David Abiara
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Long-bodied defensive end Abiara commits to Notre Dame

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Notre Dame’s deliberate pursuit of length has extended to its next defensive line class with Friday’s commitment from consensus three-star David Abiara (Legacy High School; Mansfield, Texas).

The 6-foot-4 defensive end relies on his frame to keep opposing offensive linemen at bay before he simply goes around them. That approach had elicited offers from Alabama, LSU and Oklahoma, to name the blue-bloods, before a visit to South Bend in February helped make up Abiara’s mind.

“I wanted to go see some other places, but from early on, I had a good feeling that Notre Dame was the school,” Abiara told Blue & Gold Illustrated“… I told [the Notre Dame coaches] that I’m ready, and today I felt it was necessary for me to announce it. I felt like that it was best for me and what I’m trying to accomplish.”

When the Irish finished up their 2020 recruiting back in December, recruiting coordinator Brian Polian preached the advantages of notable wingspans.

“If you can get a really good athlete who has got length that’s better than just a really good athlete that doesn’t,” Polian said. “… Just how powerful length is and especially at the skill positions. I think there was a concerted effort this year to, if we have two equal grades on a guy, let’s go with the guy that’s got a little bit more length.”

That made Abiara a priority in the class of 2021, now with seven commitments, including consensus four-star defensive tackle Gabriel Rubio (Lutheran of Saint Charles High School; St. Peters, Mo.). The two of them could form an intimidating defensive interior in a few years, with Abiara likely to fill the strongside defensive end role, one which often moves to an inside alignment on passing-specific downs. Though his high school competition is overmatched, Abiara’s body control will allow him to absorb linemen, a la Khalid Kareem, theoretically springing other pass-rushers as often as chasing the quarterback himself.

When the No. 21 defensive end in the class, per rivals.com, gets to Notre Dame, he may be called upon quickly. In 2021, the Irish depth chart should feature Isaiah Foskey and Justin Ademilola, but both may finish their careers that season despite having eligibility through 2023 and 2022, respectively. Polian and defensive line coach Mike Elston have been funneling in plenty of fresh talent along the defensive line, but junior Ovie Oghoufo and sophomore NaNa Osafo-Mensah have yet to get extensive playing time, which can obviously also be said of the two early-enrolled freshmen defensive ends.

(Note: All eligibility aspects mentioned in the previous paragraph assume a 2020 season.)

Virtual recruiting the only option for Notre Dame and everyone else

Brian Kelly Notre Dame
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The coronavirus pandemic’s impact on the recruiting calendar is clear: It will be shorter, though later. While that later will include the in-person evaluations, summer drill work and campus visits — fingers crossed — Notre Dame’s recruiting has not stopped entirely during this nationwide lull.

Irish head coach Brian Kelly has stayed in touch with recruits this week in the same way we have all kept in contact with work, family and friends: frequently but from a distance.

“Every recruit is very popular right now,” Kelly said late Wednesday night in an interview on SportsCenter with Scott Van Pelt. “Coaches have plenty of time to be on the phone, to be using FaceTime, all of the social platforms where you can get out.”

In normal times, this would have been a quiet period until April 15, meaning recruits were allowed to visit Notre Dame. Instead, the NCAA made this a dead period, essentially boiling down contact to only what can be done via phone.

RELATED READING: Back to the future for Notre Dame’s recruiting

The Irish aren’t the only ones leaning into video calls, traditional calls and all the social media graphics conceivable. There are 129 other programs in this same position.

“I feel for the young men who are in this recruiting process right now,” Kelly said. “They’re probably sick of us already and we’ve only been at this for a few weeks.”

Amplify that over another month or more, and even teenagers might be sick of their phones.

“We have to have some semblance of normalcy here pretty soon when it comes to recruiting because right now it’s unlimited in the sense that you can be on the phone, you can make that one phone call, but they can’t get back to you every day,” Kelly said.

