Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 91 Josh Bryan, sophomore kicker

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Listed measurements: 5-foot-11 ⅝, 183 pounds.
2022-23 year, eligibility: A sophomore, Bryan has all four years of his eligibility remaining after appearing in only the Georgia Tech rout last season.
Depth Chart: Neither Bryan nor Arkansas State transfer Blake Grupe was particularly impressive this spring, leaving some doubt as to who will lead the way in placekicking duties, but Grupe likely has the slight edge thanks to experience. Regardless, Bryan should handle kickoff duties for Notre Dame.
Recruiting: Bryan’s recruitment was a case study in pandemic recruiting. He was committed to Colorado for the longest time, not only wanting to go to Notre Dame, but also knowing the Irish wanted him. They just did not know if they would have space for him. It was not until the NCAA created some flexibility amid scholarship limits — specifically, that fifth-year kicker Jonathan Doerer would not count toward the maximum of 85 scholarships in 2021 if he used the year of eligibility added by the pandemic — that then-special teams coordinator Brian Polian could tell Bryan there was space for him at Notre Dame.

Bryan subsequently wasted no time in flipping his commitment.

NAME, IMAGE, LIKENESS
Current events shed more doubt on the viability of an NIL collective based around NFTs, an endeavor that fills nearly all of Bryan’s recent social media activity. But in his Twitter bio, he still touts Chris Sailer Kicking, the position-specific coach and summer camp that Bryan credits for some of his success, as do many collegiate kickers.

If Bryan still sees fit to push that version of his player profile, it continues to reason there is some version of a partnership in which he can more aggressively advertise for Chris Sailer Kicking.

CAREER TO DATE
Bryan kicked the final PAT of the home season in 2022, following Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa’s memorable fumble return for a touchdown. Notre Dame pulled Doerer after it amassed a 38-0 first-half lead. Harrison Leonard kicked the next PAT, and then Bryan got his brief turn, though Doerer hit a 26-yard field goal between those point afters.

That was Bryan’s only appearance in 2021.

QUOTES
Notre Dame chasing Grupe could be taken as a criticism of Bryan’s readiness, but new Irish special teams coordinator Brian Mason had something broader in mind as he filled out his specialists depth chart after arriving this winter. When he joined Marcus Freeman’s staff, Mason had only four specialists rostered, including two long snappers. He wanted more than double that.

“We needed some more experience,” Mason said in February. “We needed some more competition to be able to offset at certain positions where we were a little bit inexperienced, having to replace a starting kicker and a starting punter. How can we be able to add some experience and some leadership in addition to some competition in different areas where we’re still talented, but maybe young?”

WHAT WAS PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
“Polian said it in no uncertain terms. He does not want to rely on a freshman kicker, and will not rely on a freshman kicker. The last time the Irish deployed a freshman kicker in any respect was Doerer’s freshman season, in 2017. His tendency to botch kickoffs nearly severed the Polian-Brian Kelly working relationship before it had a chance to genuinely begin.

“Bryan probably does not have that same tick in his form, but he may have some tick in his form. Taking the 2021 season to suss it out will be an exercise in caution and proactive coaching.”

2022 OUTLOOK
Bryan went 0-of-2 in the Blue-Gold Game, missing from both 48 and 37 yards, while Grupe went 1-of-2, neither of their final impressions before the summer layoff anything but lackluster. When Grupe is dialed in, he has proven to be accurate, and that should give him the first crack at the placekicking duties when leg swings actually matter. But if he falters, Mason will turn to Bryan. That was part of bringing in Grupe, after all; competition can cut both ways.

More likely, Bryan will be called upon for one or two particularly long field goal attempts this season, having a stronger leg than Grupe. That is also why he should handle kickoffs.

A year ago, Brain Polian was more than reluctant to play a freshman at kicker. Not all that much has changed for Bryan, but it can only change by getting on the field. Those long field goals and kickoffs are the first gradual step toward that change.

DOWN THE ROAD
Grupe cannot play past this season. Walk-on Harrison Leonard entered the transfer portal, quite probably in part because of Grupe’s arrival. That will leave Bryan in 2023.

Mason may once again go portal hunting to beef up his depth chart — that said, wanting 8-10 kickers, punters and long snappers does seem like overkill — but it would take routinely frustrating practices from Bryan for Mason to actively look to keep him at No. 2 after this season.

