Isaiah Robertson
Rivals / Yahoo Sports

Blue-Gold weekend kicks off with Isaiah Robertson commitment

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Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold weekend got off to a good start with the commitment of Illinois prospect Isaiah Robertson. The 6-foot-3, 205-pounder from Naperville became commitment number 10 for the 2017 recruiting class, a group that’s exponentially grown this spring.

Robertson is on campus this weekend for the spring game and made things official via social media:

A consensus, 4-star, top-200 prospect, Robertson is one of the top players in the Chicagoland area and has offers from a majority of the Big Ten, though not from the conference’s elite. But as a big-bodied athlete who can play on either side of the ball, the Irish staff felt good enough about their projections for his future and offered him earlier this month and very quickly Robertson awarded their faith with a commitment.

He spoke to BlueandGold.com’s Andrew Ivins about the decision:

“I have a good opportunity in front of me,” Robertson said two weeks ago when he landed an offer from the Irish during an unofficial visit.

“When I say opportunity I’m not even talking about football,” he added. “[I’m] mainly talking about academics, character building, connections, and just the kind of man I would be when my 4 years are up at Notre Dame.”

In many ways, Robertson feels like a James Onwualu-type prospect. As a high school prospect, Onwualu was a better football player than he was a positional player, and the Irish reaped the benefits of an early offer by watching him finding role in the starting lineup on both sides of the ball.

Robertson projects as a safety at the next level, with length and athleticism that’ll certainly play in the Irish’s rebuilt secondary. He’s starred as a prep receiver and safety as an 8A All-State performer, with the current thought being get him on campus as a skill recruit and go from there.

Notre Dame’s staff took to the net to make the commitment official, with recruiting coordinator Mike Elston weighing in and head coach Brian Kelly sending out the celebratory hashtag.

Robertson will join a number of fellow commitments on campus this weekend as the Irish continue to build out a 2017 recruiting class that’s currently viewed as one of the nation’s best.

Pregame Six Pack: Green Irish roster prepares for Blue-Gold game

Malik Zaire, John Turner, Jarrett Grace
AP
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For the 87th time, Notre Dame will play the Blue-Gold game. And for Irish fans tuning in for the first time this spring, they’ll likely need a new program.

As Brian Kelly’s seventh team in South Bend takes shape, it’ll look drastically different from the core of the previous two teams. Gone are standouts like Jaylon Smith, Will Fuller, Sheldon Day, Ronnie Stanley and Nick Martin. Captain Joe Schmidt no longer stands in the middle of the defense.

Offensively, the Irish are expected to retain their firepower, but they’ll do so without their leading rusher and three leading receivers. They’ll also need to replace three starters along the offensive line, the Irish without a Martin on the offensive line for the first time since Kelly took over.

For the second time in as many springs, the Blue-Gold game will give a national audience a look at one of the country’s most compelling quarterback battle. Only this time one quarterback isn’t likely to flee town.

With a picture perfect weather forecast and a good crowd expected, a new generation of Irish football players will step into the spotlight, their turn to build on the legacy of the group before them. With a senior class that set a record for winning games in Notre Dame Stadium, the bar has been raised.

Brian Kelly will be wired for sound. Friend of the program Jac Collinsworth will be holding it down on the sidelines in place of Kathryn Tappen who is on NHL duty. So let’s crack open a pregame six pack that ends in the perfect fashion: A 100-percent guaranteed Irish victory, televised live on NBCSN on Saturday at 12:30 p.m. ET.

 

Kizer versus Zaire will be the closest thing we see to a quarterback showdown. Blink and you might miss it. 

Brian Kelly raised some eyebrows when he confirmed that both quarterbacks would be live during the Blue-Gold game. (For how long? That’s the big question.) But as Kelly, offensive coordinator Mike Sanford and associate head coach Mike Denbrock try to get a better grasp on who’ll pilot the offense next fall, seeing both Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer in a natural environment is a necessary evil.

