SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 17: Chase Claypool #83 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish catches a pass over Vayante Copeland #13 of the Michigan State Spartans during a game at Notre Dame Stadium on September 17, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

Talking Irish: Moving on after Michigan State

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As we have the past few weeks, JJ Stankevitz and I break things down after a tough week for Notre Dame football.

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KA: First off — congrats on the pick. What made you think that was going to happen? (A Spartans’ win)

JJ: It was mostly a distrust of the Brian VanGorder defense. It didn’t come through last year against Stanford and it didn’t come through against Texas. And until further notice, you never bet against a streak, right? Though I guess I didn’t get MSU enough credit. (I went with 27-26 MSU)

But the loss wasn’t all on the defense. How would you evaluate the offense going forward?

KA: I’m pretty down on the offensive line play. I thought the front five has been underwhelming, I think we got WAY too excited about McGlinchey and Nelson as some type of wrecking crew, and I think, in general, these guys look a lot like a group with four new starters (at least positionally) working together for the first time.

JJ: Bingo. It’s certainly not for a lack of talent, but sometimes O-lines need time to come together. We’re seeing that now. I mean, last year, ND was 4th in opportunity rate. This year, they’re 79th. There are problems on O, no doubt.

KA:  But I think we owe it to the people with pitchforks and torches to circle back to the D.
So let me ask you this: Give me your odds (%wise) on Brian VanGorder being the team’s defensive coordinator come spring practice?

(too hot?)😎

JJ: I guess I don’t want to speculate about a guy losing his job, but I’ll say this, that just because Brian Kelly is defending him now doesn’t mean his job is safe.

KA: That’s fair. I just think it’s amazing that we’ve all essentially called the guy GONE, when BK is saying the exact opposite thing.

JJ: Giving up on a coach after three games and publicly putting him on the hot seat probably is counter-productive for a season that still has 10 weeks left in it.

KA: Couldn’t agree more. And I thought one of the big things BK had to say last week that struck me was his commentary on the personnel and the players that they recruited.

If I have a big revelation — I’m just kind of coming to the conclusion that it’s just as much about the Jimmys and the Joes as it is about the Xs and the Os. Which scares me a bit, but also explains things from a coaching POV.

JJ: Right, but it’s not an excuse.

KA: But why isn’t it an excuse? This team lost: The Butkus Award winner, their leading sacker, their leading TFL DT, a captain at MLB, a 3rd round CB, their starting free safety and starting SS. Why are we surprised they’re worse?

JJ: Because the players ultimately were recruited by the coaching staff. If the personnel isn’t there, it first and foremost falls on the guys who brought them in, which is sort of what Kelly was getting at.

I guess we shouldn’t be surprised, based on that. But this is college football, where every roster cycles through players on a four-year cycle. You have to be able to replace them.
Indeed.

JJ: At other schools, a down year is fine. But the expectations at Notre Dame don’t allow for that.

KA: It’s kind of maddening. The Tenuta era was a long time ago—and I don’t think this is THAT bad — but it’s now in a similar conversation.

(Palette cleanser)

So is Duke just a perfect slump buster? Or is there something about this game that scares you, too?

JJ: Duke’s efficient passing offense is a bit troublesome. But they only scored 27 combined points against Wake Forest and Northwestern, which, meh. And Notre Dame hasn’t scored fewer than 28 points at home since Oct. 4, 2014 vs. Stanford.

Are you worried about anything for this one?

KA: I’m now in “worried about everything” mode. So yes, to be candid. And mostly because I’ve done a 180 on just about every defender NOT named James Onwualu, Isaac Rochell and Nyles Morgan. I’d bet Duke and take the 17 points, and then it’d be the first time ever I lost money on ND and they ended up winning convincingly.

(Strictly from a hypothetical gambling POV, of course…)

JJ: At this juncture, style points don’t matter. Notre Dame isn’t making the playoff, but just winning games is the most important thing. So even if it’s a sloppy win…hey, it’s a win, and ND will take it.

KA: That’s a really important point. And one that I really struggled to get across in my writing post-Michigan State loss. We spent a solid DECADE as ND people watching the Irish get out of September with multiple losses. Never once did it feel like the season was “lost,” at least not with nine games to go.