All that said, if Marcus Freeman intends to follow up the hype around his promotion with on-field success, kicking woes will not be tolerated. Obviously, Bryan cannot dissuade those worries until he has done so on Saturdays, but he will need to all the same, be it in 2022 or 2023.

NOTRE DAME 99-TO-0
From Blake Grupe to Braden Lenzy, the offseason countdown begins anew
No. 99 Blake Grupe, kicker, Arkansas State transfer
No. 99 Rylie Mills, junior defensive lineman, a tackle now playing more at end
No. 98 Tyson Ford, early-enrolled freshman, a defensive tackle recruited as a four-star end
No. 97 Gabriel Rubio, sophomore defensive tackle, still ‘as wide as a Volkswagen’
No. 92 Aidan Keanaaina, a junior defensive tackle who tore his ACL in March

Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 92 Aidan Keanaaina, a junior defensive tackle who tore his ACL in March

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Listed measurements: 6-foot-3, 310 pounds.
2022-23 year, eligibility: A junior, Keanaaina has four years of eligibility remaining, thanks to 2020 being covered via the universal pandemic eligibility waiver and then preserving another season by playing in only three games in 2021. That said, a player can still preserve only one such year by playing in four or fewer games.
Depth Chart: Keanaaina may have been in the rotation at nose tackle this season if he had not torn an ACL in March, perhaps as well-established as the No. 2 nose tackle. Next year he will be back among sophomore Gabriel Rubio and perhaps freshman Donovan Hinish in competing to be senior Jacob Lacey’s backup.
Recruiting: A four-star prospect, per rivals.com, Keanaaina chose Notre Dame over Nebraska, Wisconsin and Cal, somewhat expected programs. The Colorado native also pondered Colorado State, where his father played.

NAME, IMAGE, LIKENESS
A Polynesian having an affinity for the ukulele is not a surprise to anyone, but it has led to a benefit for Keanaaina in recent weeks.

CAREER TO DATE
Keanaaina has managed one tackle, in the Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma State, in four career games.

WHAT WAS PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
“The pandemic cost every player differently — just like for the rest of us in everyday life — but it arguably cost many freshmen the most. While tight end Michael Mayer and running back Chris Tyree were able to contribute immediately, that was neither expected of Keanaaina nor viable. As written a year ago, he needed time in a collegiate strength and conditioning program. He still does.

“That work began this winter. It will continue this summer. But if all of 2021 is devoted to building Keanaaina’s lower-body strength, that can still be considered a productive season.”

2022 OUTLOOK
Keanaaina essentially lost his 2022 with that ACL torn in the first spring practice. The fastest of recoveries from an ACL injury is about nine months. In that ideal scenario, perhaps Keanaaina could be readying for a bowl game, but that rush would also stress his physical conditioning coming back from that injury.

It is more likely his timing sets Keanaaina up to return for next spring practices.

RELATED READING: Keanaaina tears ACL
Notre Dame adds defensive tackle depth via Harvard graduate transfer

DOWN THE ROAD
Harvard graduate transfer Chris Smith will be on Notre Dame’s campus for only the 2022 season, meaning a healthy Keanaaina should have every chance to slot back in as Lacey’s understudy in 2023. A senior as a backup may not seem glorious, but such is the luxury of defensive line becoming the best Irish position group in recent years.

Lacey will be out of eligibility after 2023, at which point Keanaaina will have two years of eligibility remaining. He will have competition — again, namely Rubio and Hinish — but that should yield only depth. Depth has been the exact delight that has kept players like Keanaaina buried a bit on the depth chart. In that respect, it can cut both ways.

Early in their careers, depth limits their opportunities. Later in their careers, it somewhat assures them.

NOTRE DAME 99-TO-0
From Blake Grupe to Braden Lenzy, the offseason countdown begins anew
No. 99 Blake Grupe, kicker, Arkansas State transfer
No. 99 Rylie Mills, junior defensive lineman, a tackle now playing more at end
No. 98 Tyson Ford, early-enrolled freshman, a defensive tackle recruited as a four-star end
No. 97 Gabriel Rubio, sophomore defensive tackle, still ‘as wide as a Volkswagen’

Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 97 Gabriel Rubio, sophomore defensive tackle, still ‘as wide as a Volkswagen’

