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Irish A-to-Z: Devin Butler

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As he enters his senior season, some have forgotten Devin Butler. That should be hard to do, considering the amount of football he has played. Notre Dame’s rising senior cornerback has seen the field in 37 games, missing just two in his three seasons in South Bend.

Of course, Butler’s time has been sporadic. Bit roles, special teams work, and some mop-up duty were more the norm than his three career starts. Butler’s chance in 2015 came after KeiVarae Russell went down against Boston College and Butler started against Stanford.  Yet Butler was injured in Arizona in the days leading up to the Fiesta Bowl, a foot injury robbing him of another potential start against Ohio State.

Nick Watkins got the call against the Buckeyes, playing well when given the opportunity. Shaun Crawford looked to make up for lost time this spring, competing even as he recovered from his August ACL tear. That duo—not to mention the other inflow of young talent like Nick Coleman and Ashton White—will compete with Butler as he tries to win a starting job opposite Cole Luke.

 

DEVIN BUTLER
6′.5″, 200 lbs.
Senior, No. 12, DB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Butler was a Bob Diaco recruit, a good physical fit for the Cover 2 scheme Notre Dame’s former defensive coordinator deployed.  There were questions about his speed even then, but Butler chose Notre Dame over some solid offers, with Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska, Penn State and Wisconsin all chasing the Washington, D.C. native.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2013): Played in 12 games, missing only Purdue. Made five tackles and broke up a pass against Pitt. Also appeared on special teams.

Sophomore Season (2014): Played in all 13 games, starting against Arizona State and USC. He made 23 tackles—seven against USC alone—forced a fumbled in the season opener and made an interception a week later against Purdue.

Junior Season (2015): Played in 12 games, earning a start against Stanford. Made 11 tackles, broke up two passes and recovered a fumble against Navy. Played a season-high 46 snaps against the Cardinal, broke 20 snaps against Texas, Virginia and UMass.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

I could probably copy and paste this below and not do much better.

I see a lot of special teams in Butler’s future. He is a good tackler and has the type of stretch speed that’s needed on cover teams. It’s also not fair to write him off as a cornerback, plenty of young backups get beaten deep by talented players.

But Butler needs to take a step forward mentally, especially if he’s unable to run stride for stride with top-end wide receivers. You can’t teach his length and the Irish could use a long cornerback, especially after Russell leaves for the NFL after 2015.

There’s been talk of mixing Butler into the safety mix. And while the secondary doesn’t have many free safety types, I’d have to see more from Butler to project him being able to make it into the mix, though there seem to be a lot of strong safety types, and that’s not Butler’s game.

As we look at the evolution of Notre Dame’s secondary, seniors like Jalen Brown and Josh Atkinson became forgotten men, playing out their eligibility mostly as practice players. I think Butler’s going to be much more productive than that, though he’ll need to continue refining his game to keep up with top-flight starters in Russell and Cole Luke and the young kids recruited by VanGorder.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

I don’t think Butler’s athleticism allows him to be the answer at cornerback. While he’s got length and solid ball skills, asking him to cover in space has proven to be a challenge. While he’ll certainly have the ability to improve the technique issues that have led to some problems, there’s not much you can do when you’re a step slower than the guy you’re asked to cover, and that feels like Butler’s matchup when he goes one-on-one with a talented receiver.

That said, Butler could have a place in this defense. Brian Kelly spent last fall camp talking about how Butler won the outside cornerback job on third downs and nickel when they wanted to slide KeiVarae Russell inside, but then proceeded to never play nickel until they had Torii Hunter ready to help for a half-dozen snaps. With Shaun Crawford back and other young cornerbacks ascending, this problem seemed to be among the first that needed solving for the Irish staff.

Is a move to safety possible? Sure, but no more than in years past, and now there’s a handful of young freshmen competing there, too. Matthias Farley’s departure leaves a special teams unit to anchor. That might be the perfect place for Butler, who has shown a knack for the third phase of the football game.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

If everybody stays healthy, I think Butler’s role is that of a special teams regular, making one or two big plays throughout the season that help impact a ball game. But he’s at best a dime back with the Irish’s upgraded skill-set in the secondary, though that’s certainly not a declaration I’d put in stone, especially with guys like Crawford, Coleman and Watkins still needing to prove they can play.

Unlike some of the other veterans who had been marooned on the bench, Butler’s role in the secondary—and in the program—seems on solid footing. That’ll allow him to mentor some of the younger players coming up, even if they’ve already passed him on the depth chart.

But if injuries hit, Butler seems like the type of program player who’ll be ready if needed. And that ultimately says quite a bit about where Brian Kelly has things entering 2016.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin
Justin Brent

Harrison Smith now highest paid safety in NFL

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Former Notre Dame safety Harrison Smith has signed a five-year, $51.25 million contract extension with the Minnesota Vikings, multiple outlets report. The contract reportedly comes with a $10 million signing bonus and makes Smith the highest paid safeties in the NFL.

