A three-star in recruiting only, DE prospect Darren Agu commits to Notre Dame

Darren Agu
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Notre Dame has earned a benefit of the doubt when recruiting three-star defensive ends. After developing the likes of Jamir Jones and Ade Ogundeji into bona fide collegiate contributors and NFL possibilities, the Irish have shown an ability to identify nascent talent and develop it over a four-year stretch.

But when it comes to consensus three-star defensive end Darren Agu (Ruban Gap-Nacoochee School; Ga.) and his Friday afternoon commitment, Notre Dame does not need that benefit of the doubt. If the No. 47 prospect in Georgia, per rivals.com, signs as a three-star recruit in six months, it will be a surprise, and if so, he will be viewed as a three-star in recruiting only.

The Irish offered Agu at the start of the month, and he clearly did not wait to seize that opportunity.

“It’s a huge offer; you can’t pass up on it,” Agu said to Blue & Gold Illustrated. “They could easily get someone else at my position, so as soon as I got the offer, I wanted to make it official as soon as possible.”

His ranking comes as a result of two factors. One, Agu primarily plays tight end in high school. Secondly, he only moved to the United States about a year ago (born in Ireland, raised in England) and thus has logged just one season of traditional football for college coaches to evaluate.

Despite those hurdles, Notre Dame and plenty of others have quickly realized Agu could be a unique player. His offer list reads not like a usual three-star’s, with eight SEC offers (including Alabama and Auburn) and nine ACC offers (including Florida State and North Carolina), along with Penn State, Colorado and Iowa State to round out the Power Five conferences.

“College coaches say I’m very athletic for my size,” Agu said. “They think I can pass rush or drop into coverage. I could play tight end or defensive end at the next level.”

His ability to maintain a block, offensively speaking, indicates an ease with contact, and those blocks contain some power, as well. At 6-foot-6, though, it is Agu’s length that suggests the most promise at defensive end.

Well, that 6-foot-6 length plus his speed. Reportedly, Agu recently ran a 4.75-second 40-yard dash at a camp. For context, former Notre Dame ends Daelin Hayes and Ogundeji clocked 40 times of 4.69 and 4.71, respectively, at the Irish Pro Day two weeks ago.

Simply put, Notre Dame found a four-star prospect in a three-star’s ranking, making Agu the 12th commitment in the class of 2022 and third defensive end, joining Tyson Ford and Aiden Gobaira.

Notre Dame’s Drew Pyne studied to turn his second first spring practices into a real QB competition

Drew Pyne
Notre Dame Athletics

Drew Pyne was ready for his first spring practice. The Notre Dame quarterback studied the playbook diligently, both for memory and for comprehension. He felt he understood all the necessary reads. He was as ready as he could be.

“Once I went in there, I wasn’t nervous at all,” Pyne said this past Saturday. “I knew everything, and it was so much easier.”

Of course, that was early last March, and it was the only spring practice the then-early-enrolled freshman would get before the coronavirus pandemic forced Notre Dame to send the football team home for more than three months.

“That first spring ball practice, I studied so much before that, I knew all the plays, all the reads and everything else,” he said.

So when spring practice was cut short and Pyne had an abundance of time on his hands (as we all seemingly did 56 weeks ago), what did he do? Study some more.

“Going home for the amount of time that we were home leading up to last season, I saw that and I was like, ‘Okay, I’m going to study a lot more.’”

Suffice it to say, Pyne feels prepared to be the Irish starter in his sophomore season, despite the arrival of Wisconsin graduate transfer Jack Coan. Whereas the former Big 10 starter has the experience advantage, Pyne has studied offensive coordinator Tommy Rees’ playbook inside and out, learned it under Ian Book’s wing, and then studied some more.

Those are less tangible traits than Coan’s 437 career pass attempts (compared to Pyne’s three, for 12 yards on two completions), but Pyne’s work in Notre Dame practices all last year still happened all the same. Taking most of the second-team reps while Brendon Clark worked through a knee issue gave Pyne time behind the offensive linemen who are now competing for starting rights, gave him reps with the receivers now trying to replace Javon McKinley and Bennett Skowronek, gave him chances to hear from Book on possible improvements. Coan may have seen more live-action against Power Five-caliber defenses, but Pyne has spent more time in just about every other aspect of this vague conversation.

