Rice v Notre Dame

Irish A-to-Z: Daniel Cage

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One of the last members of Notre Dame’s 2014 recruiting class was one of the first people to make an impact on the field. Defensive tackle Daniel Cage saw action early and often as a freshman, making an impact even before depth issues forced him into the mix.

While it was sooner than expected—and probably hoped—Cage immediately validated what Brian VanGorder saw on the recruiting trail, turning in a solid freshman season in the trenches. With a year in the weight room and better conditioning, bright days are ahead for one of the Irish’s most rugged run-stoppers.

Let’s take a closer look at Daniel Cage.

 

DANIEL CAGE
6’0.5″, 315 lbs.
Sophomore, N0. 75, DT

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Notre Dame beat out Michigan State for Cage on Signing Day, getting a late January official visit and then sweating out a fax machine victory. Nebraska, Arkansas and Missouri were also on the list.

Cage was evaluated by former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, but the offer didn’t come until VanGorder took over. Cage’s three-star rating was thrown into the trash bin the minute he stepped foot on campus, and he played past that rating almost immediately.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Played in 11 games, one of six true freshmen to do so on defense. Pitched in four tackles including a half-TFL against USC. Missed the Louisville game with a knee injury and didn’t play against LSU.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

I’m taking credit for a Bruce Heggie reference. And also for pointing out that some “developmental offers” see the field a lot sooner than others.

What will be fascinating to follow is the “larger net” that Kelly and VanGorder cast for defensive line prospects. Looking back at the earliest offers from this coaching staff, all the way back in 2010 and 2011, the hit rate is about 50-50 on those “developmental” offers. Keeping a complete flier like Bruce Heggie out of it, this staff has done a very good job finding below-the-radar type players like Romeo Okwara and Chris Brown, humble recruiting rankings that will be exceeded come this season.

Cage will be part of a new wave of defensive tackle prospects, with five bodies set to join the program between the 2014-15 recruiting cycles. They’ll be replacing players like Tony Springmann and Chase Hounshell, playing a different system, but hopefully turning into effective players.

That Cage came on board at the end of January doesn’t mean anything. But after being in the NFL for the better part of the last decade, VanGorder’s been given a lot of say in player evaluations, and Cage was clearly his call. That he was so quick to jump on the Cincinnati prospect should give us an early litmus test of VanGorder’s player evaluations and also a look at how the defense will change under his direction.

For as different as VanGorder’s system is than Bob Diaco’s, you can’t help but think that Cage has turned out to be a perfect two-gap player, a fit in either system.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

With Jarron Jones and Sheldon Day both back on campus, Cage will be a situational player for the Irish. And that’s likely the type of defensive tackle you want entering his sophomore season, a two-down run plugger, though he’s shown in high school that he can wreak havoc in the backfield. (Per Tim Prister’s profile on Cage, he had a ridiculous 22 sacks as a sophomore!)

Still, if Cage continues to shape his body and expand his work volume, you’re looking at Notre Dame’s next starting defensive tackle, likely in tandem with Jerry Tillery. As Kelly pointed out when he took the redshirt off Jay Hayes, Notre Dame hasn’t had too many good defensive linemen stick around for five years. That Cage was one of the first youngsters to play—even before the injuries hit—might mean that his upside could include Sundays, too.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

It’s an important season for Cage, and really for the entire defensive line. We tend to forget the success of September and October, but the Irish defensive line was tough to run against, and that should be the case again in 2015.

But there’s no training wheels on to start this season, and that means Cage better be ready to go come jump street, because the opening seven weeks will test the Irish, especially against Georgia Tech and Navy. (Boston College, one of the nation’s best running attacks, is a November opponent as well.)

As for Cage, playing behind Jones will allow him to stay fresh and keep both players at optimal levels. And adding more importance to Cage’s play is the fact that Jones is still making his way back from a significant foot surgery, all but absent during spring drills.