That’s a long way from the young player Brian Kelly, Bob Diaco and Chuck Martin inherited. When Kelly arrived in South Bend, Smith had just finished a junior season that forced the Tennessee native to play outside linebacker, the only way to keep the productive-yet-struggling athlete on the field.

But Notre Dame’s new head coach made it very clear that wasn’t going to be the plan with Smith moving forward.

“He’s always been a safety. If he can’t play safety, he can’t play. It was pretty easy for that one,” Kelly said before his first spring practice.

Smith proved Kelly correct in short order, putting together one of the finest seasons in the country in 2010. He intercepted seven passes, broke up seven others and made 93 total tackles  in his first season under Kelly. He followed up that breakthrough season with another 90 tackle season, breaking up 10 passes and tallying three tackles-for-loss before being selected by the Minnesota Vikings in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft.

Since breaking into the NFL, Smith’s been one of the league’s most productive players. In 2015, ProFootballFocus rated Smith as the NFL’s top overall safety. He was No. 2 in 2014. While he had another season on his rookie contract, resigning Smith was Vikings general manager Rick Spielman’s top offseason priority.

The 27-year-old Smith will now be under contract through the 2020 season.

 

Irish A-to-Z: Justin Brent

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Justin Brent enters the second half of his Notre Dame career, with just about everybody hoping that the Indianapolis native makes headlines these next few years for better reasons than the last two. A physically gifted and versatile offensive player, Brent’s struggled to break into the two-deep—and to break out from Brian Kelly’s doghouse.

But there’s hope for the future. Brent just completed a redshirt season, spending his sophomore year learning the craft while staying out of trouble. It’ll allow him to enter 2016 with what amounts to a fresh start, still trying to find a role in the offense, but capable of contributing on special teams and at multiple offensive positions.

 

JUSTIN BRENT
6’1.5″, 220 lbs.
Junior, No. 11 RB/WR

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A four-star recruit, Brent didn’t have many offers, but that’s a product of committing to Notre Dame the summer before his junior season, a full calendar year before most early commitments. Brent’s performance at both The Opening and the Rivals Five-Star Challenge turned him into a borderline top prospect, understandable when you saw him workout or in non-football situations.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Played in nine games, mostly on special teams. Did not make a catch or record a carry.

Sophomore Season (2015): Did not see action, joining fellow sophomore Corey Holmes as a redshirt.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

I suppose this deserves some credit, if only because Brent is still on campus fighting for playing time, not transferring to a new school.

While I’ve been pretty hard on Brent, I actually think the thing that struck me the most was the celebratory hug he shared with his head coach after the Music City Bowl victory. That didn’t look like an embrace you got from an exiled freshman with one foot out the door, but rather the look of a kid who seemed ready, willing and engaged.

One thing that might actually help Brent is starting quarterback Malik Zaire. It’s unlikely that Brent caught too many passes from Everett Golson in practices last season. But Zaire? The duo’s chemistry was on display in the Blue-Gold game, and could also help Brent’s confidence come training camp.

While I mentioned physical play as a way for Miles Boykin to get on the field, Brent’s the perfect body type to mangle defensive backs as a blocker on the edge. That’s a thankless job that requires pinpoint technique and buy-in, something we’ll see if Brent possesses.

This career could go two ways—a transfer or a four-year career that puts in the rearview a bumpy debut season. Next season will go a long way towards determining that path.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

To be all-in on Brent the late bloomer feels a little bit pollyanna at this point. But it’s worth noting that in a career that feels like dog years right now, he’s still got three seasons of competition remaining.

Brent spent the spring working as a running back, showing a nice bit of playmaking in the Blue-Gold game with an improvised scramble drill that turned into a big play when Brent came back for the football and made a nice catch in traffic. He’ll likely start next season in the backfield, though he’ll be working behind Tarean Folston, Josh Adams and Dexter Williams.

If you think that stockpile at running back could turn Brent back into a wide receiver, you might be right. With the boundary position lacking bodies, perhaps Brent’s physicality could help him take a few snaps on the outside as well. (At this point, it’s not ridiculous to consider a move to the defensive side of the ball—especially as a group of young safeties get to campus and start swimming in the deep end.)

Watching Brent in person, you’re not spending your time worrying about the physique of a kid who stepped onto campus with an NFL body, but just wondering when he’s going to break through. But there’s also a lack of flexibility and limberness that stands out when you watch him, especially as he learns how to run the football as a taller back, susceptible to the big hit without the proper pad level.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Sign me up for Justin Brent on every special teams unit the Irish have, with the junior hopefully capable of making an impact as a blocker or tackler. From there, he’ll likely need to take advantage of some adversity to see the field.