JJ: And it’s certainly not lost for the 80+ players inside the Gug. Torii Hunter said this week that getting to 10 wins still would be a good accomplishment, and James Onwualu basically said that playing for personal pride should count for a lot.

KA: 10 wins would be an incredible season — no matter the year. It doesn’t happen all that often around here.

I’ll have you do the same thought-exercise I did this week: How much have you changed your expectations for the remaining schedule after seeing how straight-up bad this D is?

JJ: So I predicted 10 wins before the season, either through a 9-3 regular season + bowl win of 10-2 regular season + bowl loss. I think now, the 2013 team is about my expectation, probably 9-4.

KA: So a loss to Stanford and Miami and a win against USC?

JJ: And if Notre Dame is competitive with Stanford and beats Miami, I’ll be more willing to go back to my preseason prediction.

KA: At least Irish fans can enjoy the schadenfreude with USC.

JJ:  Miami is weird. Maybe that win that game and lose to NC State or Navy or Army or something.

KA: It’s nuts. Army looks downright terrifying. I actually think Syracuse’s up-tempo attack looks pretty scary, too.

JJ: Yeah, that’s a topic for next week. Fear the Babers.

KA:  Okay – let’s get positive here! Give me 3 things areas or players who’ll take a big step forward this weekend?

JJ: The O-line, the D-Line and DeShone Kizer. I think this O-line coalesces at some point — you have to trust the talent and Hiestand. The D-line has individually played well but not consistently as a unit. But I like what I’ve seen in spurts from Cage/Jones, Tillery and Rochell. And DeShone Kizer is very good and will only continue to grow on being very good.

KA:  I’ll give you mine: Big day on Special Teams (gonna get crazy and call for a block or 40+ yard return), the TRUE freshmen, and the pass rush. (First sack coming!)

JJ: It has to, right?

I’ll give you my projection: Notre Dame 42, Duke 27

KA: I’ll give you, ND 37, Duke 21.No cover. ND win.

Looks like a summer day this weekend in South Bend — don’t get too crazy drinking Tim O’Malley’s free Cherry Coke.

Kizer already getting his NFL closeup

DeShone Kizer
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Even after an impressive debut season, DeShone Kizer managed to fly under the radar. It could’ve been his star-studded teammates. Or the fact that he was still fighting for a starting job. But an ascent that seemed utterly predictable wasn’t necessarily that.

After all, this May, ESPN’s draft guru Mel Kiper a list of his top quarterbacks—and Kizer’s name was nowhere to be found. Ready for your

Not anymore.

Since Kizer lit up Texas he hasn’t stopped. And people have taken notice. While caveats should apply to some NFL Draft experts—the similarities to grilling aficionados and amateur lawn-care specialists are sometimes applicable—some very pedigreed pundits have Kizer quickly turning into a guy who may decided this season is his last at the college level.

The MMQB did an in-depth feature on Kizer and talked to several former Notre Dame quarterbacks about their impressions of the Irish’s starting quarterback, while also digging into the fact that Notre Dame hasn’t had a breakthrough quarterback in quite some time.

So even if Jimmy Clausen, Brady Quinn, or Rick Mirer didn’t turn into the stars they seemed destined to be, what has them so certain about Kizer?

Give the story a read, but here are a few great quotes on Kizer that came from former Irish greats.

“I’m watching that play. And I know right away. Here’s the guy. Here’s the next great Notre Dame quarterback,” former quarterback and receiver Carlyle Holiday told MMQB.

“The way he’s handled himself since that play makes you think he can succeed at the next level,” Mirer said.

“He has great pocket presence, he moves around, he’s always ready to release the ball when guys are breaking, he gives them nice, catchable balls. He’s a tough kid, and you can tell the other 10 guys on the field respond to him. I mean if you’re building a team, what other qualities would you want?” former Irish star Jarious Jackson said.

And then there’s Brady Quinn. The former Browns quarterback hopes that Kizer isn’t the guy Cleveland turns to when they look to solve their franchise woes.

