Four days from Signing Day, a look at defensive recruits

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When safety Jordan Genmark Heath flipped his commitment from Cal to Notre Dame on Thursday, he raised the Irish class of 2017 to a total of 16 recruits. More exactly, he became the seventh commit on the defensive side of the ball.

Notre Dame and coach Brian Kelly may not yet be done, though, with up to a half dozen defensive recruits still realistically considering the Irish sales pitch.

Defensive lineman Jalen Harris (Desert Ridge High School; Mesa, Ariz.) is in South Bend this weekend, quite possibly as you read this very sentence. Harris remains committed to Arizona, but Notre Dame has not relented in its recruitment.

Naturally, getting the final visit before Wednesday’s National Signing Day cannot be a bad sign. You may get only one shot at a first impression, but oftentimes the last guy on a girl’s mind is the one who gets the girl.

Do note: Mesa, Ariz., is on Mountain time. Should Harris continue to ponder until Wednesday, Irish fans and defensive coordinator Mike Elko alike will have to wait until 9 a.m. Eastern time, at the earliest, to learn who receives Harris’s signature.

Safety Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (Bethel H.S.; Hampton, Va.) visited campus late this past week. Originally committed to Virginia, Owusu-Koramoah reopened his recruitment and narrowed the field to Notre Dame and Michigan State.

Possibly joining Owusu-Koramoah in the defensive backfield, safety Evan Fields has scheduled a ceremony at his high school (Midwest City H.S.; Oklahoma City) for Monday, Jan. 30, at 11:30 a.m. Eastern time. Again, Notre Dame received the final visit of Fields’s recruitment.

The Irish have not let an October commitment to Louisville deter them from continuing to recruit defensive back Russ Yeast (Center Grove; Greenwood, Ind.). Yeast made the 2 ½-hour drive to South Bend in the latter half of the month days after receiving a Notre Dame offer Jan. 18.

Hawaii defensive lineman Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa received an Irish offer earlier in January and has yet to announce a commitment. Furthering his focus on defensive line reinforcements, Elko welcomed Kofi Wardlow (St. John’s College H.S.; Washington, D.C.) to campus earlier this month, though Wardlow remains a Maryland commit. Given his residency on the east coast, Wardlow will likely not keep Elko waiting for long Wednesday morning.

CURRENT DEFENSIVE COMMITMENTS
DL: Darnell Ewell, Kurt Hinish, Jonathon MacCollister
LB: David Adams, Drew White
DB: Isaiah Robertson (early enrollee), Jordan Genmark Heath

Redfield Moves on to Plan C

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When Max Redfield signed with Notre Dame four years ago, he figured he would spend January 2017 recovering from his rookie season in the NFL.

When he opted not to enter the NFL Draft last spring, Redfield figured he would play in a bowl game the first week of this month and then prep for an eventual pro day.

Instead, the former Irish safety has spent the month attending rehab sessions in the mornings before heading to class at Cal State Fullerton or an internship at a real estate firm.

“I believe everything happens for a reason, and I’ve learned so much from this,” Redfield said Wednesday. “I’ve grown so much from this. I’m extremely thankful for that, but I would obviously have loved to finish my last year at Notre Dame and have the impact on my team that I think would have been profound.”

PLAN A

Redfield, a class of 2013 five-star recruit, originally verbally committed to USC. During the Under Armour All-America Game, however, he changed that commitment to Notre Dame. For context: Two days later the Irish faced Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game in Miami. Notre Dame’s upcoming contest played a part in Redfield’s change of heart.

“Notre Dame was No. 1 in the country at the time, the academics are incredible, and the alumni are international, which is something I really valued,” he said.

“You hear various stories about how not ideal the weather is, location, all that kind of stuff. Being from California, obviously that is something that is on your mind, but for me it was, I’m going to go out and really experience this and go for it.”

Not because of the weather or location, Redfield intended to leave Notre Dame for the NFL as quickly as he could, hopefully with both a national championship and a degree—perhaps complemented by a minor or two—in hand. Looking to graduate in three years, Redfield took 17 or 18 credits (compared to a normal undergraduate load of 15) more semesters than not, including Mandarin Chinese from the outset.

“The coaches did not like that,” Redfield said. “I had to put a decent amount of time into that field of study, but it was something I was extremely passionate in and very determined to do.”

