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

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Notre Dame finished the early signing period with 21 signatures thanks to consensus four-star receiver Braden Lenzy’s (Tigard High School; Portland, Ore.) commitment on Friday. That leaves at least four spots for February signees on the traditional National Signing Day, Feb. 7.

If the right players wanted to commit to the Irish, the class could expand as high as 29 players without straining against NCAA rules. Early enrollees can be counted toward the previous class, meaning Notre Dame could chalk up four of the seven early enrollees as part of the class of 2017, which had only 21 pledges. Thus, neither class would exceed the ceiling of 25 prospects.

It is more likely 25 remains the mark to meet this year, at the most.

“We’re not going to take guys just to take guys, they’ve got to address needs,” Irish recruiting director Brian Polian said Wednesday. “We could go to 24, 25. We may go to 21, 22. We’ll see how it plays out here through the course of the rest of the recruiting period.”

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly outlined those needs. At that point, receiver was still in the discussion, but Lenzy’s commitment diminishes that need drastically.

“Defensive back is still in play for us, offensive line is still in play, and then best player available,” Kelly said. “I would probably highlight them in that fashion.”

Ten players seem most likely to fill those remaining scholarships and roster spots …

Consensus four-star safety Julius Irivin (Servite High School; Anaheim, Calif.)
The No. 8 safety in the class per rivals.com and the No. 87 prospect overall, Irvin appeared set to decide between Notre Dame, Washington and USC this week before a family emergency prompted him to delay his signing until February.

Consensus four-star cornerback Noah Boykin (H.D. Woodson H.S.; Washington, D.C.)
The No. 20 cornerback in the class and the No. 193 prospect overall, Boykin (pictured above) committed to Maryland in July but did not sign a National Letter of Intent this week. In other words, he is hardly committed. Such is the transparency the early signing period provides.

“It clears up a lot of the uncertainty in this process of guys not committed when they should be still visiting other schools and saying that they’re soft verbal [commitments],” Kelly said to explain his favorite part of this new process. “That never made any sense to me.”


Rivals.com four-star/247sports.com five-star offensive tackle Nick Petit-Frere (Berkeley Prep; Tampa, Fla.)
The No. 7 offensive tackle and No. 67 prospect overall, Petit-Frere has kept his recruitment thoughts close to the vest. He visited both Notre Dame and Michigan this fall and has shown interest in Alabama and Florida, as well.

Consensus three-star offensive tackle Luke Jones (Pulaski Academy, Little Rock, Ark.)
The No. 45 offensive tackle in the class per rivals.com, Jones mirrors Boykin. Jones committed to Arkansas in July but did not put pen to paper — or finger to cellphone screen, as would most likely be — this week. The difference lies in the coaching change at Arkansas. That alone could be the reason for Jones’ delay, wanting to gauge a possible relationship with new head coach Chad Morris, formerly of Southern Methodist University.


Malik Langham (rivals.com)

Consensus three-star defensive end Malik Langham (Lee H.S.; Huntsville, Ala.)
The No. 38 defensive end in the class, Langham toes the line between an Irish positional need and the “best player available” distinction. Notre Dame only offered him in December, joining the likes of his homestate Alabama and a few other SEC options.

Kelly made it clear Wednesday he will not pursue defensive linemen, specifically defensive ends, unless they fit a broader mold for the Irish. He has that luxury this cycle thanks to the continued progression of the four current sophomores at defensive end, led by Daelin Hayes and Khalid Kareem.

“We’re not going to take somebody just to take somebody in this class at that position,” Kelly said. “It has to do certainly that there is a need there, but if the fit is not there, we’re not going down that route unless the right fit is there.”

Consensus three-star defensive tackle Moro Ojomo (Katy; Texas)
Consensus three-star defensive tackle Otito Ogbonnia (Taylor H.S.; Katy, Texas)
Notre Dame extended offers to both these Texas products this week. Reading between the lines, that could point toward expectations of current junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery heading to the NFL Draft, creating a need for more depth in the defensive interior.