“I kind of like growing in everything, and I think I was able to do that last year getting all the second-team reps throughout the whole year and Ian taking me under (his) wing,” Pyne said before praising Book for a solid 30 more seconds for his mentorship, something that should not have been assumed given the four-year age gap between the two. “… I learned from him, learned from coach Rees. I was in watching film with them after every single practice to nine o’clock at night.

“Learning from them and getting the reps in practice. I was able to go in against Alabama — I was calm because I knew that I prepared well.”

The odds and logic insist Coan will end up the starter. He would not have chosen Notre Dame for his final season of college if he did not have some reasonable expectation of that, but Pyne also has some expectations of starting, a confidence one needs to have the audacity to even commit to the Irish as a quarterback.

“I committed here in my sophomore year, and I’ve been committed here (for) what feels like a long time,” Pyne said. “I committed here when (former Notre Dame, now Boston College quarterback Phil Jurkovec) was here, Ian was here, Brendon was here. I always knew at Notre Dame, especially at a place like this, you have to know that you’re going to come in and compete with the best quarterbacks in the country.”

That attitude fits with Pyne’s clear intent of not yielding anything to Coan while maintaining team chemistry. Irish head coach Brian Kelly has publicly admitted he botched the handling of the 2016 quarterback competition, thus dividing the locker room. He kept those lessons in mind while delicately navigating a quarterback switch mid-unbeaten season in 2018 (still arguably the most impressive accomplishment of his 11 years at Notre Dame) and they remain applicable now. As long as Pyne is intent on becoming the Irish starter, Kelly is intent on him getting that chance this spring, Pyne’s first real spring practices.

“I think the way that Tommy (Rees) has got it set up, which is what we wanted, is a battle between Jack Coan and Drew Pyne,” Kelly said. “Those two guys are really getting equal reps with the first and second group, so a good battle there. … We evaluate that from day to day. One day we see some good things from Drew and then Jack does some really good things.”

If one player seems to rise shortly after another does, that may be a result of each other, a result of this quarterback competition — be it genuine or in name only — not dividing the team. (And that was never a given, despite Kelly’s hard-won lessons, as fifth-year receiver Avery Davis admitted some hesitancy to embracing a graduate transfer quarterback.) Book took Pyne under his wing last season, and that ethos has carried forward.

“[Coan] helps me when I’m in and I’m coming off, and I try to help him when he’s in and coming off,” Pyne said. “We do the same with [early-enrolled freshman Tyler Buchner]. We all have each other’s backs.

“We all know, when you’re in, we’re just controlling what we can control, and when we have our reps, we’re trying to maximize our reps, and when the other guy has their reps, we’re trying to help him. That’s a testament to coach Rees.”

Maybe Pyne ruins the best-laid plans of Coan’s transfer — Pyne did start as a freshman in high school and play about 50 games in his prep career. Maybe Coan holds off Pyne in the latter’s first spring practices, going far better than last year’s false start. Either way, this quarterback competition is clearly drama-free, for the betterment of all involved.

Coan’s transfer an example of college football’s growth, to his and Notre Dame’s benefit

Jack Coan
Notre Dame Athletics
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Jack Coan did not know for sure he wanted to transfer to Notre Dame when he decided to leave Wisconsin after four years, but he knew enough to be sure he considered the Irish, even before he heard much from them. Offensive coordinator Tommy Rees had a Playoff semifinal to worry about, one led by the all-time winningest starting quarterback in Notre Dame history, so courting Coan was not atop his priority list when the former Badgers starter announced his transfer intentions in December.

But Coan knew Ian Book was heading to the NFL, anyone could see the Irish lacked a clear 2021 starter, and he had considered South Bend nearly a decade ago when he first committed as a lacrosse recruit, so Coan was content to wait for Rees’ season to end.