Cage looks like a good one. We’ll find out if he projects to be great after this season.

 

THE 2015 IRISH A-to-Z
Josh Adams, RB
Josh Barajas, OLB
Nicky Baratti, S
Alex Bars, OL
Asmar Bilal, OLB
Hunter Bivin, OL
Grant Blankenship, DE
Jonathan Bonner, DE
Miles Boykin, WR
Justin Brent, WR
Greg Bryant, RB
Devin Butler, CB
Jimmy Byrne, OL

 

 

 

Greg Bryant suspension tests offensive depth chart

Notre Dame v Syracuse
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News broke Monday morning that running back Greg Bryant will be suspended for the first four games of the season. As first-reported by Irish 247, Bryant will miss a quarter of the regular season based on the dreaded-and-ambiguous “violation of team rules,” thinning a running back depth chart that was already down to just Bryant, returning starter Tarean Folston and converted wide receiver C.J. Prosise.

Incoming freshmen Dexter Williams and Josh Adams will have a chance to pick up the slack. Playing true freshman running backs isn’t necessarily a Plan A, but far from a crisis situation. Adams is over a year recovered from an ACL injury and Williams comes to South Bend with high expectations, so they’ll have an additional hop in their step during summer workouts with a job opening up for grabs.

Bryant’s absence also puts the spotlight on the slot receiver position. Earlier this summer, head coach Brian Kelly dropped the nugget that Prosise was nearing 230 pounds, not exactly the size you expect from a slot receiver. That kind of bulk points at more than just moonlighting at running back, meaning fifth-year senior Amir Carlisle will be taking the reins as the starting Z receiver.

But behind him remains a mystery. Torii Hunter Jr. has yet to emerge, though the coaching staff speaks highly of his talent and playmaking abilities. The door could also open for some talented freshmen, with C.J. Sanders as close to the slot receiver prototype as you could ask for. There’s also rising sophomore Corey Holmes, who flashed some nice ball skills during spring ball after making only two appearances early in the 2014 season.

(Crazy thought: But pairing Sanders with flex-tight end Alizé Jones could give the Irish a similar look to when they utilized both Troy Niklas and Tyler Eifert as slot receivers — going jumbo with an offense that already plans on running the ball downhill.)

Of course, the suspension plays most heavily on the shoulders of Bryant. The former five-star recruit faces another bump in the road—this one self-imposed—after seemingly turning himself into a model student-athlete and leader on the team.

Transferring is not an option. Per Irish Illustrated‘s Pete Sampson, Bryant will be going nowhere, with Greg Bryant Sr. telling Sampson that his son remains involved in summer school and team workouts.

“That’s not even in the equation,” Bryant Sr. told Irish Illustrated. “We’ve been through that already when he was a freshman. That wouldn’t be in his thoughts and if it was, it would have to go through me.”

While the headline likely shook Irish fans this morning, the reality of the situation is far from dire. There are certainly high expectations for Bryant (both from the staff and the coaching staff), but take away the five-star pedigree that Bryant arrived with, and this is a back who’s struggling to stay in the two-deep, hardly cause for a four-alarm fire drill in the dog days of summer.

There’s been no official statement from Notre Dame on the suspension, but multiple outlets are reporting the suspension. If the suspension stands, Bryant will miss games against Texas, Virginia, UMass and Georgia Tech, returning to face Clemson.

Irish A-to-Z: Jimmy Byrne

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Like the rest of his classmates along the offensive line, Jimmy Byrne spent 2014 learning the ropes and hitting the weight room. The Ohio native who chose the Irish over Urban Meyer’s Buckeyes begins 2015 in a similar spot to where he was last season, behind a depth chart of talented players.

But with his eligibility clock just beginning and some veteran depth about to graduate, Byrne’s time could be coming. But it’ll be up to him to make a move, especially with Harry Hiestand among the best recruiters in the country.

Let’s take a closer look at rising sophomore Jimmy Byrne.