Consensus five-star receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown (Mater Dei H.S.; Anaheim, Calif.)
The youngest brother of current Irish junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown, Amon-Ra certainly fits the “best player available” qualifications. Rivals.com considers him the No. 1 receiver in the class and No. 3 prospect in the country. Notre Dame would jump at the chance to sign him even with the talented trio of receivers already committed. Plus, it would mean the Irish beat out USC, a victory just to not have to face a talent like St. Brown every season.

The Trojans gained another edge in this race, though, when St. Brown’s high school quarterback and the top passer in the class of 2019, JT Daniels, reclassified into the class of 2018 on Friday. He has been a staunch USC commit since July.

Consensus three-star receiver Lawrence Keys (McDonogh 35; New Orleans, La.)
The likelihood of Keys ending up with Notre Dame decreased significantly with Lenzy’s commitment, but if the Irish have a spot open come Feb. 7 and Keys wants it, there would be little reason to turn him away.


Consensus four-star linebacker Solomon Tuliaupupu (Mater Dei H.S.; Anaheim, Calif.)
It may be outright greedy of Notre Dame to look for the signing of a fifth linebacker, four of which would be four-star prospects, but Tuliaupupu might rival Jack Lamb (Great Oak; Temecula, Calif.) as the best of the bunch. Rivals.com slots Tuliaupupu as the No. 3 inside linebacker in the country and No. 94 overall prospect.

Notre Dame signs consensus four-star WR Braden Lenzy at end of early signing period

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Notre Dame finished the early signing period with a flash Friday night thanks to the commitment of consensus four-star speedster receiver Braden Lenzy (Tigard High School; Portland, Ore.). Lenzy’s signature ends a circuitous recruitment right back where it began.

Lenzy first committed to the Irish in February before flipping to Oregon in June, primarily citing concerns about his ability to run track at Notre Dame. When Ducks head coach Willie Taggart took the head job at Florida State, Lenzy once again reopened his commitment, narrowing the possibilities to Notre Dame, Oregon and UCLA.

When I made my official visit [to Notre Dame] last week after opening my recruitment back up, I had this one moment of clarity that I’d been waiting for without knowing it,” Lenzy wrote in an essay announcing his commitment on The Players’ Tribune. “I was walking out of the locker room and onto the field. The weather wasn’t great — it was 30° outside and snowing — but for some reason it also seemed perfect. It was almost like an itch had finally been scratched.”

He joins consensus four-star Kevin Austin (North Broward Prep; Pompano Beach, Ill.) and rivals.com four-star Micah Jones (Warren Township; Gurnee, Ill.) to form an excellent grouping of receivers in the now 21-commit class.

When the first 20 of those, including Austin and Jones, signed Wednesday, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly pointed to receiver as an area the Irish would continue to recruit after praising the committed duo.

“Obviously, we need to continue to recruit at that position,” Kelly said. “We’re hoping to add to that position in this cycle to balance off the receiving crew.”

It is within reason Notre Dame looks for even another receiver if that player fits Kelly’s description of “best player available,” the third priority remaining behind defensive back and offensive line.

BRADEN LENZY
Tigard High School; Portland, Ore.
Measurements: 6’0”, 170 lbs.
Accolades: Consensus four-star; No. 13 receiver in the class per rivals.com and No. 3 prospect in Oregon.
Other Notable Offers:
Lenzy could have gone nearly anywhere in the Pac-12, including USC, Stanford or Washington State. Instead, his recruitment always centered around Notre Dame and Oregon with UCLA gaining ground in the race once Chip Kelly was hired as head coach.
Projected position:
Receiver
Quick Take:
You can’t teach speed, and Lenzy has it. That alone will get him on the field early. Irish coach Brian Kelly has always preferred to have at least one speedster on the field to take the top off the defense. (See: Chris Brown, Will Fuller, Kevin Stepherson.) With hands providing legitimacy to that deep threat, Lenzy offers a dynamic option.
Short-Term Roster Outlook:
If Lenzy had signed the first day of the early signing period, this bit would have read much differently. Then, current sophomore Kevin Stepherson would have stood staunchly between Lenzy and consistent playing time. Now, Stepherson’s future at Notre Dame is very much in doubt. Thus, Kelly and offensive coordinator Chip Long could be looking for a new deep yet shifty playmaker. Lenzy fits that bill better than any other receiver already on the roster.
Long-View Depth Chart Impact:
The trio of Austin, Jones and Lenzy makes for a complete set of receivers in one class. Austin could someday be the starter at the field position (a la current junior Equanimeous St. Brown in ideal scenarios) with Jones on the boundary (think of sophomore Chase Claypool) and Lenzy in the slot but able to quickly move to a sideline to force a defense’s hand.