“I was definitely talking to a few other schools for a little while,” he said Saturday after Notre Dame’s fourth spring practice. “Coach Rees basically didn’t want to reach out to me until after the season was over. He told me he was trying to focus on beating Alabama in the Playoff. After he reached out to me, I took a day or two with my family to discuss it.

“Previously, we were thinking that Notre Dame might come in, so we were doing our research before that, as well.”

Coan needed just three days after the Irish semifinal loss to make official what was clearly a good fit. He wanted a larger platform with a clear path to a starting role for his final season, and Notre Dame wanted an established quarterback who would keep them in New Year’s Day contention for a fifth straight year. This player autonomy may be an increasing aspect of college football, but in Coan’s case, it required no second-guessing.

“It just gives players different opportunities to play where they want to play,” he said. “And have a chance to play. For me, personally, I’m extremely thankful to be able to play for two amazing programs now in Wisconsin and Notre Dame. Not many people get to say that.

“It just opens doors for new opportunities and getting to meet new people and new coaches, learning new systems.”

By finding a quarterback with a season-plus of starting experience in the Big 10, Rees also added some veteran savvy to a quarterbacks room entirely lacking it. Coan has started more than twice as many games (18) as the rest of Notre Dame’s quarterbacks have attempted collegiate passes (7). If that is an odd way of comparing them, it is only because comparing his 437 pass attempts to their seven would be so drastic as to lack any context.

That disparity is why it is easy to assume Coan will start on Labor Day Eve (in 153 days). The logic to his transfer also supports that assumption; while Rees and Irish head coach Brian Kelly assuredly would not make a promise to start him, they just-as-assuredly laid out the facts of the position for Coan before he committed his final college season to them.

“I just felt like it was time for me to move on (from Wisconsin) and go to a place where I thought it would be a good opportunity for me,” he said.

There will obviously be adjustments, new receivers to work with and new schemes to understand, not to mention the nominal competition to win against rising sophomore Drew Pyne, but most of that is similar enough to Coan’s time in Madison so as not to worry him. Receivers come and go as is the cyclical nature of college football; Coan was already competing a year ago with Graham Mertz before Coan’s foot injury cut short the duel; the schemes are not all that different.

“In both offenses, there’s a bunch of similar concepts, a bunch of similar plays with just certain receivers, certain routes that are different here than they were there and things like that,” Coan said. “Then as far as differences, I’d say, here it’s a little less huddling, a little faster pace, and I’d say probably a little more balanced as far as passing and running the ball.”

Anyone who has watched both Wisconsin and Notre Dame the last few years recognizes the exact items Coan references. Both run traditional, drop-back offenses dependent on a physical line clearing the way for a power running game. The Irish just do so a bit more prolifically than the Badgers.

When it comes to an on-field comparison between the two of them, the storyline of Coan facing his old team in September is too obvious to ignore, but he does, for now.

“I’m not really focused on that or anything. I mean, after the first night I said I was coming here, I was getting questions about that. It’s crazy, I wasn’t even in school yet. For now, just trying to focus on getting better.”

There was once a time, not that long ago at all, when Coan would never have been allowed to transfer to a school on the Badgers’ schedule for a few seasons to come, let alone one on their schedule the very next season and it be a season in which Coan is eligible. That time is more and more a relic of the past, fortunately so for players looking for opportunities like the one Coan has found at Notre Dame, one he first dreamed of long ago.

“Growing up, I was actually a Notre Dame fan, and like many of you probably know, I was committed here for lacrosse. Now, I think the main reason for that was because I wanted to come here and watch some football games. So it is pretty cool, it worked out, everything came full circle.”

Leftovers & Links: NFL-bound offensive linemen praise Notre Dame’s remaining veteran

Notre Dame offensive line
Notre Dame Athletics

There is a version of this offseason where the narrative around Notre Dame’s offensive line claimed the Irish return “five linemen with starting experience” rather than the version at hand of Notre Dame “needing to replace four starting linemen.” The former would have been technically accurate, and it still can be if altered to four linemen with 32 starts between them.