“If DeShone goes to Cleveland next year, he’ll get a first-hand experience of very poor ownership and, unfortunately, a poor long-term and short-term vision of how to build success,” Quinn said.

A very good read by Emily Kaplan who digs into the psychology of playing quarterback at Notre Dame.

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Meanwhile over at Bleacher Report, Matt Miller turned his focus to Kizer and likes everything he sees. With a comp of Ben Roethlisberger and projections of Kizer being capable of being a “instant starter” like Carson Wentz, Miller sums up his thoughts on Kizer with this praise:

Through three weeks of college football, Kizer sits atop the quarterback board. Even as a redshirt sophomore, the projection on him is so high that if he were to enter the draft, he would be the top-ranked quarterback.

That’s not to say that Kizer is right now more pro-ready than Deshaun Watson or Brad Kaaya—it’s too early for that type of opinion—but that his ultimate potential is higher than any other draft-eligible quarterback in college.

 

There’s still so much football left to be played. But after going through leave-or-not scenarios with guys like Ronnie Stanley, Will Fuller, Jaylon Smith and Zack Martin, Notre Dame appears to have another player who’ll have a difficult decision in front of him.

And in that corner… The Duke Blue Devils

DURHAM, NC - SEPTEMBER 10:  Josh Okonye #24 of the Wake Forest Demon Deacons tackles Johnathan Lloyd #5 of the Duke Blue Devils during their game at Wallace Wade Stadium on September 10, 2016 in Durham, North Carolina.  (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
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Notre Dame needs to turn the page. Desperate to get a win on Saturday and even their record at 2-2, a struggling Duke team might be just the answer.

Yet David Cutcliffe’s program is far from the doormat it once was. And even with a slow start to the 2015 season, the veteran head coach has won at least eight games in each of the last three seasons, including a Pinstripe Bowl win last year against Indiana.

But with the season seemingly derailed this August when returning starting quarterback Thomas Sirk suffered a torn achilles, Cutcliffe had to adapt. And to get us up to speed on that reboot is Amrith Ramkumar.

Ramukmar is a senior at Duke from Norman, Oklahoma. He’s the editor-in-chief emeritus on the school’s newspaper, The Chronicle, and now serves as the sports editor when he’s not studying political science.

Amrith went deep to get us up to speed on Saturday afternoon’s game.

 

 

Did the trajectory of this season change when Thomas Sirk went down in late August? How have David Cutcliffe and offensive coordinator Zac Roper adapted with Daniel Jones at the helm?

This is a difficult question to answer because no one really knows how healthy Sirk was before the season-ending injury—he was still recovering from the February Achilles tear when he suffered a partial tear that knocked him out of the season in August. With that said, all indications were that Sirk was recovering well and would have been available around this time of the season, so I would say the August injury still did change the trajectory of the season.

Not only was Sirk Duke’s leading passer and rusher last season, he was also the team’s undisputed leader and gave the offense an identity as a power-running team—something it has largely lacked through three games. With Jones at the helm, Duke is running its quarterback much less, which has made life easier for opposing defenses. Sirk averaged 4.9 yards per carry last year on a combination of both designed runs and heady scrambles when the pocket broke down, an element of the offense the Blue Devils could desperately use this year with a shaky offensive line.

Although it seems like Jones might be a better pure passer than Sirk, he does not have the offensive line or weapons on the outside to consistently make defenses pay for crowding the line of scrimmage. The result has been that Duke is forced to rely almost solely on its short passing game to move the football, and too often turnovers and penalties are making that strategy backfire.

 

After an early-season win in the opener, the Blue Devils have followed that with two tough losses, the first to Wake Forest and last Saturday to Northwestern. For Notre Dame fans who have been too busy wallowing in misery after their own team’s 1-2 start, can you quickly diagnose any of the major issues that have led to two somewhat surprising losses?

Cutcliffe said it best after the Northwestern game—Duke has been consistently inconsistent in every aspect of the game. Offensively, the Blue Devil offensive line has struggled to open holes for two of Duke’s most talented players in running backs Jela Duncan and Shaun Wilson, which is putting too much pressure on Jones to carry the load with his arm. The Blue Devils have been one of the most disciplined teams in the nation the past four years, but so far in 2016 are beating themselves with 10 turnovers through three games and more than seven penalties per contest.