Both Zaire and Kizer will be aiming to impress on Saturday, each trying to make a final lasting impression before the long offseason months. For Zaire, he’ll once again remind people he’s a “lights-on” kind of quarterback, the type of player who elevates his play once he gets off the practice field and into a game situation. For Kizer, Saturday will be about dictating terms as a quarterback, showcasing the assets that made him one of the most impressive redshirt freshmen in the nation.

Kelly talked about having Zaire and Kizer both captain a team, pitting them against each other. He also talked about making both live—understanding that the zone read game will be a critical component of the offense. But don’t expect that to last.

Brandon Wimbush will eat up some of the snaps. So will fellow backups Montgomery VanGorder and walk-on Nolan Henry. The real goal is getting both Kizer and Zaire out of spring healthy, knowing that any final decision on playing time will be decided in the fall.

In the meantime, cherish our only great look at the battle all spring, because the next time you’ll see them is in August.

 

Will Jerry Tillery and Jarron Jones finally step forward in the last practice of spring? 

Brian VanGorder declared both defensive tackle jobs available heading into fall camp. And while just about everybody who follows the Irish have fifth-year senior Jarron Jones penciled in alongside sophomore Jerry Tillery, when VanGorder talks you’d be wise to listen.

While neither Tillery nor Jones were around yesterday to hear the third-year defensive coordinators comments, you can guess the message has been sent.

“If we started tomorrow, I am not sure who the starters would be,” VanGorder said. “I have an idea, but it’s going to be competitive going into training camp. No one has established themselves as a starter at the defensive tackle position. We will keep it competitive and see if we can grow and develop some young players.”

While we’ll get to see some of the young talent VanGorder referenced on the ascending defensive line, with Pete Mokwuah, Jonathan Bonner, Micah Dew-Treadway, Jay Hayes, Khalid Kareem, Elijah Taylor and Brandon Tiassum a strong core who could pick up some of the slack.

But these jobs needed to be seized by both Jones and Tillery, two mountainous men who could both wreak havoc against opposing offenses. Let’s see if the live action brings out the best in them.

 

For Folston, Crawford and Tranquill, getting onto the field for the Blue-Gold Game is gravy. 

That Tarean Folston, Shaun Crawford and Drue Tranquill have all rebounded and reasserted their position on the depth chart is impressive. Because in year’s past, they’d likely have spent 15 practices rehabilitating their knees and sitting in the cold tub.

The Irish’s trio of bad luck, season-ruining knees have all had ahead-of-schedule recoveries. Folston has reasserted himself at the top of the running back depth chart. Crawford has played his way into the conversation to start opposite Cole Luke when he’s not anchored into the all important job working in the slot. And Tranquill—two ACL tears in two seasons—is ready to go from the cold tub to the starting strong safety job.

How this trio is used on Saturday is anybody’s guess. But it’s already been a successful spring for three key contributors who worked hard to make it back to spring ball ahead of schedule.

 

With the depth chart open in front of him, Saturday could be a preview of Torii Hunter’s 2016 coming out party. 

After entering Notre Dame recovering from a horrific leg injury suffered at the Army All-American All-Star game, wide receiver Torii Hunter Jr.‘s career got off to a slow start. But after a redshirt and two years working his way into the rotation, don’t be shocked if Hunter tries making up for lost time on Saturday.

Expected to become Notre Dame’s next No. 1 receiver with Will Fuller, Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle all gone, Hunter may have punched his own ticket to a monster statistical season. That’s what should happen when you run a 4.42 40-yard dash and have the ability to play anywhere on the field (even defense—Hunter was the staff’s choice to cross-train as a defensive back when the Irish went searching for a nickel back.)

Finally at the top of the food chain and also tasked with teaching a young group of talent with Corey Robinson still out with lingering concussion symptoms, don’t be surprised if Hunter decides leading by example is the best course of action, getting vertical on Saturday and running by every defensive back at least once.

Hunter’s a below-the-radar player who is primed for a breakthrough in 2016. Coming off of a 28-catch, 363-yard season, not too many people will see it coming.

So maybe Kelly is happy to let him stay off the grid, leaving spring to some impressive youth and Hunter to announce his presence once he arrives in Austin on Labor Day Weekend.

 

The kids are going to be all right. 