The moral to these differing storylines is the Irish return more experience along the offensive line than one might expect when they are sending four linemen into the NFL draft (April 29 – May 1), and no one knows the depths of that returning experience than those four linemen readying their professional aspirations. Before they each dashed 40 yards last week, they also offered some reviews of their replacements.

While no one would ever expect a former teammate to offer critical words, the details included in answers to open-ended questions convey some sincerity and legitimacy in the descriptions of Jarrett Patterson, Josh Lugg and Dillan Gibbons, among others.

Former left tackle Liam Eichenberg on his presumed replacement, rising senior Jarrett Patterson, who started 21 games at center in the last two seasons (Patterson is sidelined this spring with a foot injury, so his position switch is only assumed, though Eichenberg certainly did not use conditional verbs): “It will be easy for Jarrett. Football comes natural to him. First camp as a freshman, he was a left tackle behind me, and he was amazing. I think it will be like nothing ever happened. I don’t expect there to be a drop-off at all. It will be like I’m still there, it’ll be like Mike (McGlinchey) was still there, and I think Jarrett will be one of the next greats. He’s a great center, and I think him moving out to tackle will make people realize he’s a better player than most people think.”

Eichenberg on fifth-year Josh Lugg, with eight career starts split between right guard and right tackle: “Josh was our utility man. He stepped in, he can play any position. You can put him at tackle, guard or center, and he would do well. He’s a guy that we’ve had — we have four guys coming out this year. He’s been behind them and me at times. It’s just allowed him to develop even more. This is his opportunity now. He will start on the offensive line this year, there’s no doubt about that. He’s going to do very well, he’s going to be very successful, he’s a guy who understands his technique and fundamentals. I’m very excited for him, a guy who stuck it out, who would do anything and sacrifice anything for an offensive line, that’s the type of guy you’re getting.”

Former right guard Tommy Kraemer on fifth-year Dillan Gibbons and senior John Dirksen, two of the primary candidates to fill out the starting lineup, Gibbons with a start in Kraemer’s place last season: “Those guys are two awesome football players. They’re tough, gritty, physical, they can definitely do it. The Notre Dame offensive line will be getting two mature players in John and Dillan. Guys who care a lot about the program and care about improving in their craft.”

Eichenberg on sophomore Tosh Baker, getting a few first-team reps in practice: He has a great mindset. He works hard. For him, it’s just about getting strong in the offseason. He put in a lot of work this winter, so I’m excited to see how he looks. … It’s just strength for him. He moves well, is good with his hands, understands the playbook. It’s just going to be developing his overall strength. When he gets that, I think he’ll be a great player for Notre Dame.”

Former right tackle Robert Hainsey on the remaining offensive linemen in general: “They got some guys that are going to need to step up and be ready to play some big-time minutes that they weren’t used to playing, but I’m really excited to watch all those guys get their opportunity, because there are a lot of great players in that room, and it’s going to be fun to watch them battle it out for who’s going to play. I think the competition is going to bring the best out of everyone.”

Losing Aaron Banks to the draft, rather than a fifth season which would likely have been spent at left tackle, cost the offseason hype machine that chance to point out Notre Dame would return five starters, technically speaking (the fifth being junior center Zeke Correll, two career starts), but the Irish still do not lack experience. The offensive line’s limited stats to brag about are more a reflection of the four linemen heading to the NFL than of the linemen set for their fifth spring practice tomorrow.

Banks did consider a fifth year and a chance to move to left tackle from left guard, but a combination of former teammates’ input, most notably Sam Mustipher’s, and the departure of his best friends from the team led to his decision.

“Three of the guys I played with for the last three years were leaving, so I felt like it was my time to depart with them,” Banks said a week ago.

The original intention here was to mirror those quotes with the defensive versions, with Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah praising Drew White, with Nick McCloud highlighting junior Cam Hart, with Ade Ogundeji going on and on about fifth-year Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, junior Isaiah Foskey and sophomore Jordan Botelho.