On Stepherson
WNDU, the South Bend affiliate of NBC, reports Stepherson was pulled over on Dec. 14 and charged with possession of marijuana, speeding and lacking a valid driver’s license. It was just a day later he and freshman running back C.J. Holmes were arrested for shoplifting.

Suffice it to say, it is difficult to see any scenario where Stepherson remains with the Irish much longer.

RELATED READING: WR Lenzy makes 11th commitment, brings speed to Irish (Feb. 23)

Notre Dame loses four-star WR (June 15)

Friday at 4: Context shows Notre Dame succeeded in the early signing period

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Notre Dame should claim the early signing period as a resounding success. It’s that simple.

Dismiss the rankings, though they point to a top-10 status. Realize stars are meaningless once players reach the field, even if half the 20 signed commits as of publishing have been deemed four-star prospects. Ignore headlines of heroes, partly because they’ll mostly focus on consensus four-star quarterback Phil Jurkovec (Pine-Richland High School; Gibsonia, Pa.)

RELATED READING: Notre Dame gets the letter: Phil Jurkovec, consensus four-star quarterback

The Irish handed the inaugural December signing period well, largely because they were ready for it. In signing the 20 — and again, that figure is accurate as of 4 p.m. ET on Friday — the Notre Dame coaching staff did exactly what it needed to.

It needed to find defensive playmakers, specifically defensive backs. It needed to throw in a few more playmakers among the receiver corps to (hopefully) spark someone to rise to the top, even more so the case given other events this week. Irish head coach Brian Kelly needed to land a top-tier quarterback after securing only good ones the last two cycles.

Context matters more than rankings or stars. Fit determines the roster more than hype. Talent is found, not touted.

For that matter, there is a phrase about a bird in the hand and its relative value compared to multiple birds chirping in a bush. Notre Dame has 20 commits signed. It could be argued no program in the country had a better week recruiting.

“What do I like about this [early] signing day? It’s put the commitment back in commitment and really what that means,” Kelly said Wednesday. “No more soft commitments.

“… Let’s take the hype out of it. Let’s let these young men decide based upon what’s in their best interest for their future. Let’s take the circus atmosphere away from signing and let’s get back to making a decision that’s going to be in your best interest for the next 40 years of your life.”

This was always going to be the most difficult recruiting cycle to succeed in from a logistics standpoint, no matter how much a 9-3 Irish resurgence may have helped the cause. In order for a high school senior to sign his National Letter of Intent with Notre Dame, he first needed to gain early admittance to the University.

Getting that admittance is not an easy task with any version of timing. Requiring every commit to manage it six weeks earlier only furthers the difficulty. Perhaps it would not have been an issue for 18 or 19 of the 20, but simply based on the numbers, to go 20-for-20 stands out.

“[The early signing period] puts the onus on the young men in terms of academics,” Irish recruiting director Brian Polian said. “We’re not a place that can sign a guy and not have a test score. There are places in the country where guys are waiting on their first SAT to come back and they can deal with that. Ours is not a place that can do that.”

Further complicating the expedited timeline was the abbreviated nature on the front-end. The early signing period was not officially approved until June. This class did not have the luxury of the earlier official visits also approved then. Moving forward, schools can pay for visits of high school juniors in April, May and June, rather than having to wait until the fall of their senior years. Without that altered timeline leading this recruiting cycle but still with a December deadline awaiting, a time crunch was created. Polian referred to it as “a condensed calendar.”

