and rivals.com four-star/247sports.com five-star offensive tackle Nick Petit-Frere (Berkley Prep; Tampa, Fla.), but speculating about three scholarship spots requires far less bandwidth than pondering two dozen does. A recap of where the Irish may or may not stand with those and other prospects will certainly populate these parts before Feb. 7’s National Signing Day.

RELATED READING: With four spots remaining, what recruits is Notre Dame still chasing?

Note: In saying Notre Dame is pursuing three more recruits, that includes consensus three-star offensive tackle Luke Jones (Pulaski Academy; Little Rock, Ark.) with the 21 signed commits. Jones will need to sign in February, as well, and could theoretically defect from the class, although that seems exceedingly unlikely.

Aside from those bits, there are still a number of weeks until spring practice commences in mid-March. Previewing it now would be rather preemptive.

Let’s turn to the cheapest of internet content, the form where the readers provide the creative spark. That’s right, a mailbag.

Questions? Ramblings unrelated to any recent article that may spark another story idea? Mere commentary seeking affirmation or rebuttal? Send them to insidetheirish@gmail.com. Of course, you can enter them in the comments below, but those get both lost and discussed long before a mailbag comes to be a reality.

Thanks in advance.

“Through one set of eyes”

Remember the name A.J. Dillon
If forgotten, then expect this space to mention it frequently over the next 22 months. The Boston College running back will be a junior when the Eagles visit Notre Dame in November of 2019.

INSIDE THE IRISH READING
Monday’s Leftovers: Notre Dame needs Terry Joseph to develop DBs … and recruit them
Brian Kelly promotes Jeff Quinn to Notre Dame offensive line coach
Brian Kelly knows what Notre Dame gets with Jeff Quinn as OL coach — more Brian Kelly
Friday at 4: Returning 9 fifth-years brings Notre Dame unteachable luxuries

OUTSIDE READING
Michigan State secrets extend far beyond Larry Nassar case
Jeff Samardzija honors his Notre Dame football coach, Tyrone Willingham
How long will Saban coach? Ready for Clemson-Alabama 4? And other offseason storylines

Friday at 4: Returning 9 fifth-years brings Notre Dame unteachable luxuries

Associated Press
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It is a common saying in the spring while hyping practice performances: Speed can’t be taught. Frankly, it is a common saying anytime discussing football at length. Yet, to some degree speed can be taught — with the proper training and technique, players do get faster.

It would be more accurate to point to experience as an unteachable quality, one gained only with time.

This spring and coming fall, Notre Dame will have plenty of experience from the outset. Nine fifth-year players are expected back with the Irish for one more season, more than double last year’s four, which included a transfer in receiver Cam Smith. He joined left tackle Mike McGlinchey, offensive lineman Hunter Bivin and tight end Durham Smythe.

McGlinchey turned down the chance to be a first-round NFL draft pick to return, and both Bivin and Smythe had options to transfer elsewhere for a final season with more playing time and perhaps more prominent roles. Instead, McGlinchey led the Irish on and off the field, Bivin provided the only semblance of depth along the offensive front and Smythe had a career season.

The nine in 2018 will represent the opposite end of the seasoning spectrum when compared to 22-25 freshmen. The nine may not warrant dramatic and desperate pleas for playing time. More often than not, they do not even land in headlines. The fifth-year options are known quantities, while the freshmen stand out as potential and hypothetical greatness.

In time, some of the freshmen will certainly surpass the fifth-years’ ceilings. Using such a declarative verb and tense in the previous sentence even holds up when considering the sheer numbers at hand.

In 2018, though, the fifth-years will be Notre Dame’s backbone. They provide experience, consistency and depth the freshmen simply cannot match. That is not a knock on the newcomers. All-Americans and likely first-round draft picks McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson were not ready to contribute as freshmen. Neither were the likes of Mitch Trubisky (at North Carolina), Deshaun Watson (at Clemson) or Christian McCaffrey (at Stanford), three of the top-12 picks in last year’s NFL draft.

The freshmen’s time will come. For defensive end Jay Hayes, tight end Nic Weishar and receiver Freddy Canteen, the only remaining time is now. To some degree, that ticking clock adds a sense of urgency to the qualities they bring to the locker room.

The experience, consistency and depth are just a bit more tangible. There will be few situations those nine have not seen, few offenses linebacker Drue Tranquill has not already watched film on. If that allows him to pick up on a play a second earlier, it could be the entire difference in getting the defensive line properly lined up before the snap. Similarly, there will be few blitzes center Sam Mustipher has not had to already diagnose. If that removes one more duty from the quarterback’s pre-snap checklist, it should allow him (whomever it is) to focus on the coverage presented that much more.

The Irish roster was always going to have a punter on it. If that is a fifth-year or a freshman, it equals one roster spot all the same. By keeping Tyler Newsome around, a consistent and strong leg remains a field position weapon.

Losing a consensus All-American in McGlinchey and a unanimous All-American in Nelson is enough of a challenge. Getting Mustipher and right guard Alex Bars back will do a lot to ease the task of replacing the left side of the line for newly-promoted offensive line coach Jeff Quinn.

Cornerback Nick Watkins’ physical stature makes him an ideal boundary coverage option to start with, but keeping him in the mix with the four sophomore cornerbacks also makes Notre Dame’s secondary deeper than it could ever deploy at once. Even if current sophomore Julian Love spends some time at safety, the Irish could still trot out a dime package with four stout cornerbacks. Without Watkins, that luxury would hinge on the quick adaption of a freshman such as Tariq Bracy.