Before his dismissal from the University this fall, Redfield was on pace to graduate with a philosophy degree and minors in Mandarin Chinese and business economics.

“I made it clear I wanted to get my degree as fast as possible in three years flat … and potentially get drafted after my junior year because I thought I had that ability and that potential. I felt my junior year we had a team that could win a national championship, so my plan was to end on a high note, win a national championship, and do everything that I needed to do, including getting my degree.

“Often [the coaches] would make it very explicit they didn’t think it was best for me, even if it was maybe. It obviously wasn’t the best for their agenda and what they wanted for me. It wasn’t something that made us have an adversarial relationship, but I would be surprised if it wasn’t in the back of their heads at all times.”

PLAN B

Notre Dame did indeed come tantalizingly close to a College Football Playoff berth in 2015, losing only two games by a combined four points, both on the road. The 10-2 regular season yielded a Fiesta Bowl date with Ohio State. Redfield licked his chops at the chance to match up with Buckeyes running back Ezekiel Elliott, now a favorite for NFL Rookie of the Year honors.

“It was the biggest game of my life,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve ever been more excited for a football game. Obviously, the hype around Ohio State was incredible. Playing Ezekiel Elliott was something I was looking forward to for a while. I thought he was overhyped to a certain extent, although he was a great running back.”

One missed curfew later and Redfield’s junior season ended a game earlier than expected. Despite friction with the coaching staff long before that 2 a.m. bed check, Redfield opted to stray from his original itinerary, ambitious as it was, and return for his senior year.

“[The NFL Draft] was something that was on my mind, but it wasn’t a hard decision to make,” he said. “My heart was in coming back for another year. At that point, I felt like I would be leaving my teammates and leaving unfinished business behind.”

REALITY

That business would remain unfinished. Redfield and four teammates—sophomores running back Dexter Williams, defensive back Ashton White and linebacker Te’von Coney, and freshman receiver Kevin Stepherson—were arrested Aug. 19. Redfield was charged with possession of a handgun without a license and possession of marijuana.

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly dismissed the senior two days later, saying Redfield was “expected to provide leadership and a positive example to the other members of the team” and “failed in that regard.”

This response caught Redfield off-guard. He expected a suspension for all five rather than being singled out and sent packing.

“That blindsided me. It definitely broke my heart.”

Though he may have disagreed with the severity of Kelly’s actions, he did not disagree with the sentiment. For this misstep, Redfield takes full responsibility.

“It was decision-making that was terrible on my part,” he said. “At that point, I was a leader on the team, and needed to act like a leader in everything I did. Falling into a situation like that, I wasn’t being a leader … That’s something I probably regret most.”

Redfield went home to Mission Viejo, Calif., returning to Indiana for necessary court appearances. To show the court he is moving forward with his life, he joined a rehab program about three weeks ago. His next appearance is scheduled for mid-February.

Redfield enrolled in two philosophy courses at Cal State Fullerton with the understanding they will satisfy his remaining requirements to complete his Notre Dame degree. The Mandarin Chinese minor will come with it, but he will end up two courses short for the corresponding business economics honor.

Presuming he graduates, he should be eligible to play football this fall thanks to the NCAA’s graduate transfer rule.

“I considered declaring for the Draft this year, but I felt it was the best decision for me to come back for another year and prove how consistent I can be on and off the field. Give it a year to put it behind me.”

Redfield would not go so far as to name schools he has been in contact with, deeming it “really premature,” but he did indicate he expects to play at the FBS level in the fall and should know where within a few weeks.

WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN

By no means does Redfield regret attending Notre Dame. Throughout a 30-minute conversation, he alternates between bluntly criticizing the Irish coaching staff and taking some responsibility for the “adversarial relationship.” More than anything, he praises the people he met at the University.

“I love my brothers, and most of the people I came into contact with at Notre Dame were incredible people, as well. I really do cherish all the experiences I had and all the connections I made as well.”

Nonetheless, Redfield entertains the thought maybe he should not have been so enticed by Notre Dame’s undefeated 2012 regular season. Maybe the Midwest location should have been a red flag not because of the weather, but because of the thousands of miles of separation from home.