Duke’s defense has had several bright spots, shutting Wake Forest down early in that game then eventually slowing down Northwestern’s running game. But when the offense starts floundering, the defense is easily worn down, and in the second half of both games the Blue Devils gave up several explosive plays that decided the game.

The major issues extend to the kicking game as well. The Blue Devils had two four-time All-ACC kickers in kicker Ross Martin and punter Will Monday graduate last spring, and their replacements have again taken away a critical part of the team’s identity. True freshman kicker A.J. Reed has missed three field goals inside 40 yards and redshirt freshman punter Austin Parker has also looked uncomfortable, dropping a perfect snap against Northwestern to set up the Wildcats’ go-ahead touchdown in the third quarter.

All of that uncertainty in all three phases has compounded, and the result is that Duke has just 27 points in its last 10 quarters.

 

Defensively, Jim Knowles unit has held up thus far — though it struggled to stop the run against Wake Forest and then gave up big plays through the air against Northwestern. Offensive hasn’t necessarily been the problem for DeShone Kizer and Notre Dame. How should they attack the Blue Devils’ defense?

As you mentioned, Duke’s defense has been solid in the first half this season, but once the Blue Devils get worn down, they begin to crack. Notre Dame should use Kizer’s mobility and its strength up front to force Duke to commit extra bodies near the line of scrimmage and shut down the running game. That should open up big-play opportunities through the air as the game wears on, and if Notre Dame can keep its early drives alive and make the Duke defense tire, the Fighting Irish offense should have another big game.

 

Conversely, Notre Dame’s defense has struggled from Day One, though held up against Nevada just fine. With a slow start to the season, is Duke’s offense poised to break out this Saturday? And if so, who are your candidates for a big weekend?

Duke’s offense doesn’t look like it’s poised to break out, simply because it keeps getting in its own way after crossing midfield. The Blue Devils do have talent on that side of the ball at skill positions, though, and if they can protect Jones, I would expect Duke to try to get Wilson and wideout Chris Taylor the ball in space.

Wilson is one of the Blue Devils’ fastest players and has nice hands coming out of the backfield—his 39-yard reception against Northwestern set up Duke’s only touchdown. I could see Cutcliffe and Roper coming up with some creative ways to get Wilson involved just to see if they can jump-start the offense, and the same can be said for Taylor.

Taylor is one of the few Blue Devil receivers with the speed to get behind the defense. Against Wake Forest, that resulted in one of the Blue Devil’s longest passes of the season, and against Northwestern he broke free again but Jones could not complete the pass. When protected, Jones has shown he can throw a nice deep ball, so if Notre Dame gives the redshirt freshman enough time, I could see Taylor having a breakout game with the Fighting Irish likely focusing on starters T.J. Rahming and Anthony Nash.

 

David Cutcliffe is becoming too well-recognized to retain his title as the country’s most under-appreciated head coach. But can you help explain what a good job he’s done at Duke? And while it was well before your time following the team, can you let Irish fans know what they missed out on when Cutcliffe had to leave Charlie Weis’ first coaching staff because of health issues?

The stat that I still struggle to wrap my head around is that in the eight years before Duke hired Cutcliffe, the Blue Devils won 10 football games. In places like South Bend and my hometown of Norman, Okla., 10 is considered about par for the course in a season. The fact that Duke went 10-2 in the 2013 regular season and won 48 games in Cutcliffe’s first eight years is pretty remarkable.

The Blue Devils are in a tough spot this season, but the overall talent level has increased immeasurably since he arrived. It’s becoming common for Duke fans to turn on NFL games and see former Duke players like Laken Tomlinson, Jamison Crowder and Ross Cockrell playing on Sundays. It’s no longer a shock when recruits at quarterback and running back are turning down the nation’s best programs to come to Durham, and the team’s facilities and talent level are starting to reflect that. The way Cutcliffe has prioritized bringing in the right type of players and coaches for Duke’s program has drawn comparisons to what Coach K did for the basketball team during his first 10 years, and up to this point the results have backed it up. Cutcliffe has simply transformed the football culture at the school.