RELATED READING: Kelly gives tight timeline to avoid a diminished college football season

A return to normalcy would mean an evaluation period starting April 15, allowing coaches to visit high schools to gauge recruits’ viability. That would have been the status quo through May, along with official visits to Notre Dame as recruits wanted. There should be little expectation of any of that normalcy coming soon, so Kelly & Co. will need to learn restraint on their own.

Those official visits are now likely to be pushed to the 2020 season — again, fingers crossed — or perhaps the NCAA will extend the summer visit window past its current outer limit of June 21.

Until then, the Irish may need to get creative. As Irish Sports Daily’s Matt Freeman pointed out, Notre Dame already has a website geared toward virtual visits. That emphasis was only a matter of time, a timeline presumably now accelerated.

Brian Kelly gives tight timeline to avoid a diminished college football season

Brian Kelly coronavirus
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97 days. If the coronavirus pandemic has not been sufficiently contained in 97 days, Brian Kelly expects it to impact Notre Dame’s football season. If the Irish cannot begin training by July 1, it will affect their season.

Kelly baked a few aspects into that date, so there may be a slight cushion, but the reality is clear: The 2020 college football season is already very much in jeopardy as the coronavirus spreads further and further into the United States.

“There’s going to be a date where we all, as college football administrators and coaches, come up with a date from a player safety standpoint — we have to say this is the date that we can live with to get these young men physically conditioned and ready to go into camp,” Kelly said late Wednesday night in an interview on SportsCenter with Scott Van Pelt. “… The realistic goal here is probably a minimum of four weeks of conditioning before you put them in camp. College football is going to be affected if we’re not playing in 90 days in terms of a conditioning element in getting these young men ready.”

Kelly was working backward from the season’s start. Notre Dame’s first game is scheduled for Aug. 29 against Navy, planned to be played in Dublin but that is beside this point. That meant the Irish could open preseason practice July 31. Before beginning practices, though, the players will need to regain some of the fitness lost during the nearly four months at home. To regain all of that, well, the best strength coaches would need more than a few weeks, but to get 18- to 21-year-olds into fighting shape, a few weeks would be a strong start.

“If you can’t start training your football team by July 1, you’re going to need at least four weeks,” Kelly said. “Strength and conditioning coaches are going to want at least six. Sports medicine is probably looking at 4-to-6 weeks.”

In those terms, July 1 is a late date, but Kelly sees it as the last chance to have teams ready for the season as scheduled.

Now consider what has to be in place for teams to convene training. Just as the idea of continuing spring practice hung on avoiding Patient Zero, so would summer conditioning. If just one of 100 players, 10 coaches, conservatively 30 support staffers and all the Guglielmino Athletics Complex kitchen and custodial staff were to test positive for the coronavirus, everything would grind to a halt. (And apply that to 129 other teams, as well.)

It is that kind of reality that has forced the Chinese Basketball Association to push back its plans to resume play to May after hoping for mid-April. That would be nearly four months after the first death from COVID-19 in China.

The first confirmed death occurred in the U.S. on Feb. 28. Four months from then? July 1. And the U.S. is operating without the total shutdown tactics deployed in parts of China.

That said, Kelly’s target date included an afterthought. If football activities do not begin before July 1, there could still be a season, the football just would not be as good.

… in terms of a conditioning element …”

Note: No one wants to see lesser quality football. The higher the quality, the better. That is why the SEC gets the attention it does. But a sloppy season would be preferable to no season, as long as the players’ health is protected all the same.

The moral of the story is simple: If you want to see college football in 2020, stay home.

Notre Dame’s, Ian Book’s leadership more vital than ever

Ian Book Virginia Tech
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Editor’s note: The roughest of drafts of this story existed before it became clear Notre Dame would need to cancel 14 spring practices, including the Blue-Gold Game. The premise of it still holds, though it certainly is no longer the pressing concern in anyone’s mind.

A three-year starting quarterback carries many expectations with him, not the least of which is to lead all that is a college football team both on and off the field, but while Ian Book will be Notre Dame’s most prominent leader this season, presuming we are lucky enough to enjoy football this fall, he will not be the only leader.

The Irish coaching staff had only one morning to assess its team on the field this spring, but the very first thing head coach Brian Kelly had to say afterward was praise of the team’s leadership.