Keep an eye out for some of the quick studies earning a lot of kudos from the coaching staff. Early enrollee freshmen Devin Studstill (No. 13) and Kevin Stepherson (No. 29) may have numbers that look like they should belong to walk-ons, but both have been dynamic this spring. Studstill is challenging Max Redfield for playing time at free safety. Stepherson has already found his way into the two-deep, a three-star receiver who already looks the part of an ankle-breaking playmaker.

After preserving a year of eligibility last season, linebackers Asmar Bilal and Josh Barajas will get more playing time than they can handle on Saturday. Both Indiana natives have had to learn through the firehouse as Mike Elston’s had just four healthy scholarship linebackers during spring ball. Both could take that momentum onto the field next spring, with Bilal in the conversation for the starting Will linebacker job.

While a new load of reinforcements will be on campus in June, a few defensive backs who spent 2015 watching now have a chance to charge into battle. We already talked about Crawford. But Ashton White also looks like a physical corner who has crossover abilities at safety. Redshirt freshman Miles Boykin could be another matchup problem as a receiver, the beneficiary of Corey Robinson’s missed practice time at the boundary wide receiver.

We’ve seen glimpses from emerging contributors like Equanimeous St. Brown, Dexter Williams, AlizĂ© Jones (likely to spend some time with Boykin at W receiver), while Tristen Hoge fights for time at guard. All have essentially taken this spring as a chance to fight for a significant in the rotation.

Expect one (or more) of these names to have a big Saturday.

 

Take it from Junior Jabbie. Not all spring game performances are created equal. 

A clutch touchdown catch from Justin Brent and Corey Holmes sharing the team lead with three catches. Jhonny Williams and Grant Blankenship notching sacks. Max Redfield running an interception back for a touchdown. None of those occurrences in last year’s Blue-Gold game were signs of big things to come in 2015.

Of course, the flip-side is also true. Before he shattered most first-year quarterback records in South Bend, DeShone Kizer was getting outplayed by Montgomery VanGorder, hitting rock bottom with a 1-of-5 performance for three total yards, taking a safety and sack in a game where he wasn’t even full contact.

Spring games reveal themselves in different ways. Junior Jabbie will go down in Irish lore for a spring game performance that netted him an MVP trophy. He was never heard from again. John Owens was unblockable in the 2000 Blue-Gold game, notching three sacks. That was triple his career total. Chris Olsen went from MVP to quarterback transfer, a dozen years before Everett Golson pulled the same chute.

Last year, we saw clues of the team that emerged in the fall.  Notre Dame’s offensive line was a strength, C.J. Prosise‘s switch to running back looked natural. But this is also just 1/15th of spring drills—and the only ones broadcast to fans (and opposing coaches) trying to glean anything from an Irish team filled with unknowns.

I’m often reminded of comments former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco made when he discussed his first defense’s performance in his inaugural Blue-Gold game in South Bend. He was pleased with their effort, happy they executed the gameplan he delivered. Then he revealed they’ll never play that scheme again.

Happy Blue-Gold game.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shelved until fall, Martini a key piece of linebacking puzzle

Navy fullback Chris Swain (37) tries to recover his fumble as Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith (9) and linebacker Greer Martini (48) go after the ball during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 10, 2015, in South Bend, Ind. (AP Photo/Jeff Haynes)
AP
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The ascent of Nyles Morgan has been one of spring’s critical developments. But as Notre Dame pushes into the offseason, one piece of the still-to-be-solved defensive puzzle is still on the sidelines.

Rising junior Greer Martini may end up being one of the team’s most impactful defenders. And he could manage to do that without finding his way into the starting lineup.

Among those spending spring healing after postseason surgery, Martini’s place in the future construct of the defense may not yet be figured out. But with a versatility that’s been on display since he stepped foot on campus, Martini’s role in the defense was discussed by position coach Mike Elston on Wednesday, who pointed to the many roles Martini can fill in Brian VanGorder’s scheme once he’s healthy.

“Greer would afford us the opportunity to cross-train him,” Elston said. “Greer’s got very good understanding of our coverages, so Greer could go from the Sam and when we put a nickel in for the Sam, he could pop over and play the dime position. Greer’s got a lot of flexibility, but he would in base defense be with the Sam.”