“We’re not a school that 80 percent of our class can drive here for an unofficial visit, so the sped-up timing of the early signing day combined with not being able to bring young men here officially in the spring and summer made it a little bit difficult and unique,” Polian said.

Nonetheless, Notre Dame hit its marks.

Consensus four-star safety Derrik Allen (Lassiter High School; Marietta, Ga.) could force his way into the starting conversation his freshman season. Consensus four-star defensive back Houston Griffith (IMG Academy; Bradenton, Fla.) immediately patches the depth concerns stemming from not signing any cornerbacks a year ago. Of the three other defensive backs, if so much as one becomes a regular contributor, the Irish hit on a sustainable rate of success.

“If you bat .500-.600 in a recruiting class and look up and say we had two or three starters and impactful players and good kids and good students, then you’re doing a heck of a job,” Polian said, referencing his Pro Football Hall of Fame father’s track record. “Obviously, we feel good, because they’re ours, they are in our family. We don’t feel like we made any mistakes but ultimately time will tell.”

Adding four linebackers fills a need after what may have been a lackluster signing a year ago. Even if current freshman David Adams and Drew White prove to be success stories, Notre Dame will lose seniors Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini this season and junior Te’von Coney could still yet head to the NFL Draft. Consensus four-star linebacker Jack Lamb (Great Oak H.S.; Temecula, Calif.) helps ease those worries dramatically.

If the Irish receivers disappointed this season — removing that if would not be an inaccurate decision — adding a multi-positional threat in consensus four-star Kevin Austin (North Broward Prep; Pompano Beach, Fla.) and a physical option in rivals.com four-star Micah Jones (Warren Township; Gurnee, Ill.) will force others to up their games lest they be passed by the newcomers. Notre Dame may still add another receiver in this period, too, with consensus four-star Braden Lenzy (Tigard; Portland, Ore.) expected to make a decision yet tonight. Adding the speedster would be the Christmas present the Irish did not think would arrive in the mail in time to make it under the tree.

This class fits Notre Dame’s needs already, and it isn’t done. Not every player needs to be a four- or five-star. That is not reasonable in any sense. Adding a number of them where the roster lacked means more than splashy names or outrageous claims.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame’s 12 defensive signees: Brian Kelly’s takes
Notre Dame’s eight offensive signees: Brian Kelly’s takes

Brian Kelly on suspensions, Notre Dame’s fifth-years’ timetable

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Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly expressed disappointment and perhaps even frustration when discussing the indefinite suspensions of Irish sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson and freshman running back C.J. Holmes on Thursday.

“We ask our players to be smart and make good choices,” Kelly said. “You’re always disappointed.

“They’re teenagers. I don’t go into this business expecting our kids to be perfect. We expect our kids to make good choices and when they don’t, they have to be held accountable. There’s always going to be growing experiences and the most important thing is to hold them accountable.”

Stemming from an arrest for shoplifting on Dec. 15, this marks the third “growing experience” for Stepherson. He was arrested in August of 2016 along with four teammates for marijuana possession and, separately, was held out of the first four games in 2017. Unsurprisingly, those previous missteps will factor into how Kelly measures indefinite this time around.

“I’m not going to get into the specifics of what [Stepherson’s] future is going to be but it’s clearly a young man that has made a poor choice and it’s not his first,” Kelly said. “We have to evaluate all those things before I make a final decision on his status here within the program.”

Both Stepherson and Holmes — and, for that matter, junior tight end Alizé Mack who is also suspended for the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1 vs. LSU for an internal team matter unrelated to academics — remain eligible with the University. To a degree, that lessens the need for Kelly to make an immediate decision about Stepherson’s future.

Kelly will not decide on Stepherson’s place with the program until after the bowl game, perhaps not even until the beginning of the spring academic semester.

“If I wasn’t to have him back in the football program, we want him to maintain his eligibility here so he can transfer to another program,” Kelly said. “… I’m not in a rush to do it. He’s suspended indefinitely and then I’ll make what I believe to be the decision based on what’s best for our football program.”