Gabriel Rubio
rivals.com
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Listed measurements: 6-foot-5 ¼, 290 pounds.
2022-23 year, eligibility: A sophomore, Rubio still has four seasons of eligibility remaining since he played in only the Fiesta Bowl as a freshman.
Depth Chart: The incoming transfer of Harvard veteran Chris Smith knocked Rubio down a rung on the depth chart and out of the two-deep. Smith provides both depth and experience for Notre Dame at a position that was lacking them behind senior Jacob Lacey.
Recruiting: The No. 107 overall player in the class of 2021, Rubio could have gone to Georgia, LSU or Ohio State, to name a few. Instead, the son of a former NFL defensive tackle improved his grades until the Irish would extend a scholarship offer, at which point he quickly committed.

NAME, IMAGE, LIKENESS
His father now a fireman, there may be some charitable endeavor that would tie Rubio to a firehouse. It would certainly be fitting. The newest Notre Dame NIL collective — Friends of the University of Notre Dame — claims its focus will be charity work, paying the players to then advocate for a cause of their choosing, so this may be more viable than simply some misguided musings on the endless internet.

Rubio also has his own line of apparel available for purchase.

CAREER TO DATE
Rubio played in only the Fiesta Bowl as a freshman, making one assisted tackle. Ahead of him, the Irish still had five defensive tackles in rotation, between Kurt Hinish, Jayson Ademilola, Howard Cross, Rylie Mills and Jacob Lacey.

A hyperextended elbow that plagued him in the spring of 2021 did not aid the early enrollee’s chances of early playing time.

WHAT WAS SAID WHEN FORD SIGNED IN DECEMBER
Assuming the hyper-extended elbow that bothered Rubio at the end of spring practices does not linger into the summer and the preseason (and a knee trouble from his senior season does not reoccur), he should be ideally suited to pick up the work done by Mills last season. The then-freshman played 141 snaps throughout the unorthodox season, giving depth to the defensive interior.

“That need grows as the season progresses, hence Mills playing in only one of Notre Dame’s first four games. The advantage Rubio has compared to Mills is a real spring followed by a genuine strength and conditioning program this summer.

“If he takes to that program and his 289 pounds finds a bit more force, then Rubio can continue the Irish luxury of potent depth up front.”

2022 OUTLOOK
This is not intended to come across as bluntly as it will: If Rubio had been wowing the coaching staff in the spring, the addition of Smith would not have been as heralded as it was in early April. Some of that was mere depth concerns. No team can have enough quality defensive linemen. But some of it was a need to shore up nose tackle.

Rubio will play this season. There is no year to preserve eligibility. And he will presumably play well, possessing just about every physical attribute wanted for the position. To further support that with logic, if he was truly condemned to another year on the sidelines, Rubio likely would have worked at three-technique more this summer, where the Irish are better set with Ademilola and Cross, rather than filling in behind Lacey. The coaching staff expected Rubio to be within the two-deep.

That thin line between reserve and rotation player could be Rubio’s home for 2022, the fifth defensive tackle with all five playing. If Lacey was the fifth such tackle last season, he still appeared in 11 games and made 12 tackles with two for loss. He was a veritable piece of that defense.

Such a standard for Rubio in his sophomore year may seem small given his high recruiting ranks, but that is not always the best barometer. Defensive line has been Notre Dame’s best and deepest position group for the last four seasons. Underclassmen should be expected to need time to work their way into that rotation.

DOWN THE ROAD
At the least, the Irish will lose Ademilola and Smith after this season. That should leave Cross and Lacey as the 2023 starters, with Rubio their most experienced backup. Suddenly, the afterthought of the rotation could be a key piece to it.

And then, Rubio should start in 2024. Notre Dame continues to pull in quality defensive linemen — early-enrolled freshman Tyson Ford and incoming freshman Donovan Hinish will both demand playing time before too long — but Rubio’s size alone will establish him in the middle. He needed to add strength to that size when he arrived, and one year may not be enough time to add as much strength as needed, but two years will be.

Consider Rubio in 2023 a ripe candidate for what may come for senior end NaNa Osafo-Mensah this season. Once a high-profile recruit, an injury and a tough case of COVID cost Osafo-Mensah early chances. He fell from the outside’s view. Now, he is in the two-deep at “Big” end, a position that rotates frequently. He could explode back into the public’s consciousness this season and be deemed a revelation; really, he would simply be making the most of his first opportunity.