Martini will compete for snaps in the base package of the Irish defense with senior James Onwualu, likely taking to the trenches while Onwualu operates in space. But he’s more than just a situational Sam linebacker—he’s a Swiss Army Knife capable of playing any linebacker position once he’s healthy, versatility that the Irish desperately need with little established depth currently on the roster.

That could mean starting at Will if Te’von Coney or Asmar Bilal aren’t ready to make the leap. Or taking over the Sam job while Onwualu focuses on situational work in nickel or playing in space. Some thought Martini could even challenge Morgan for the starting Mike job this spring if he were practicing, less of an indictment on Morgan but rather a testament to Martini’s athleticism and nose for the game.

Not many saw what the Irish staff did when they offered and accepted the commitment of a soft-bodied linebacker and tight end playing against underwhelming competition at a Virginia prep school. But even with three-star status as one of the least heralded recruits on campus, Martini was one of the first onto the field, following the trend he set when he became the inaugural commitment in the 2014 recruiting cycle.

Martini has played in all 26 games of his career in South Bend, doubling the two emergency starts he made as a freshman last year as he continued carving out his niche. One that’s been most prominently displayed is Martini’s work as an option specialist, another job that’ll earn double-time with both Navy and Army on the slate in 2016.

But with Joe Schmidt, Jaylon Smith and Jarrett Grace all gone from the depth chart, Martini is poised to be much more than a situational substitute. While he might not have a singular spot, his ability to flow from sideline to sideline and to operate in the trenches or out in space will restore some of the versatility the Irish sorely missed last season.

So while Saturday will be an opportunity to see the growth of youngsters Bilal and Josh Barajas and the evolution of Morgan and Onwualu, Martini’s will be watching from the sideline, stuck supporting his teammates at a position group stripped to just four scholarship linebackers this spring.

But come August, expect Martini to be everywhere on the football field—even if he isn’t in the starting lineup.

 

Mailbag: 2016 schedule, Rebuild/reload, Robinson (and more)

Notre Dame v Florida State
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Part two of the mailbag. Thanks again for your questions.

 

irishsoccerfirst: Give us your take on the Irish schedule this coming season. Does it appear weaker than usual at this point? I mean Nevada and Army? Isn’t that two cupcakes? NC State and Syracuse are two weak ACC programs most years. VA Tech has been struggling of late, etc. Your thoughts at this early date would be appreciated, but it looks like any loss could be fatal.

I think Notre Dame’s schedule sets up pretty well for the Irish. I agree with you that Nevada and Army aren’t going to wow anybody, but sandwiching Nevada between Texas and Michigan State, and following up Army with Virginia Tech and USC is more than solid and not too many people will notice with that finish.

The ACC slate is going to be tough some seasons and lighter in others. Getting NC State as they continue to try and climb out is nice, and Syracuse is rebooting itself once again, this time with Dino Babers.

Like most schedules, you can argue anything you want. For those who want to talk up the difficulties, look at the murders row of head coaches facing off with BK and his staff: Charlie Strong, Mark Dantonio, David Cutcliffe, David Shaw and Mark Richt all feel like they have a home among the elite names in college football. Justin Fuente is a rising star, some say the same about Nevada’s Brian Polian, too.

If you’re looking for a reason to be bullish about the Irish, one factor is the schedule. I think it stacks up pretty well for Notre Dame.

To your point about one loss being fatal, that certainly hasn’t been the case so far in the two seasons the CFB Playoff has existed. If the Irish were a one-loss team in 2015, I think there’s a very good chance that Oklahoma was staying home last year and the Irish were the four-seed. (Stanford solved that for all of us.) But it is fair to say that this schedule won’t likely earn as much recognition as maybe other seasons have.

 

4horsemenrideagain:  Who is the one guy on defense that everyone else hates to get tackled by? Who is the one guy on offense that everyone else hates to have to tackle?

Both candidates for this award are off of last year’s roster, as the team usually agreed that a hit from Elijah Shumate was the worst part of practice and trying to stop C.J. Prosise was one of the hardest jobs they’d face.

