Kelly pinpoints freshman that are ready to contribute

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There’s an abundance of information from yesterday’s media day that I’m still digging through, but one of the interesting tidbits that Brian Kelly revealed during his entertaining 40 minute press conference had to do with the freshman that were ready to contribute this season.

When asked for a status update on his freshman after 13 practices, Kelly was incredibly candid on who he thought might contribute this season:

“Probably the topic of conversation for our staff meeting last night, number one for quite a long time, was about who were the freshman right now that have to be prepared to play. I’ll list them for you. Guys that have to be prepared to play. Now things could change obviously, we’re 13 practices into it.

“On the offensive side of the ball, T.J. Jones, Tommy Rees, Alex Welch, Tate Nichols, Christian Lombard. All five of those guys right now have got to be prepared to play. They’re playing in a two-deep role in some fashion.

“Collinsworth is somebody that is not in the two deep yet, but he’s on
every kick team, every special teams that we have. So there’s six guys
on offense that are freshmen. It’s the most I’ve ever had in 20 years
of coaching that will be eating breakfast with the team when we’re ready
to play.

“On the defensive side of the ball, Lo Wood is in our two deep, Prince Shembo is right there and most likely will be somebody that will be prepared to play, and Danny Spond has been really, really dynamic. I don’t know that we have many guys that play with their hands and can really shock you. He’s going to be on all of our special teams as well.

“Six on offense, three on defense, you got nine freshman right now that will be on the bus.”

One of the more interesting parts of following a freshman class from recruitment to their actual first season is finding out who’ll be ready to contribute on the field when the time comes to actually play football.

From a recruiting perspective, it’s interesting that three guys targeted only by the new regime have already found their way onto the field, something that philosophically Kelly tries not to do.

Here’s a quick breakdown of the nine freshman and a reminder of their recruiting “status.”

     Austin Collinsworth, WR — Kelly target. Three-star player with mid-level offers.
     T.J. Jones, WR — Four-star, national recruit. Committed after USC game.
     Christian Lombard, OL — National recruit, one of ND’s first commitments.
     Tate Nichols, OL — Kelly target. High school tight end transitioned to OL.
     Tommy Rees, QB —  Early enrollee. Three-star prospect with mid-level offers.
     Prince Shembo, LB — Four-star, early commitment to ND. Recommitted to Kelly and staff.
     Danny Spond, LB — Kelly target. Four-star athlete with average offers.
     Alex Welch, TE — National recruit, committed after BC victory. Pipeline school.
     Lo Wood, CB — Early target, early Irish commitment with good regional offers.

Many worried when offers went out to the seven prospects Kelly eventually signed after he came on board. But of those seven that decided to come to Notre Dame, three of them are already in contention for early playing time, and recruits like Kona Schwenke and Luke Massa have been singled out for doing great work in their short time on campus.

Guys like Spond and Lombard, two prospects that didn’t have any Irish fans jumping for joy when their names surfaced as targets because of average scholarship offers, have provided a blueprint for the type of below-the-radar recruits that Kelly likes to target, players that aren’t necessarily just developmental targets as they are outliers in the traditional structure of recruiting.

Not to go too Malcolm Gladwell on you, but players like Spond, Nichols, and Collinsworth are great examples of players routinely ignored by major college football programs. Spond was a jumbo-sized athlete that played quarterback and safety in high school, but lacked the true speed to grade out as a premiere dual-threat quarterback and was likely too big and slow to be well-regarded as a safety. Nichols was likely seen as a underwhelming athlete that played as a jumbo-sized tight end / wide receiver for a small town high school. Collinsworth, even with his family pedigree, likely had his athleticism challenged by major college programs unsure whether or not he had the speed needed to play wide receiver at the highest level. Being a white skill position player didn’t help any of them, either. After spending 20 years recruiting for schools that needed to look below every rock to unearth unheralded talent, Kelly had the confidence in his evaluation methods to pull the trigger on offers that looked questionable. 

As Kelly and his staff become more well known on the recruiting trail, it’ll be interesting to see if they’ll be able to unearth below-the-radar targets like these three. Similar to what the book Moneyball did to the Oakland A’s, a Notre Dame offer might be enough to have rival programs give undervalued prospects an additional look.