Without Jonathan Bonner, Notre Dame’s depth at defensive tackle could have quickly turned concerning if multiple newcomers did not prove themselves early. With Bonner returning for a fifth year, the position is one of the deepest on the Irish roster. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

Freshman Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa would have been a good starting defensive tackle in his second season, if not more than that. The return of Jonathan Bonner means Tagovailoa-Amosa will be a great backup, if not more yet, nonetheless. Either way, the return of Bonner raises the overall quality of play at the position. The same goes for Hayes at defensive end and his effect upon the possibilities of the current sophomores filling the position group.

Experience, consistency and depth. They cannot be taught, only gained with time.

While Alabama made it fashionable to insist freshmen are universally ready to play by relying on first-year players at quarterback, running back, receiver and left tackle on its national championship-winning drive, those were anomalies. Even at that, they were mixed-result anomalies. Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa made greater and more mistakes than exceptional plays; his positive moments simply proved more decisive. In addition to the title-winning touchdown pass, he also jeopardized the game by throwing an interception on a running play, using a timeout when trying to drain the clock and taking a sack on the opening play of the Tide overtime drive. That sack was initiated when freshman left tackle Alex Leatherwood blew his block, forcing Tagovailoa to move into more pressure.)

Most freshmen are not ready to provide consistent and constant production. For every Robert Hainsey, there is a Mike McGlinchey. For every Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, there is a Jonathan Bonner. For every, nope, Notre Dame has not had a strong freshman linebacker showing since the otherworldly Jaylon Smith in 2013. One could argue that underscores the importance of Tranquill’s return, as it is somewhat unlikely any of the early-enrolled or incoming freshmen linebackers make an impact this year.

And if one of them is, Irish head coach Brian Kelly will readily embrace it. Someone still has to join Tranquill and current junior Te’von Coney on the defense’s second level.

Brian Kelly knows what Notre Dame gets with Jeff Quinn as OL coach — more Brian Kelly

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At some point in the next week or two, Notre Dame will hold a press conference wherein Irish head coach Brian Kelly will heap praise upon first-time defensive coordinator Clark Lea, associate head coach Mike Elston, reportedly-hired safeties coach Terry Joseph and newly-promoted offensive line coach Jeff Quinn. Kelly will speak to their qualifications, their fit within the current staff and how they will be driving forces for a team with College Football Playoff aspirations.

None of that is surprising. No employee is publicly-criticized, questioned or minimized upon the day of a promotion or hiring, nor should one be.

Kelly held a similar press conference a year ago. In fact, as of a week from yesterday, it was exactly a year ago Kelly introduced seven new hires, six of which came from outside his previous experiences.

“We needed to make some significant changes,” Kelly said Jan. 30, 2017. “Significant not just in terms of personnel, but in how we do things on a day-to-day basis, and it starts with me.”

Those changes took hold, laying a foundation for a 10-3 season concluding with a New Year’s Day bowl victory over a top-20 opponent. Six of those seven hires remain, five of those six still coming from outside Kelly’s first 26 years as a head coach.

In a distinct departure from that year-old storyline of the benefits of the coaching staff’s wide-ranging backgrounds, the Tuesday promotion of Quinn very much comes from Kelly’s past. Whereas hiring Joseph to work with the Irish safeties continued that trend, Quinn has spent 22 total seasons working with Kelly across four different stops.

One coach does not a pattern make, and one does not erase the previous changes wholesale. Quinn very well may have spent the last three years as an offensive analyst and assistant strength coach learning from former offensive line coach Harry Hiestand. He certainly had the opportunity to do so. Kelly may feel that apprenticeship made Quinn the most-qualified and best-ready candidate to continue the long- and recent-history of top-flight Notre Dame offensive lines.

A year ago, Kelly described the support from Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick as thorough and encouraging during the revamping of the coaching staff.

“Got great support from Jack Swarbrick allowing us to go out and find the very best,” Kelly said. “… I think that says a lot about who we have here in our administration and allowing us to go out and find the very best.”

Nothing occurred in 2017 to indicate that support has shifted. Swarbrick took the long view in retaining Kelly after Notre Dame’s 4-8 debacle in 2016. The progress shown in 2017 would, theoretically, strengthen that strategy. By that logic, then, Quinn was deemed the top option in Kelly’s eyes.

Aside from the time spent around Hiestand making such a possibility into a reality, Kelly knows what he gets with Quinn. He gets a qualified coach — even the harshest and most irrational critics of the promotion should acknowledge 34 years coaching collegiate football with a focus on offensive schemes cannot be diminished outright; nor can a reasonable case be made against the bona fides of coaching 12 future NFL offensive linemen and 22 All-Americans at the position.

Jeff Quinn (und.com)

Kelly also gets an assistant who has, by and large, learned from only one head coach. Aside from two years under Nick Mourouzis and three as the offensive line and tight ends coach for Tom Kaczkowski (Who? Well, exactly), Quinn has had one boss in coaching: Kelly. Just as there is value in a variety of voiced viewpoints on the coaching staff, there is value in learning from a spectrum of schematic approaches, developmental methods and personnel management habits.

Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long does not need someone in game planning sessions who thinks like Kelly. He has Kelly for that, and Kelly doesn’t need somebody to tell him what he’s already thinking. Finishing each other’s sentences is a sign of redundancy, not efficiency.

That is what Quinn represents on the surface, along with a willingness to return to some ingredients which cooked up success in the first 19 seasons of Kelly’s career. At least, that is what Quinn represents until shown otherwise.

To once more pull from Kelly’s comments in his most-recent press conference announcing new hires.

“The great thing about Notre Dame is you’re not defined by what happened in the past. It’s about what you do in the future.”

It is a hard sentiment to argue, even if it is also a hard one to abide by when Quinn’s past is well-known and well-trodden.