As far as what Notre Dame missed out on, I have just been struck with how Cutcliffe has managed to adapt his system to different personnel so far at Duke. He is known as a quarterback guru, but actually has not had top-tier recruits to work with at that position. Yet he still got amazing production out of Sean Renfree, Anthony Boone and Sirk last year. Whether it was finding more ways to get Crowder the ball in space or using the quarterback more as a designed runner, he always seems to work out the right formula to get the job done. It has not come together yet so far this season, but I’ll be shocked if the Blue Devils don’t make major strides by the time the year is finished.

 

Notre Dame opens up as pretty heavy favorites — 17 points. What’s the perfect recipe for a Duke upset?

The recipe for Duke is simple—the Blue Devils have to run the ball to shorten the game and win the turnover battle for the first time this season. Whether it’s using Jones or backup Parker Boehme, Duncan, Wilson or even another running back, Duke has almost no chance if it lets Notre Dame tee off on Jones. If the Blue Devils can keep the Fighting Irish defense honest and avoid the mistakes that have haunted them lately, they could give themselves a chance.

Duke’s defense has come up with some big plays this year and has been much more effective rushing the passer. If it can force Kizer into some mistakes and finally capitalize on offense and special teams, the Blue Devils could keep this one close. Ultimately, I see Notre Dame’s superior talent in the trenches wearing Duke down once again, but if the Blue Devils can finally get their offensive line comfortable, they could surprise the home team.

 

Kelly confident that his team will work through the struggles

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 17:  Torii Hunter Jr. #16 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish catches a pass in front of Tyson Smith #15 of the Michigan State Spartans during a game at Notre Dame Stadium on September 17, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana.  Michigan State defeated Notre Dame 36-28. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
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Notre Dame’s season isn’t over. A young Irish team certainly hasn’t cleaned out their lockers, or given up on playing meaningful games past last Saturday night’s disappointment.

That may not be a popular stance for Irish fans grumbling about Brian Kelly‘s first 1-2 start since 2011, and the third of his time in South Bend. But the Irish head coach has preached the long view to his young team, with just the first quarter of the season complete and plenty more ahead.

“Three games into the season, nobody wants to be where we are, but we are 1-2. I’m a 1-2 coach. We’ve got to work to get better,” Kelly said. “There’s four quarters in the season, and the first quarter, we did not get off to a good start. But there is plenty of time for us to come out of this in a very, very positive way. That’s what we talked about over the last day or so.”

So the Irish move forward with plenty to work on before Duke comes to town this weekend. And Kelly will continue to work as his staff pushes the fundamentals to a young and inexperienced group of defenders, putting faith in the personnel on the field as they take the lumps that come with playing rookies at key positions like safety, corner, nickel and Will linebacker.

“If you believe that all the things that you can do as a coach and all the things that you’re doing from preparation are being covered, then there’s not much more you can do other than believing in your players, working to get better each and every week, and sticking by them so that they improve and get better as the year progresses,” Kelly said.

“I believe the group’s going to get better each and every week. Some of the mistakes that were made out there are fundamental errors that are correctible errors. That’s why I believe we’re going to continue to get better in that area.”

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Kelly talked about Cole Luke and the tough Saturday he had. And as you might have guessed, he’s not ready to give up on his senior cornerback—even if he had a tough night against Michigan State.

“Cole is a good player. He’s the smartest defensive player we have,” Kelly said. “He’s got to play with a sense of urgency. He’s got to catch that football. He’s got to make that tackle. He’s got to stay above the cut and be in good position to break on number one. He’s got to do all those things, and he’s capable of doing them, and he knows that.

“He’s just got to go make some plays. We’ve got to rely on him because he’s a three-year starter for us out there, and he’s got to be able to play better for us, and I’m confident he will.”

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Notre Dame’s tackling has been suspect. Kelly and his defensive staff understand that. But don’t expect the Irish head coach to meddle with Brian VanGorder’s unit or take over the teaching. The Irish staff is confident in the plan and teaching they have in place, and Kelly talked about what they’ve done to try and correct the problem, with the Irish head coach breaking down the specifics of the fundamental issue.