 

JIMMY BYRNE
6’4″, 295 lbs.
Sophomore, No. 67, OL

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Byrne shut it down early, committing to the Irish during the 2012 season though he didn’t sign until 2014. But he had already weighed an offer from hometown Ohio State, and had other options like Illinois and Michigan State.

Byrne’s a St. Ignatius product, a school that’s sent players to both South Bend and Columbus. As he has since he got here, Harry Hiestand took another good player from Meyer and offensive line coach Ed Warinner, bringing an interior player to Notre Dame.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Did not see action, preserved year of eligibility.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

I mentioned the idea of Byrne as a center last year and I’m going to do the same again this year. Because with Quenton Nelson looking like a guard in the future and Steve Elmer back on the inside, it’s still a crowded position.

It’s really going to be interesting see how the battle for Christian Lombard’s right guard job plays out after this season. Does the job go to a veteran like Conor Hanratty? Or a young riser like John Montelus? After not hearing a world from Colin McGovern, he impressed mightily during spring practice.

Take into consideration that Steve Elmer is a born tackle playing guard out of necessity and the shake out should be fascinating. There’s every reason to believe Byrne could play center if needed, and if he grows he could lengthen into being a tackle. With the depth Hiestand is building, getting on the field is a battle, and making your way into the starting lineup before becoming an upperclassman might not be easy.

Evaluating linemen on high school film isn’t a winning proposition, especially for a guy sitting at a laptop. But the data-points suggest Byrne has the ingredients to be a good one.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

That Nelson and Alex Bars will likely be splitting reps at left guard doesn’t really say much about Byrne’s talent—rather it says more abut how good that duo is. Kelly’s raved about both, and Bars just seems like too good of an offensive line prospect not to get onto the field, even if he’s a natural tackle.

But Byrne now enters that murky area where he’ll need to improve on the practice field to prove to Hiestand and Kelly that he’s ready to take reps when they matter—because the game day rotation is full. That alone could limit his upside, as he was running with the third string this spring, behind veterans who may or may not be in the program for five seasons.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Ultimately, makeup plays a big role in how an offensive lineman turns out. For every early contributor like Zack Martin or Steve Elmer, there’s a guy who finds his way into the lineup later in his career and thrives, a la Mike Golic. That’s the path Byrne is on—and frankly, that’s the more likely path for everybody on this offensive line, especially if Hiestand keeps cherrypicking elite talent.

Again, if I’m an offensive lineman at Notre Dame, I’m teaching myself to snap. Because after Nick Martin departs, it’ll be a wide open competition, with Sam Mustipher a converted center and Tristen Hoge the first true center the Irish have recruited under Kelly.

Byrne’s essentially the same guy that we were guessing on last year. He’s 10 pounds heavier, likely in a lot better shape, and still doing battle in one of the best depth charts we’ve seen along the offensive line in years.

 

THE 2015 IRISH A-to-Z
Josh Adams, RB
Josh Barajas, OLB
Nicky Baratti, S
Alex Bars, OL
Asmar Bilal, OLB
Hunter Bivin, OL
Grant Blankenship, DE
Jonathan Bonner, DE
Miles Boykin, WR
Justin Brent, WR
Greg Bryant, RB
Devin Butler, CB

Irish land top 2017 TE Brock Wright

Rivals.com
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Texas tight end Brock Wright has committed to Notre Dame, adding another elite recruit to the Irish tight end pipeline. Wright is a 2017 prospect who camped in South Bend last week for Irish Invasion.

The 6-foot-5, 245-pounder took to Twitter to make his commitment official, becoming the second member of the 2017 class, still 20 months from sending their letters-of-intent.

Wright is the top tight end prospect in the 2017 class, as close to an elite talent as there is for someone whose just completed their sophomore season in high school. He already had offers from Alabama, Michigan and several other big programs, with the Wolverines making him an early priority.