If a running back goes down (and after seeing the past few years, we should be ready for one to go down), Brent will get his shot. The same goes on the outside, where redshirt preservation of a young freshman might make Brent—now three seasons into his college career—a better bet on quickly absorbing the job.

The hardest part of Brent’s career is over—making it through a redshirt season after finishing his freshman year in one of the more ridiculous off-field stories we’ve seen in a long, long time. With the tabloid fodder behind him, now all Brent has to do is find a way into the mix on offense, with hopes that taking advantage of some limited opportunities and turning them into regular playing time.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin

Former Notre Dame All-American Jeff Burris joins Irish coaching staff

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Jeff Burris is returning to Notre Dame, joining Brian Kelly’s coaching staff. The former consensus All-American, first-round draft pick and NFL veteran becomes the latest former Notre Dame star to return to campus and work under Brian Kelly.

The news had been rumored for a few months, but finally confirmed by the football program on Friday. Burris joins former Irish players Todd Lyght and Autry Denson in the coaching ranks, while Ron Powlus works in player development and David Grimes is an assistant strength and conditioning coach.

Burris is a South Carolina native who spent 10 years in the NFL after his Notre Dame career. He’s climbed the coaching ladder in his time after playing, spending the last three years working in the Miami Dolphins organization. He has a year of collegiate experience, coaching cornerbacks at UMass under former Notre Dame offensive coordinator Charley Molnar.

Burris was Notre Dame’s MVP in 1993, one of the school’s most talented teams in history. He intercepted 10 passes in his career, was one of the country’s best punt returners and also served as the team’s goal line running back, scoring 10 touchdowns on 29 career carries.

 

Irish A-to-Z: Miles Boykin

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With a redshirt season complete and a wide-open receiving depth chart in front of him, Miles Boykin enters his sophomore season with a road to the field. One of Illinois’ top recruits and a physically gifted athlete, the offseason months will be vital in providing Boykin with the time to impress Mike Denbrock and the rest of the offensive brain trust.

A prototype for what Brian Kelly and company want in a boundary wide receiver, Boykin still needs some polish. But on a team with young, unproven talent, Boykin could serve as one of the standard-bearers.

 

MILES BOYKIN
6’3.5″, 225 lbs.
Sophomore, No. 81, WR

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

The Chicago Tribune’s Athlete of the Year, Boykin was a Semper Fidelis All-American with offers from Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, Ole Miss, Florida and many others. He was a consensus four-star recruit. A first-team, All-State player. The Champaign News-Gazette’s Illinois Player of the Year.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2015): Did not see action.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

Not too far off. It was better to save a year of eligibility than be used as a blocking wide receiver.

Physicality will likely dictate if Boykin sees the field this season, as it’s hard to see too many balls coming his way. But thinking back to how James Onwualu got on the field and how Daniel Smith was utilized, Boykin might not be the receiver with the biggest recruiting profile, but if the Irish plan on running with Malik Zaire and a talented offensive line and Boykin shows himself willing, he could be taking those snaps.

But to pin Boykin’s future as a blocker doesn’t do much service to his athletic traits. On Signing Day, Brian Kelly talked about the mismatches Boykin can creates. While it might take a season or two for the Irish to need Boykin to provide the offensive boost, it looks like Notre Dame has a good one in the Illinois native.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

I’m stepping back from the lofty comparison I made from last year (Michael Floyd) and appreciating the other one that I made—Maurice Stovall. Ultimately, that type of big-bodied receiver is more in line with what I think Boykin will do in South Bend.

That’s not to say Boykin won’t be a productive college player. (Stovall’s senior season is one of the more under appreciated in Irish history.) But with a lot of uncertainty at the outside receiver positions, we didn’t hear much from Boykin this spring. That’s certainly not a death blow to any future potential, but it’s an indicator nonetheless.

With Corey Robinson‘s future still cloudy and the Irish entertaining the move of Alizé Jones to the boundary wide receiver spot, Boykin is playing a position where there’s opportunity. He’s also got the type that’s perfect for the position, a big, strong, physical kid that Kelly has already complimented after seeing him as a raw freshman in training camp.

That’s a good definition for upside. And at a position that’s been very productive during Kelly’s tenure in South Bend, that’s all you can ask for.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I’ve got Boykin pegged for the 10 to 15 catch range, with outliers on either side being possible. The optimist in me sees the depth chart and his physical traits. The pessimist in me sees the other guys who have been given shots in front of him and the challenge of leaping someone like Jones or Robinson if he’s healthy and playing.

Ultimately, someone is going to step in and be a surprise at the position next year. We’ve assumed Torii Hunter Jr. will be the leading man. Kevin Stepherson was the freshman spring sensation. And Jones feels like the answer if Robinson isn’t going to be able to play after a series of concussions.

It’s easy to be a fan of Boykin if you watched him as a high schooler and saw his recruiting profile. Now it’ll be up to him to fight for a role at a position that’s one of the most unsettled on the roster.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux