Accolades: Consensus three-star prospect, No. 22 recruit in Louisiana, per rivals.com.
Other Notable Offers: Holding offers from the likes of Georgia, LSU, Michigan and Oklahoma, Keys’ recruitment came down to Notre Dame and Texas.
Projected Position: Receiver.
Quick Take: Keys brings more speed to the Irish receiving corps. His measurements may indicate he is slight of frame, but that would not be wholly accurate. Nonetheless, time spent in a collegiate strength and conditioning program will diminish those concerns and help Keys fit more in line with what Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long typically prefers in receivers.
Short-Term Roster Outlook: Notre Dame’s current receivers do not boast an excess of top-end speed, especially after the dismissal of current sophomore Kevin Stepherson and the intended transfer of junior C.J. Sanders. Keys will not arrive as highly-touted for his speed as classmate Braden Lenzy will, but if he can establish himself before the Oregon track star does, then there may be a role for Keys right away.
Long-View Depth Chart Impact: Even if Lenzy gets the nod ahead of Keys this season, the latter will have plenty of chances moving forward, considering they are essentially the only two burners in the Irish receiving room at the moment. Junior Chris Finke is certainly quick and graduate transfer Freddy Canteen was brought in largely for his speed when healthy, but neither has the ability to take the top off a secondary like Lenzy and Keys should.
Keys is the fourth receiver in this class. That is quite a haul in every respect, and from a pure numbers standpoint, it sets up Notre Dame very well for the next few years.
It is a common saying in the spring while hyping practice performances: Speed can’t be taught. Frankly, it is a common saying anytime discussing football at length. Yet, to some degree speed can be taught — with the proper training and technique, players do get faster.
It would be more accurate to point to experience as an unteachable quality, one gained only with time.
This spring and coming fall, Notre Dame will have plenty of experience from the outset. Nine fifth-year players are expected back with the Irish for one more season, more than double last year’s four, which included a transfer in receiver Cam Smith. He joined left tackle Mike McGlinchey, offensive lineman Hunter Bivin and tight end Durham Smythe.
McGlinchey turned down the chance to be a first-round NFL draft pick to return, and both Bivin and Smythe had options to transfer elsewhere for a final season with more playing time and perhaps more prominent roles. Instead, McGlinchey led the Irish on and off the field, Bivin provided the only semblance of depth along the offensive front and Smythe had a career season.
The nine in 2018 will represent the opposite end of the seasoning spectrum when compared to 22-25 freshmen. The nine may not warrant dramatic and desperate pleas for playing time. More often than not, they do not even land in headlines. The fifth-year options are known quantities, while the freshmen stand out as potential and hypothetical greatness.
In time, some of the freshmen will certainly surpass the fifth-years’ ceilings. Using such a declarative verb and tense in the previous sentence even holds up when considering the sheer numbers at hand.
In 2018, though, the fifth-years will be Notre Dame’s backbone. They provide experience, consistency and depth the freshmen simply cannot match. That is not a knock on the newcomers. All-Americans and likely first-round draft picks McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson were not ready to contribute as freshmen. Neither were the likes of Mitch Trubisky (at North Carolina), Deshaun Watson (at Clemson) or Christian McCaffrey (at Stanford), three of the top-12 picks in last year’s NFL draft.
The freshmen’s time will come. For defensive end Jay Hayes, tight end Nic Weishar and receiver Freddy Canteen, the only remaining time is now. To some degree, that ticking clock adds a sense of urgency to the qualities they bring to the locker room.
The experience, consistency and depth are just a bit more tangible. There will be few situations those nine have not seen, few offenses linebacker Drue Tranquill has not already watched film on. If that allows him to pick up on a play a second earlier, it could be the entire difference in getting the defensive line properly lined up before the snap. Similarly, there will be few blitzes center Sam Mustipher has not had to already diagnose. If that removes one more duty from the quarterback’s pre-snap checklist, it should allow him (whomever it is) to focus on the coverage presented that much more.