Rubio has not lost time to injury, but the Irish excess of talent in the middle has robbed him of those early opportunities all the same. To be clear, that is a good thing for Notre Dame, even if it means Rubio slowly falls from public anticipation. When he rectifies that, it will be less a dramatic moment and more an inevitable one.

NOTRE DAME 99-TO-0
From Blake Grupe to Braden Lenzy, the offseason countdown begins anew
No. 99 Blake Grupe, kicker, Arkansas State transfer
No. 99 Rylie Mills, junior defensive lineman, a tackle now playing more at end
No. 98 Tyson Ford, early-enrolled freshman, a defensive tackle recruited as a four-star end

Four-star offensive tackle Sullivan Absher picks Notre Dame over nearby Clemson

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If adding offensive linemen to Notre Dame’s class of 2023 at a rate slower than usual means they are all consensus four-stars, the Irish coaching staff will assuredly not mind the delays. Two weeks after Notre Dame landed its first offensive lineman commitment in this class, it landed a second consensus four-star with a Friday afternoon pledge from offensive tackle Sullivan Absher (South Point High School; Belmont, N.C.).

The No. 24 offensive tackle in the class, per rivals.com, Absher chose the Irish over finalists Clemson and North Carolina State, both considerably closer to home. The Wolfpack should not stand out as an odd inclusion among two Playoff contenders given North Carolina State has sent offensive linemen into the first round of the NFL draft in two of the last four drafts, including tackle Ikem Ekwonu at No. 6 overall just last month.

At 6-foot-7 and 285 pounds, Absher has the length of a tackle at the collegiate level, and he certainly has the quickness needed for it, as well. In fact, Absher hardly looks 285 pounds. He carries it in a lean way, more of it on his lower half than perhaps expected. (His reported weight could also be inflated a bit; such is far from uncommon in recruiting.)

But that observation is also a reflection of his quickness. His first step off the snap is not only powerful but also fast. A running back following Absher around the edge should expect to have a blocker, not to mention a big blocker, clearing a path at the second level of the defense.

Absher’s high school program hardly passes, so it is hard to gauge his ability in that half of the game, but his quickness and flexibility — the latter most apparent in his deep bend pre-snap — should serve him well there. Absher will have a learning curve in the passing game, but that can almost be construed as a positive thing under Irish offensive line coach Harry Hiestand’s tutelage, as he will need to break fewer bad habits.

“One of the biggest things about the football side is just getting coached by coach Hiestand,” Absher said to Inside ND Sports. “Right now, I’m in the triple-option offense, and we block low. I’ve been to camps where I’ve been in the pro-style stances and blocking, but I’m just excited to get on campus, get on the field and get coached by him.”

Absher joins consensus four-star tackle Sam Pendleton as the only two offensive linemen thus far in Notre Dame’s class, but it is expected to grow to at least four commits in the coming months. Absher is the 13th overall commit in the class.

 

Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 98 Tyson Ford, early-enrolled freshman, a defensive tackle recruited as a four-star end

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Listed measurements: 6-foot-4, 269 pounds.
2022-23 year, eligibility: An early-enrolled freshman, Ford obviously has four seasons of eligibility remaining.
Depth Chart: Ford moved in to three-technique tackle, after being sought as a defensive end, this spring. He may be as low as fourth on that depth chart, behind fifth-year Jayson Ademilola, senior Howard Cross and sophomore Jason Onye, but Onye did not appear in any games in 2021. Ford could conceivably move past him and into the rotation.
Recruiting: After December’s signing period, Ford still kept moving up the recruiting rankings. Rivals.com considered him the No. 105 overall prospect then, but after his All-American Bowl showing, he landed at No. 51 in the final rankings. The No. 6 defensive end in the class, per rivals.com, Ford nearly committed to Oklahoma.

Then Marcus Freeman arrived as Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator. For all of Freeman’s recruiting successes in the 16 months since he was first hired onto Brian Kelly’s staff, Ford was his first win. Ford made it clear that Freeman was what swayed him from the Sooners.

“I really think the Marcus Freeman situation changed things a bit,” Ford said to The South Bend Tribune.

Again, Ford was referring to defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman, not Irish head coach Marcus Freeman.

Ford also considered Georgia and his homestate Florida as finalists before making that January 2021 decision.

NAME, IMAGE, LIKENESS
The most obvious application of true name, image and likeness rights was always via a car dealership. Local dealerships have long formed relationships with outgoing players as they prepped for the draft, usually getting them a cheap (or perhaps free) lease within a week of their last game. If nothing else, it was a chance to form a relationship before that player would want to buy his first nice car.

Such a relationship is now allowed with any player. If Gurley Leep Ford, south of Notre Dame, just a bit short of the St. Joseph County Fairgrounds, has not already called Tyson Ford, then Buddy Garrity is assuredly rolling over in his fictional grave. (The Friday Night Lights character would be about 67 now. No offense to actor Brad Leland, but Garrity would be dead from a cardiac-related event by now, right?)

QUOTES
When Freeman first became Notre Dame’s head coach, it was expected his staff would remain largely intact. That was not merely an external thought. Actions reflected the internal thinking, as well, such as putting those assistant coaches in front of the media repeatedly throughout December and even January.

If Freeman had known defensive line coach Mike Elston would jump to his alma mater, Michigan, then he may not have had the recruiting coordinator speak during December’s signing period. But Elston’s praisings then hold validity yet, as they were sincere in the moment, and his work with Freeman is what brought the Irish this defensive lineman out of Missouri.

“Tyson is just a big, athletic, physical player,” Elston said. “He’s going to take some development. He’s not at a big school where there’s a bunch of coaches there that are helping him daily with the little things that make a great defensive lineman.

“It’s great he’s coming in mid-year because he’s going to learn a lot of that, he’s going to get a lot of development very early. It’ll be exciting to see him go down to the All-American Game and stack up with those guys.

“Know what I love about Tyson? And I didn’t know this prior to him coming on an official visit, was he’s really a sponge in football. He wants to know football. He wants to sit there, sit next to you, watch film. What should I be doing here? What should I be looking at? What should I be thinking about?

“That’s going to be huge. Sometimes when a young man is that talented, it comes easy to him and he doesn’t learn how to study the game, and the fact that he loves the game and wants to study it, that’s going to be big.”

WHAT WAS SAID WHEN FORD SIGNED IN DECEMBER
Ford already brings plenty of strength to the edge, keeping offensive linemen from getting into his body, but there is some fundamental work ahead of him in developing his pass rush tendencies.”

2022 OUTLOOK
The move to tackle from end may come as a surprise. Ford was a highly-sought defensive end. He excelled at the position in high school. Why move him so quickly?

It likely reflects what the Irish strength and conditioning staff expects from Ford’s physical development. If it thought he is more likely to remain long and lean, then he may have remained at end, but if it thinks his body will be best served by adding 10-20 more pounds, then he could suddenly be an ideal tackle.

Nailing that kind of projection is harder than we think from the outside, but it is also crucial to a player’s development.

In the short term, it likely means Ford becomes more of a developmental piece. He may be able to hold his own on the inside against the lightweights on Notre Dame’s schedule — and let’s establish those now as Marshall, Cal and UNLV — but with two of those within the first three weeks of his freshman season, he may not be tasked with even that work. It will be more important for Ford to add muscle and learn the intricacies of his new position than it will be for him to measure himself against Cal’s lackluster defensive line.

DOWN THE ROAD
Ademilola considered the NFL following the 2021 season. With a shoulder injury, his return was always exceedingly likely, but not a certainty. It should be following 2022. That will leave Cross and either Onye or Ford to lead the way on the inside as a penetrating tackle.

They have similar profiles, as both Onye and Ford were recruited as “Big” ends from areas with middling preps competition, and both moved inside to tackle quickly. With an extra year of collegiate nutrition, Onye is already up to a listed weight of 289 pounds, so he has a clear advantage there.

But Ford has the better profile otherwise. A four-star recruit, rather than three-, from Missouri instead of Rhode Island, he projects to a better collegiate career, plain and simple. Of course, these things can be fickle on a case-by-case basis, but Ford should be given the benefit of the doubt.

If he cracks the two-deep in 2023, he will be counted on to provide a pass rush from the inside. That should be within Ford’s skill set. From there, he could start in 2024 and 2025. At the very least, none of that would be a surprise.

NOTRE DAME 99-TO-0
From Blake Grupe to Braden Lenzy, the offseason countdown begins anew
No. 99 Blake Grupe, kicker, Arkansas State transfer
No. 99 Rylie Mills, junior defensive lineman, a tackle now playing more at end