“I wish I did make a decision closer to my heart and maybe stayed closer to my family,” he said. “Maybe that would have given me more opportunity to stay focused, but I definitely don’t regret it.”

Rees’s return should not surprise

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The return of Tommy – er, Tom – Rees to Notre Dame as a member of Brian Kelly’s staff should not have surprised anyone, really. Kelly himself predicted it in no uncertain terms more than three years ago.

The second question following Notre Dame’s 2013 victory over Rutgers in the Pinstripe Bowl asked Kelly, “Specifically, what was your message to Tommy after the game?”

Kelly insisted he had not spoken individually with the outgoing senior, only to the team as a whole. With that clarification, he continued.

“He’ll keep trying to play the game as long as he can,” Kelly said. “He’s got a bright future as a graduate assistant for Brian Kelly anytime.”

Technically speaking, Rees is indeed a graduate assistant, for now. Come April, the NCAA and its Football Oversight Committee are expected to allow staffs to enlarge to 10 assistant coaches. At that point, Rees’s title as quarterbacks coach will make more sense. (The difference lies largely in recruiting. GAs cannot recruit. Assistant coaches can.)

With either title, Rees’s primary challenge will be mentoring rising junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush as he prepares to take over the Irish offense. Rees never had that level of expectation necessarily heaped upon him, but he will still understand it thanks to his varied experiences as Notre Dame’s quarterback. His former teammates saw him accept the challenges of starting, of coming off the bench and of being a second-stringer.

“He did everything you could have done as a Notre Dame quarterback and always managed to excel,” said Rees’s former teammate and offensive lineman Mike Golic, Jr. “If you have a young group of guys, I would say injecting a little shot of Tommy Rees in there is the medicine.”

In addition to understanding the innate stressors of being the Irish quarterback, Rees also understands the ones that come with running Kelly’s offense under his watchful eye. Golic often had the privilege of trying to focus on his offensive line work in practice while Kelly and Rees debated the previous rep’s read only yards behind Golic.

“Tommy wasn’t a guy who was going to back down if he thought he was right. Both of them could certainly have that heated conversation and then come back and understand that is just part of the working environment there.

“…Tommy can prepare these guys for all that. He’s going to say, ‘Listen, this is what you expect out of coach Kelly. This is where you have to understand what he’s trying to tell you, what he’s trying to get to you.’ Tommy can sort of be a translator like that.

Golic was not alone in lauding his former quarterback’s return to Notre Dame as quarterbacks coach.

 

Former teammates’ approval may not be the strictest of tests, but it is one a good number would fail. If nothing else, it is a positive indicator, though also a small one.

And yes, Golic insisted on referring to Rees as “Tommy,” ignoring the usage of “Tom” in Notre Dame’s press release.

“I get it in the sense of trying to make ‘Tom Rees’ happen as a very adult, respected coach,” Golic said. “But I’ll be damned if I ever call that kid ‘Tom Rees.’ He is ‘Tommy’ for me now and forever.”

Tommy Rees officially joins Kelly’s staff

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Notre Dame has made official what Keith Arnold first reported Jan. 2: Tommy Rees will join Brian Kelly’s staff as the Irish quarterbacks coach.

Or, to adhere to Notre Dame’s release, “Tom” Rees will join Kelly’s staff as the quarterbacks coach.

“When I finished my playing career and graduated from Notre Dame, I wanted to do two things,” Rees said in the statement. “First, I wanted to coach, and second, at some point in my career I hoped to get an opportunity to return and do it at my alma mater.”

Rees spent 2016 as an offensive assistant with the San Diego Chargers, working with coach Mike McCoy to keep afloat an offense plagued by injuries, beginning with receiver Keenan Allen’s ACL tear in the first week. Nonetheless, the Chargers finished seventh in the NFL in passing, ninth in scoring and 14th in total offense.

Rees will need that experience working with rising junior Brandon Wimbush, the only quarterback on the roster with any college game experience, though not a single start under his belt.

“I’m very excited to have Tom join our staff,” Kelly said. “He possesses an understanding of the game, and most importantly the quarterback position, that’s unique. He’s a true student of the game and great communicator that will offer immediate dividends toward guiding our quarterback room.”