“I’m really pleased with the leadership of our team,” Kelly said. “That was evident today.”

That leadership — whoever provided it, a guessing game continued below — did not need to establish itself on the field this spring, a fortunate fact given Notre Dame will not hold another practice for the foreseeable future.

“A lot of it occurs outside of the practice time,” Kelly said. “A lot of it has been developed prior to when we get on this field by setting standards and expectations. They know what they want to accomplish.”

Those standards and expectations may have needed to be lightened a bit the last couple weeks, but the long-term Irish goal remains the same. Already having that identity set may be a bit of a status quo, at least for 10-15 teams in the country, but the process of achieving it generally takes a bit longer. Per Kelly — and again, this was all before everything turned upside down — Notre Dame’s roster had already come to grips with the work ahead of it to achieve that goal. That may seem like an obvious step, but it often takes longer than winter workouts to reach, sometimes extending into September, frankly.

“We had a meeting [in early March] with the staff, and this is the first team that I’ve had that has really established in their own mind who they are and who they want to be,” Kelly said. “That’s hard to have, 18-to-21-year-olds really come together and say, this is who we want to be, this is how we’re going to go to work every day.”

It is idealistic to say those players self-motivated through winter workouts so getting the work in at home should follow course. There was greater group pressure then, not to mention strength coaches taking notes. And, obviously, there was less to worry about in the bigger picture.

Nonetheless, if that roster had already focused on itself, it may be able to do so moving forward, as well. That will begin with a few players taking charge, just as they would in the locker room or on the field.

“You don’t need a lot of guys out there yelling, because they’ve set a standard on how they want things accomplished,” Kelly said.

The Irish return two captains in 2020 in Book and senior right tackle Robert Hainsey. Though both well-spoken, neither is exactly a vocal leader. 

“[Book’s] presence itself has been great,” Kelly said. “He’s thoughtful.

“What’s great leadership? To me, when you battle through adversity, after the Michigan game for him to lead our football team to six consecutive wins, that’s pretty good. That shows some resilience and some leadership and all those guys know that.

“They want to follow a guy like that just because of his actions from last year. He’s got a ton of credibility and a lot of respect from his peers. He doesn’t really need to walk around and scream and yell. He’s got a presence about him.”

The thoughts of overcoming adversity could apply to Hainsey, as well, after breaking his ankle in November and working his way back into some action in the first (and only) spring practice.

Who will join them as captains in 2020 is a tougher guessing game than usual, given the lack of spring practices to sort out some of the depth chart, but a pile of fifth-year starters could make the default choices pretty clear, particularly if they lead the way in checking on teammates during these uncertain times and then holding them accountable to staying in as best of shape as possible while remaining safe.

Age-wise, Hainsey is actually behind both left tackle Liam Eichenberg and right guard Tommy Kraemer along the offensive line. Given the lack of experience anywhere else on offense, at least one of them is likely to join as a captain, if not both.

Sticking with Kelly’s thoughts of adversity, sixth-year cornerback Shaun Crawford and fifth-year defensive end Daelin Hayes are both experienced in recovering from injuries while keeping their spirits up. They also may be the most vocal of these initial thoughts.

Naming seven captains a year ago was a surprise, so Kelly may stick with only four or five of these potential six, but even recognizing six would not be outlandish. If they can keep the roster trending in the singular direction it was in the winter, then they will have earned it.

Leftovers & Links: Coronavirus impacts some Notre Dame draft hopefuls more than others

Chase Claypool combine
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Asmar Bilal has had the odds stacked against him for a while. To some degree, that’s the case for most recruits, even the high-profile ones as Bilal was back in 2015. It’s simply a numbers game. When the linebacker arrived at Notre Dame, the Irish boasted a consensus All-American at outside linebacker; Jaylon Smith left no space for a fellow Indianan four-star.

The following year’s debacle of a revolving door of defensive coordinators did not do anyone any favors, and by 2017, Drue Tranquill had finally moved to linebacker from safety. Bilal was once again relegated to backup status.