If I were assigning these for the 2016 team, I’ll say Nyles Morgan on defense and Josh Adams on offense. Neither seem like guys I want to tackle.

 

dudeacow: What do you think of the possibility of Nyles Morgan being the sack leader for the defense? BVG rushed Schmidt a whole lot, but was ineffective due to his physical traits. Morgan is fast, big, and strong.

I’m not sure if he’ll be the sack leader. But I do think he’ll get home more often than Joe did, who hit the quarterback plenty but couldn’t quite seal the deal with a sack. That’s not necessarily an indictment on Joe’s physical traits (though playing with a bum shoulder all year didn’t help), but Nyles has shown an uncanny knack for wreaking havoc in his limited playing opportunities—so I do expect a few sacks from him.

Replacing Schmidt, All-American Jaylon Smith and Jarrett Grace won’t be easy. But I’m excited to see what Notre Dame’s linebacking corps looks like in 2016. A starting lineup of Morgan, James Onwualu and either Te’von Coney or Greer Martini is a pretty good looking group, especially from an athletic standpoint.

 

jerseyshorendfan: Keith, would you call the 2016 campaign more of a rebuilding year or are we “reloading” to the point that we may be in the hunt for the Final four? What, in your opinion, is going to be the Achilles heel of both the offensive and defensive units this year?

I’m 100 percent on the reload train. I don’t think there’s a rebuild left in this program, especially with the solid groundwork laid at quarterback and the strength in the trenches. Is it perfect? No. I think this staff is understanding that when Notre Dame has great players, they’re susceptible to leaving for the NFL just like other programs. Expect the staff to adjust how they recruit (and manage their roster) after losing guys like Will Fuller, Ronnie Stanley and Jaylon Smith without finishing their eligibility.

I have a hard time finding an achilles heel on the offense. This group is going to be loaded. If there was an undoing, I’d say it could be the right side of the offensive line. I’m also interested to see how this receiving corps plays without an established No. 1 receiver. Irish fans got pretty spoiled watching major production from Michael Floyd, TJ Jones and then Will Fuller. Is Torii Hunter that guy? Spring gives us hints. But we certainly haven’t seen it. The last factor on offense to consider is the quarterback position. The personnel won’t be the problem, but rather the balancing act of keeping everybody happy and united is one that will have a low margin for error.

Defensively, I’m watching the secondary. Getting a better performance from the back end is key. Funny enough, I could make an equally compelling argument that we should be worried about the defensive line— or the linebackers. So maybe it’s best to say that the relative youth of the unit is the achilles’ heel, especially considering all the concern about Brian VanGorder’s scheme.

 

bostonjan: Keith
..any word about ND doing a Showtime like series for this season? That show was very enjoyable, and I hope a similar series is planned. I realize that there is the weekly “Inside the Irish” program, but I would like more.

I’m sure Showtime would like to return to South Bend, but it’s not happening. That was a one-year experiment for the football program and I think both parties got exactly what they wanted out of it.

The series is likely continue with another program—and it’ll be a show I watch whether it’s Notre Dame or not. I found the inside look fascinating and I think it served the purpose Brian Kelly and Jack Swarbrick hoped it would, offering total transparency and a clear look at a program that’s taken plenty of shots in the past—not all of them fair.

The non-stop nature of that series and the fact that a small army of cameras and producers were following that team for the better part of five months is really, really taxing. That took some significant getting used to and not all players (or coaches) liked it.

And Jan, an “Inside the Irish” program? Did you just book me a weekly TV show? If so, let me know where the commission check should go—I’ll have my people get in touch with your people.

 

jerseyirish10: Keith, with news that Corey Robinson was out again for a concussion and is being evaluated Tuesday, how surprised would you be to see him announce he is giving up football? He clearly has a lot of outside interests, is a bright kid, and maybe just sees the writing on the wall that football isn’t his path anymore.

I wouldn’t be surprised at all. Brain injuries are scary. Especially for guys who like to use their brain.