Rees should not need much time to get up to speed with Kelly’s playbook or system, having operated within it in 46 games over four seasons, including 31 starts. He finished with a 23-8 record as a starter, 7,670 career yards and 61 touchdowns, highlighted by 3,257 yards and 27 touchdowns in 2013 alone. Only Rees, Brady Quinn, Jimmy Clausen and Everett Golson have ever exceeded 3,000 passing yards in a single Notre Dame season.

With this hire, Kelly completes his retooling of his coaching staff. The newcomers include:
Defensive coordinator: Mike Elko
Offensive coordinator: Chip Long
Special teams coordinator: Brian Polian
Linebackers coach: Clark Lea
Wide receivers coach: Del Alexander
Quarterbacks coach: Tom(my) Rees

Brent’s transfer makes sense for both sides

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Justin Brent’s pending transfer makes sense on the surface if for no other reason than his complete lack of game action in the last two seasons. A slightly-deeper look, however, explains the move even further.

The rising senior running back had no logical path to playing time at Notre Dame given the performances of some of his peers. Both in the backfield and at receiver, younger players shined this past season while Brent rode the bench.

RUNNING BACKS

– It may have taken four games for rising junior Josh Adams to find the end zone, but he finished the season with 933 yards on 158 rushing attempts, carrying the ball at least eight times in all 12 games. Most notably, Adams finished the season with 350 yards and three rushing touchdowns over the last three weeks. That strong close shows Adams was not worn down in his second season of consistent use (2015: 13 games, 117 carries, 869 rushing yards, six touchdowns) and can be expected to provide the same bellwether output next season.

– Adams’s classmate, Dexter Williams, has not had the same success, but he did provide some relief throughout the season – most notably against Nevada (eight carries for 59 yards) and Syracuse (eight for 80 and a score) – on his way to 212 yards and three touchdowns on 39 carries.

Between Adams and Williams, combined with NFL-bound Tarean Folston’s steady output and quarterback DeShone Kizer’s mobility in the past and the possibility of Brandon Wimbush’s in the future, there were not carries for Brent to showcase his potential. This is before even factoring in rising sophomores Deon McIntosh and Tony Jones, both of whom preserved a year of eligibility in 2016, or any incoming recruits.

WIDE RECEIVERS

– Rising junior Equanimeous St. Brown proved worthy of learning to spell his first name in 2016, catching 58 passes for 961 yards and nine scores, but St. Brown looks to be far from alone in the receiving corps moving forward. Classmates C.J. Sanders and Miles Boykin each found the end zone this past season, despite competing with senior Torii Hunter, Jr., for both snaps and targets. Sanders finished with 24 receptions for 293 yards and two touchdowns while Boykin caught six passes for 81 yards and a score.

– Rising sophomores Kevin Stepherson, Chris Finke and Chase Claypool add to the depth at the position. Stepherson scored on an even 20 percent of his 25 receptions for 462 yards. On a personal note, he did not actually reach the end zone on his 53-yard catch-and-dash against Miami, but I will still never forget that particular play because the accompanying roar convinced my nine-year-old niece it was well past time to leave Notre Dame Stadium to watch the game on a television where the noise would not be so surprising.

Finke chipped in 10 catches for 122 yards and two scores, and Claypool caught five passes for 81 yards.

– Again, this listing does not account for players such as rising sophomore Javon McKinley who saw action in seven games but has not yet contributed to the passing game or any incoming recruits. (We’ll get to the recruits later in the week, and even more so next week when, you know, they have signed.)

It should also be noted: Brent enrolled early at Notre Dame, and thus, he has already completed six academic semesters, not to mention time spent in class each summer as is typical of most, if not all, of the football roster. If he does indeed graduate from the University this spring, he will be eligible to play elsewhere immediately thanks to the NCAA’s stance on graduate student transfers. More than that, though, he will have two years of eligibility remaining.

Admittedly, such a confluence is rare and certainly adds reasoning to Brent’s maneuver, whether it result in him playing at UCLA, Miami, Arizona State, Indiana, Purdue or Ohio State, as he indicated to the South Bend Tribune were his top choices. Notre Dame does face Miami on Nov. 11.

Lament Brent’s decision if you must, but it was a logical decision by him, and Notre Dame’s shortcomings last season were rarely where Brent would have aided. Nor will the Irish appear to be wanting in those spots in 2017.