If Bilal’s delay in making collegiate contributions had to do with being less fleet of foot than ideal or misdiagnosing plays, NFL teams will have to assess his development in those areas strictly on his last two years of film. After Bilal was not invited to the NFL combine earlier in the month, he will now go without any genuine drill testing due to the coronavirus pandemic canceling not only Notre Dame’s Pro Day scheduled for April 11 but also all in-person evaluations for the NFL.

While Bilal’s two years of starting work included 129 tackles with 13 for loss and a hand in two turnovers, he still would have greatly benefited from a decent showing in a 40-yard dash and the shuttle drills.

Cornerback Troy Pride will also lament the lack of a showcase, having run a somehow-disappointing 4.40-second 40-yard dash in Indianapolis. That will now remain the only time the NFL has on file.

Even if Bilal or Pride found a track and a cameraman in a socially-distant manner, these timings are more exact than they would have with the hardware at their disposal. Simply put, the NFL would not put much stock in such footage.

Neither receiver Chris Finke nor running back Tony Jones put together combine performances they would like to serve as their calling cards, either. Now, it’s a forced reality.

A week ago, the NFL insisting on keeping its April 23-25 draft dates, though clearly not holding anything in Las Vegas as initially planned, seemed a disservice to these types of players. Pride will still get drafted, just not as high as he would have if he ran a 4.35 at a pro day. Bilal will be on the fringe, while Finke and Jones will fall into the undrafted free agent market.

By now, though, it is clear the NFL would have to wait much longer than it is comfortable with if it wanted to put these players through their paces before the draft. The current chaos will stretch well into May, if not much longer, if not into when these draftees should be reporting to their new teams, if not into when their alma mater should be readying for a season.

In writing this after a weekend that left the brain just as frazzled as last week did — that’s an attempt at honesty here, because we’re all feeling it — it occurs to me, neither of Notre Dame’s two starring former defensive ends partook in drills in Indianapolis. Julian Okwara (ankle) and Khalid Kareem (shoulder) were both recovering from injuries, with intentions of impressing in South Bend.

More so than Bilal, they both impressed plenty in their collegiate playing days, but Kareem, in particular, would have benefited from a fast 40.

This situation does not benefit anyone anywhere, but in these terms, it may have impacted former Irish receiver Chase Claypool and safeties Alohi Gilman and Jalen Elliott the least among draft hopefuls. They all performed well in the early March combine. Meanwhile, tight end Cole Kmet drilled alright, his draft stock never truly hinging on a 40 time so much as his unique combination of agility and size.

RELATED READING: Claypool makes most of four seconds at NFL combine
Pride’s 40 disappoints, but former Notre Dame safety duo shine at combine

They will all still now have to conduct further draft prep interviews over the phone. A phone call was always going to be how they learned of their professional destination, but increasingly it seems it may take a bit longer for them to literally get to those new homes.

INSIDE THE IRISH READING
A promise to you, Notre Dame fans
UNLV-Notre Dame 2022 meeting means much more than merely future schedule filler
Hey Notre Dame fans, help out South Bend’s restaurants
Back to the future for Notre Dame’s recruiting
30 Years of Notre Dame on NBC: Tommy Rees’ first career start, an upset exaggerated

OUTSIDE READING
Notre Dame’s in-person classes suspended for remainder of semester
Jack Swarbrick: ‘There’s no chapter in the manual for this’
The relentless mind of Tommy Rees, Notre Dame’s new play-calling prodigy
What college football teams lose when spring football is lost
South Bend restaurants and bars offering carryout, delivery

CORONAVIRUS READING
College football coaches should deliver coronavirus message: Take precautions or risk losing season
Convincing boomer parents to take the coronavirus seriously

WHERE CORONAVIRUS MEETS COLLEGE FOOTBALL
Uncertain times lead to more questions than answers for Wake Forest’s Dave Clawson
Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall broaches possibility of season getting pushed back due to coronavirus
College football in front of no fans? Feasible but economics don’t work according to one AD
NCAA allows schools to reimburse players for unofficial and official visits canceled due to coronavirus