Robinson certainly has lofty goals for life outside of football and everybody on campus—coaches, professors and administrators—want to see that he makes the best decision for him. That said, I think what Kelly said last week about Robinson wanting to return to the team is true. But he needs to get his concussion cleared up before doing anything else, and spring practice isn’t all that important for a guy with a lot of reps in the program.

(Worth reading: Former Stanford linebacker A.J. Tarpley wrote about retiring from the NFL after suffering a fourth concussion. You’ve got to think these stories will get more and more common.)

 

 

Mailbag: Offensive identity, special teams, and more

DeShone Kizer, Kevin Kavalec, Harold Landry
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With the spring game just around the corner and the weather forecast looking perfect for Blue-Gold weekend, let’s dig into the mailbag and get into some of your questions.

irishkg07: Do Kelly’s comments about the QB situation and referencing OSU’s issues last season rotating QBs convince you that the Irish will enter ’16 with a singular true No. 1 at QB?

I don’t think that’s what BK was saying. I think he referenced Ohio State from the perspective that they lost their identity amidst the different quarterbacks, getting away from their bread and butter—Ezekiel Elliott serving as a sledgehammer—and ultimately it cost them a chance to play for a national title.

One thing I think Kelly is committed to doing is playing out this quarterback battle. He’s also committed to having an identity on offense, regardless of who’s behind center. That means a commitment to running the football, playing physical and not mixing and matching what the team looks like on offense depending on who is at quarterback.

Will there be a singular starter and a backup? Maybe (and I’m leaning towards probably). But I think both these quarterbacks are too good to keep off the field, and they’ll both play in some fashion.

 

onward2victory: Do you know if the coaching staff is taking any steps to get more fire and passion from the players at game time? Look at the focus and intensity they had vs Texas, just ready to dominate. Never saw it again the rest of the year. Let’s get more time spent on emotions and less on heady technical X’s and O’s.

Onward, you know I love you, but this is one of those statements that have zero basis in truth, nor is it anything we can prove, one way or the other. (You aren’t running for president are you?) I thought the Showtime series did a nice job of looking behind the curtain, and I certainly didn’t think “fire” or “passion” were the issues that plagued this team. Think back to that speech BK gave at halftime against USC. That didn’t get you fired up?

Now the reason I think this question is a valid one is that the Irish have started slow at times, especially on the road and in big games. Defensively, Brian VanGorder talked about that being a focus this spring, and that the staff was doing things to make sure the team started faster. Kelly has long had a series of mental edge exercises the team does in pregame to prepare them. I’m sure they’ll keep tweaking the formula as they search for ways to win.

But will all games be a 38-3 trouncing? No. But I just don’t think effort or passion was an issue with that team.

 

rocket1988: Demetris Robertson. Where is he playing in the fall?

I have no clue. Would be fun if it were South Bend, but bizarre circumstances like this don’t usually end up Irish.

I’ll guess Georgia.

(If you’re interested in the odyssey of Robertson, our friends at OneFootDown did a great piece on his bizarre recruitment.)

 

freshnd: Farley has been a special teams stud the last several years and his presence on the coverage teams will be greatly missed. Who ascends on ST to fill his void?

This is a great question! Notre Dame will miss Farley’s presence on special teams, and I’m curious to see who steps forward into a role like this. A few guesses:

I wonder if it’s someone like Asmar Bilal, a speedy linebacker who can get down the field. Otherwise, maybe it’s Avery Sebastian? He’s a veteran (sixth-year eligible) and might not be a starter, but could be a lock on every unit. Ashton White is a big, physical cornerback who I think might be a good addition to the special teams unit.

With a great punter/kicker battery, making sure the coverage teams are top notch is critical. This has been a big area of improvement and will continue to be a focus, especially with Marty Biagi brought on as a special teams analyst.

 

newmexicoirish: Keith, do you anticipate Kelly relinquishing the play calling to Mike Sanford this season?

I’ve been told by people in the know that it wasn’t Kelly or Sanford, but rather Mike Denbrock that handled the actual play calling. So it isn’t really about BK relinquishing control, he might have already done so.

Don’t expect him to give any more insight into this until he’s ready to, though. He was tight-lipped about the process, other than to say he thought it was going well, and that’s likely how it’ll stay.