If Kelly does or does not opt to give Stepherson a fourth chance, it will be due to the (lack of) severity of the most-recent situation. On one hand, trying to dodge a double-digit purchase pales in comparison to, for example, getting arrested for possessing a handgun. On the other, shoplifting is a premeditated decision with a clear victim, even if that victim is a large corporation.

“If I could explain 18- to 21-year-olds and their thought processes after being in [coaching] for 27 years, I would have written that book already,” Kelly said. “We try to expose our kids to the foundational principles of making good decisions.

“They broke one of our commandments. You can’t steal. And they did. I can tolerate a lot of things, but I can’t tolerate stealing.”

Stepherson finished 2017 with 19 catches for 359 yards and five touchdowns with five rush attempts gaining 76 yards. In his freshman season, he caught 25 passes for 462 yards and five scores.

Fifth-year news forthcoming
Kelly and his staff know the plans for the seniors who may or may not return in 2018, but those roster decisions will not be announced until the season concludes, Kelly said.

Linebacker Drue Tranquill and tight end Nic Weishar have publicly declared intentions to return next season while defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner told Notre Dame’s student newspaper, The Observer, he does not plan to do so.

The most obvious other options for returning for fifth years of eligibility would be center Sam Mustipher, right guard Alex Bars, defensive end Jay Hayes, cornerback Nick Watkins and punter Tyler Newsome.

In a way, the same goes for any players considering entering the NFL Draft. Players who requested draft evaluations will receive them before heading home for Christmas.

Juniors defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, running back Josh Adams, receiver Equanimeous St. Brown and Mack are presumably weighing that option.

On Brandon Wimbush
The junior quarterback is now practicing without his Nos. 2 and 3 receivers in sophomore Chase Claypool and Stepherson, respectively, as well the fourth-leading producer (by receptions) in Mack. Kelly said Wimbush’s focus nonetheless remains on improving as a passer, no matter who he is targeting.

“He’s really focusing on his mechanics and being much more consistent throwing the football,” Kelly said. “… The last couple of days it’s really about him being more consistent in his delivery. I think he’s done a nice job in some of the things we’ve asked him to do mechanically.

“[The change in receivers] is not something he’s had to concern himself with as much as accuracy, delivering the ball on time, getting the ball out of his hands. It’s really about him and his focus on his work more than anything else.”

RELATED READING:
Notre Dame suspends WR Kevin Stepherson and RB C.J. Holmes
Claypool injured & out
Shoulder surgery sidelines Notre Dame TE Brock Wright

Notre Dame announces Alizé Mack suspension

Notre Dame announces Alizé Mack suspension

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Notre Dame junior tight end Alizé Mack joins the list of those who will miss the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1 against No. 17 LSU. Irish coach Brian Kelly announced a bowl game suspension for Mack on Thursday.

Mack missed the 2016 season due to an academic suspension, hence Kelly’s specific clarification. Furthermore, by declaring Mack’s issue arises from an internal issue, Kelly separated this matter from that around sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson and freshman running back C.J. Holmes. The latter duo has been suspended indefinitely after an arrest for shoplifting on Friday.

Mack finishes the season with 19 catches for 166 yards and a touchdown, missing the victory over Wake Forest due to a concussion and seeing less than a handful of snaps in the finale at Stanford.

Overall, the season qualifies as a disappointment for the supposed matchup nightmare. Many of the lackluster stats of Notre Dame’s receivers can be in part attributed to junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s inaccuracy and inconsistency, but Mack exacerbated that cause by repeatedly dropping passes and rarely creating the expected separation.

With him not in Orlando, Fla., the Irish will have only three tight ends available. Wednesday reports ruled out freshman Brock Wright due to shoulder surgery.

Either senior Nic Weishar — already planning on returning for a fifth year in 2018 — or freshman Cole Kmet will be looked to step into Mack’s role alongside fifth-year senior Durham Smythe. Weishar caught seven passes for 39 yards and two touchdowns in the regular season while Kmet added two catches for 12 yards.

RELATED READING:
Notre Dame suspends WR Kevin Stepherson and RB C.J. Holmes
Claypool injured & out
Shoulder surgery sidelines Notre Dame TE Brock Wright