But let’s put those off for a day or two to instead focus on some in-depth and introspective words from former Irish defensive end Daelin Hayes. College football can be a hypocritical, self-indulgent, exploitive sport. But every once in a while, a player gets a chance to give a few genuine minutes in which he illustrates the redemptive value of the game.

To start his media availability before his pro day workouts, Hayes was asked to reflect on his fifth season. Keep in mind, Hayes would have used up his eligibility if he had played in one more game in 2019 before injuring his shoulder, a troublesome shoulder that interrupted three of his high school seasons. Returning to Notre Dame in 2020 had never been on his radar until then, and at that point, it was understandably felt as a misfortune. His reflection:

“This last year at Notre Dame was really why a 17-year-old kid makes a decision to attend a place like this. Full circle. When I made the decision to come to Notre Dame, it was not only for the football aspect but to be refined as a young man on the field, off the field and spiritually.

“The first goal I had when I stepped on campus was to become a captain, and I was able to achieve that. Another goal I had was to impact the community around me, and I was able to achieve that, as well. Then obviously the football aspect came full circle this year, as well.

“To be able to lead a group of men who, at no point throughout this year were we ever promised an opportunity to compete. We were stripped of the opportunity to really bond as a team, to have the coaching structure, the academic structure that we had grown accustomed to being at Notre Dame and throughout our time here. We were never really given any solid opportunity. We were never given a solid promise to be able to put all that on display. For guys to be able to buy in this year, the sacrifices that they made, the things that we stood for as an organization, to be able to impact the community and speak up for people whose voices have been oppressed, to lead a community on the field and continue to shine as a light, a beacon of hope for our entire community, our students, our faculty, the people in our community and our team, I think that it was really special.

“When I reflect on my time at Notre Dame, this is why I chose to come here. It was just a special year, I’m so thankful for it, I’m grateful for how things shook out this year because it really was a testament to our buy-in, our traits. Coach Kelly preaches to us to be smart, gritty, to have laser focus, to always have attention to detail and to have a great attitude, and our team really embodied that, it really showed.

“I’m just extremely thankful. I’m proud of the guys. I’m proud to be a part of this brotherhood. And I’m proud to have left that stamp at Notre Dame, to have left it better than when I found it as a 17-year-old kid.”

With junior running back Kendall Abdur-Rahman’s entry into the transfer portal, the Irish now have 88 scholarship players expected to be on the roster on Labor Day Eve. For this one season, Notre Dame can exceed the usual NCAA maximum of 85, but just by the two scholarships given to players using a year of eligibility only available due to the blanket waiver granted during the coronavirus pandemic. Defensive tackle Kurt Hinish and kicker Jonathan Doerer are the only two players fitting that distinction, meaning the Irish can roster 87 scholarship players when the season starts.

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Notre Dame’s receivers rising to occasion; Irish vaccines on the horizon

Braden Lenzy
Notre Dame Athletics
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As Notre Dame looks for answers at receiver, aside from fifth-year Avery Davis, the greatest question is consistency. The Irish know they have perimeter talent on the roster. Seniors Braden Lenzy (pictured above) and Kevin Austin have both flashed their tantalizing ceilings in brief moments throughout their careers; rising sophomore Jordan Johnson arrived last summer as one of the highest-rated receiving recruits in recent Notre Dame history; the trio of early-enrolled and incoming freshmen warranted their own headlines this past recruiting cycle.

But for all those moments of hype, the Irish were reminded of a cold hard fact of college football to start 2021: They need to score. Perimeter talent realized is the best chance to do so.

“We move into 2021 with less certainty on the offensive line, less certainty at the quarterback position,” head coach Brian Kelly said Saturday after the fourth of 15 spring practices and the first to include live tackling. “Now we know that we’ve got to score points. …

“This is about scoring. So we’re going to use this spring and preseason to kind of put that together.”

Davis will be routinely cited as the consistent, leading piece in the receivers room for the next 155 days, but one receiver does not make an explosive offense (Devonta Smith aside). That’s where Lenzy’s and classmate Lawrence Keys’ early impressions this spring give Kelly reason for hope. However, their previous three-plus years also give him reason for skepticism.