“Our problem is we don’t go from speed to power,” Kelly explained. “We go from speed to speed. And we miss tackles, and that’s not how we teach it. So we’ve got to communicate it better. We’ve got to break it down.”

Breaking it down means looking at every missed tackle, something Kelly did this week. And his diagnosis after watching the tape?

“I tracked all of our missed tackles, every single one of them is just poor fundamentally,” Kelly said. “Out of control, not being in control of their body. And if we’re just in a better position, a better football position, if we just put ourselves in front of the ball carrier and get run over and hold on for dear life, they’re only going to get another yard or two.”

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Notre Dame’s special teams mishaps were also a big part of the problem on Saturday. So while C.J. Sanders has turned into the Irish’s best return weapon since Kelly has been in South Bend, he’s also got a ton of young kids playing in the third phase. That’s made for some uneven performances, but it’s a group that Kelly thinks will do some very good things before the season is over.

Kelly applauded the blocking on the kickoff return that Sanders ran back for a touchdown, calling the hold that Jalen Elliott was flagged for simply “a kid (who) tried to do a little bit too much away from the main play.” The short kick that hit Miles Boykin was a tough situation, and one that Kelly said will be remedied by Sanders running to the football and screaming, with every player doing a better job of knowing where the football is.

“It’s a bit of a mixed bag,” Kelly acknowledged. “I’m not standing here to condemn my special teams unit. They did some really good things. I think it’s a trending group. They’re doing some really good things. We’ve got to clean up some of those mistakes.”

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With struggles on the field frustrating fans and coaches alike, an interesting question was posed to Kelly when he was asked about how he deals with struggling players. After seeing Nick Coleman targeted after losing a few key battles against Texas and Luke getting thrown at against the Spartans, some wonder when Kelly and his staff will draw the line and make a change.

Fans—as they often do—call for the backup. Kelly and his staff—as long as the player is giving his best effort and is the best player for the job—sticks with his best man, letting him work through the struggles.

“I just let him go. He’ll break out of it. As long as he’s giving us everything that we have and we’ve evaluated him as being the best player we have at that position, just keep playing,” Kelly said.

“It will come. You’ve just got to keep playing.”

Irish land blue-chip DE Donovan Jeter

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On a weekend that went the wrong way for the Irish on the field, Notre Dame landed a key piece of the future at a position of need. Pennsylvania DE Donovan Jeter committed to the Irish on Monday, making the decision less than 24 hours after taking his official visit.

Jeter picked Notre Dame over offers from Ohio State, Alabama, Tennessee, Penn State Michigan and Pitt. His brother plays basketball for Pitt.

The 6-foot-5, 250-pound defensive end is a four-star prospect with national offers. He plays a position where the Irish clearly need to get better, as we saw last weekend. And Jeter will help, a prospect who compares favorably at this age to Isaac Rochell, a strongside defensive end who has some pass rush skills as well.

Jeter took to Twitter to make the announcement:

Notre Dame’s pipeline into Western Pennsylvania is well established. In the 2017 class alone, Jeter joins linebacker David Adams, defensive lineman Kurt Hinish and offensive lineman Josh Lugg. The 2018 cycle already has quarterback Phil Jurkovec, one of the nation’s top prospects. And give Hinish an assist for landing Jeter, who had all but crossed the Irish off his list.

This from Blue & Gold’s Corey Bodden—who also details recruiting coordinator Mike Elston’s relentless pursuit of Jeter.

“Honestly Notre Dame wasn’t even in my top five [in July],” Jeter said. “I was at Kennywood [Amusement Park] with Kurt Hinish. He was just on my case like ‘you’ve got to come to Notre Dame with me and this and that.’ Me and Kurt are good friends…so on the way home I was thinking ‘well they are Notre Dame’ and I put them back in.

“[Coach Elston] played a big role because he almost talked to me almost every day. Just checking on me and pitching me on Notre Dame. It worked out. Not every college talks to someone almost every day. It just showed I was important to them.”

That’s 18 members in the 2017 recruiting cycle, with Jeter ranked near the top of the heap. The Irish will have another big recruiting weekend for the Stanford game, with a handful of other national prospects set to come to campus.