But Wright’s mind was made up from the moment he left campus last week, and he pulled the trigger on Friday afternoon.

“I kind of slept on it all week, thought about it and I don’t really want to wait any more,” Wright told Irish Illustrated’s Pete Sampson. “It’s where I want to be.”

Wright was one of a handful of elite 2017 prospects on campus last week. And if this tweet is any indication, he’s already zeroed in on a quarterback he hopes will join him in South Bend, Indiana blue-chipper Hunter Johnson.

***

 

Irish A-to-Z: Devin Butler

Purdue v Notre Dame
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With KeiVarae Russell suspended and Cody Riggs hurt, Devin Butler got his chance to be a starting cornerback. It wasn’t necessarily a positive experience.

Butler’s move to the starting lineup coincided with the implosion of an injury-riddled defense. And while it’s unfair to peg any of the major struggles on the sophomore cornerback doing his best, it also was hard to overlook opposing wide receivers getting behind Butler for big gains—especially in the Coliseum.

Battling with rising sophomore Nick Watkins this spring, Butler ended up behind the young cornerback on a depth chart that’ll feature KeiVarae Russell come August. So as Butler begins his third season in South Bend, the lanky defensive back needs to retool his game to stay in the mix.

Let’s take a closer look at the Washington, D.C. native.

 

DEVIN BUTLER
6’0.5″, 195 lbs.
Junior, No. 12, CB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Butler looked like a perfect fit in Bob Diaco’s Cover 2 scheme. And while his speed was in question—Rivals reported a 4.6 forty—his length and athleticism had a lot of good programs chasing after him.

Butler chose Notre Dame over Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska, Penn State and Wisconsin, joining an Irish secondary that needed to add bodies.

 

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.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

Pretty spot on. And even KeiVarae Russell’s absence didn’t move him in front of Cole Luke or Cody Riggs.

It’s hard to see Butler moving into the starting lineup until KeiVarae Russell is gone. That could be after 2014, if we’re to believe that Russell is ready to be the elite defender some think he already is. (I tend to think the truth is somewhere in the middle with Russell, who is coming off a great game against Rutgers but still has game tape where Jeremy Gallon’s cleat marks are up and down his back.)

How good is Butler? We will see as the youth and talent continues to accumulate on this roster. Right now, he’s behind Cole Luke and Cody Riggs. But there’s a place for him now in sub-packages and you can never have enough healthy corners, and Butler’s going to use this summer to make up for lost time this spring.

With Butler’s length, he gives Brian VanGorder a traditional cornerback prospect. That never goes out of style and for that reason alone he’s the type of athletic, long cover man that all football teams covet.

Butler’s length didn’t necessarily help him in the man-coverage heavy schemes the Irish were playing. They weren’t necessarily easy matchups (the big plays he gave up were mostly against NFL talent), but the secondary struggled against Arizona State and USC, and Butler was among the victims.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

At this point, I think Butler is a situational player. He’s likely got some positional flexibility between safety and cornerback, but it’ll take injuries to get him on the field and a wave of young talent is looking to pass him on the depth chart.

I liked Butler’s knack for making plays early on—he was a productive guy in niche roles and actually made a ton of tackles when the depleted Irish defense needed it. But a Cover 2 corner who gives up the underneath balls can’t get beat over the top. And as a sophomore Butler did too much of that down the stretch.

He’ll get a fresh start learning under Todd Lyght. But with young guys like Nick Coleman and Shaun Crawford already on campus, Butler needs to elevate his game or he’ll be a full-time special teamer.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

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.

 

THE 2015 IRISH A-to-Z
Josh Adams, RB
Josh Barajas, OLB
Nicky Baratti, S
Alex Bars, OL
Asmar Bilal, OLB
Hunter Bivin, OL
Grant Blankenship, DE
Jonathan Bonner, DE
Miles Boykin, WR
Justin Brent, WR
Greg Bryant, RB