“Two guys who caught my attention — now, this is only practice four, so I’m going to put an asterisk next to it and they know why I’m putting an asterisk next to it — but Lenzy and Keys have been really good,” Kelly said. “Now, they have to be consistent because that has been the area that they haven’t been for us. They haven’t been consistent.”

If Kelly were levying those consistency criticisms at underclassmen, it could be rash or seem premature, but Lenzy and Keys have been in the program for long enough that they should be able to handle such pressure by now. For each, their on-field struggles have often tied to physical knocks (Lenzy, hamstring; Keys, concussion), but when a chance comes to produce, those physical struggles can be as problematic as off-field missteps. Either get it right or Kelly and his coaching staff need to look to the next option. (Speaking of where physical struggles meet off-field missteps, here is your reminder Austin will miss this spring while he recovers from a broken foot.)

In the most cliche of college football tropes, weight room work serves as both a malady for physical nuisances and a predictor of good things to come.

“They’ve made a commitment in the weight room that is different than what we’ve seen in the past,” Kelly said of Lenzy and Keys. “These guys have been outstanding in the weight room, and you can see it in the way they are translating that onto the field. They’re explosive, they’re running out, they’re breaking tackles.

“You can see it in the way that they’re practicing and playing.”

The spring headlines will want to focus on Notre Dame’s quarterback competition, but 2020 proved only so much can come from top-flight quarterback play without equal playmakers on the perimeter. (And though this headline may highlight the receivers, a piece is already planned for mid-week on Wisconsin graduate transfer Jack Coan and rising sophomore Drew Pyne.)

Yet, those are the playmakers the Irish receivers are striving to replace, a challenge unto itself that Pyne has noticed his targets are acutely aware of.

“They’re more locked in than I’ve ever seen,” Pyne said. “They know we lost a few guys last year, some older guys. They’re locked in and they’re getting better.”

As Coan and Pyne split first-team reps in practice, the players on the other ends of their passes are impressing their quarterbacks and their coaches.

Kendall Abdur-Rahman has entered the transfer portal, he announced on Twitter on Friday afternoon. The former high school quarterback bounced between receiver and running back in his two seasons with the Irish, appearing in one game in 2020.

At running back, Abdur-Rahman was no higher than fourth on Notre Dame’s depth chart, behind stalwart junior Kyren Williams, speedy sophomore Chris Tyree and forceful senior C’Bo Flemister. In other words, Abdur-Rahman was looking at another season of little-to-no action.

He could return from the transfer portal, but given that depth chart reality — not even mentioning two incoming freshman running backs — consider that possibility unlikely.

Of course, Coan and Pyne are not the only quarterbacks partaking in Notre Dame’s spring practices. Early-enrolled freshman Tyler Buchner is apparently finding his legs after his first few practices in a year and a half.

“Today we started to see some of the rust come off Tyler Buchner,” Kelly said. “Today was a really good day for him. He was much more comfortable out there, threw ball with a lot more confidence. And I say this in that he hadn’t played football for a year, so it was nice to see him out there. He had a smile on his face, had some confidence.”

Kelly said he has received two doses of the coronavirus vaccine, and the entire Notre Dame roster will have access to a first dose beginning next week, though no player will be required to get vaccinated. This timeline fits with the state of Indiana opening up vaccine eligibility to anyone over the age of 16 and the University’s intentions of opening a vaccination center on campus for its entire student body.

“We outlined some of the obvious advantages of having it,” Kelly said. “One of the big ones obviously would be that they could go home and not have to quarantine coming back. Others that are certainly on the horizon that have not been fully established, that would be smaller groups (with) no masks, the chance that we could potentially eat together in a sit-down meal which they haven’t done since December of ‘19.”

Kelly left out the advantage of being protected from a serious case of COVID-19, if not protected from the disease entirely, perhaps an advantage so obvious Kelly did not feel it necessary to point out.