The Irish roster was always going to have a punter on it. If that is a fifth-year or a freshman, it equals one roster spot all the same. By keeping Tyler Newsome around, a consistent and strong leg remains a field position weapon.
Losing a consensus All-American in McGlinchey and a unanimous All-American in Nelson is enough of a challenge. Getting Mustipher and right guard Alex Bars back will do a lot to ease the task of replacing the left side of the line for newly-promoted offensive line coach Jeff Quinn.
Cornerback Nick Watkins’ physical stature makes him an ideal boundary coverage option to start with, but keeping him in the mix with the four sophomore cornerbacks also makes Notre Dame’s secondary deeper than it could ever deploy at once. Even if current sophomore Julian Love spends some time at safety, the Irish could still trot out a dime package with four stout cornerbacks. Without Watkins, that luxury would hinge on the quick adaption of a freshman such as Tariq Bracy.
Freshman Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa would have been a good starting defensive tackle in his second season, if not more than that. The return of Jonathan Bonner means Tagovailoa-Amosa will be a great backup, if not more yet, nonetheless. Either way, the return of Bonner raises the overall quality of play at the position. The same goes for Hayes at defensive end and his effect upon the possibilities of the current sophomores filling the position group.
Experience, consistency and depth. They cannot be taught, only gained with time.
While Alabama made it fashionable to insist freshmen are universally ready to play by relying on first-year players at quarterback, running back, receiver and left tackle on its national championship-winning drive, those were anomalies. Even at that, they were mixed-result anomalies. Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa made greater and more mistakes than exceptional plays; his positive moments simply proved more decisive. In addition to the title-winning touchdown pass, he also jeopardized the game by throwing an interception on a running play, using a timeout when trying to drain the clock and taking a sack on the opening play of the Tide overtime drive. That sack was initiated when freshman left tackle Alex Leatherwood blew his block, forcing Tagovailoa to move into more pressure.)
Most freshmen are not ready to provide consistent and constant production. For every Robert Hainsey, there is a Mike McGlinchey. For every Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, there is a Jonathan Bonner. For every, nope, Notre Dame has not had a strong freshman linebacker showing since the otherworldly Jaylon Smith in 2013. One could argue that underscores the importance of Tranquill’s return, as it is somewhat unlikely any of the early-enrolled or incoming freshmen linebackers make an impact this year.
And if one of them is, Irish head coach Brian Kelly will readily embrace it. Someone still has to join Tranquill and current junior Te’von Coney on the defense’s second level.
Notre Dame Sunday Notebook: Injury update and punt block blocks
As impressive as Notre Dame’s six-game winning streak has been, the most underappreciated part of it may be the continued relative health of the Irish. Aside from junior defensive tackle Elijah Taylor missing the season due to a Lisfranc fracture in spring practice, senior defensive tackle Daniel Cage taking a year away from football to tend to knee and concussion issues and senior receiver Freddy Canteen undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery, Notre Dame has stayed about as healthy as can ever be hoped for eight games into the season.
Such continued in the 35-14 Irish victory over North Carolina State on Saturday. Junior tight end Alizé Mack suffered a concussion attempting a diving catch along the sidelines in the second quarter. No other injury should threaten playing time against Wake Forest this weekend, per Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly.
Senior linebacker and captain Nyles Morgan favored his shoulder after colliding with fellow senior linebacker Greer Martini along the sideline Saturday, but Morgan returned and appeared no worse for the wear.
“He’s had some chronic shoulder [issues] throughout the year,” Kelly said Sunday. “It’s just a matter of protecting him during the week, but he’ll be fine and ready to go.”
Sophomore running back Tony Jones did not receive any carries against the Wolfpack due to a hip pointer on the opening kickoff. Combining that with the continued nuisance of a sprained ankle has Jones growing impatient this season.
“It’s just been one of those things where he’s getting a little frustrated, is the best way to describe it,” Kelly said. “He was a little bit better today. We just have to get him in a good frame of mind and get him off and running because he’s a really good player.”
Senior defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner picked up a sprained ankle that Kelly specified was not a high ankle injury, and junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush mildly sprained his left ankle, but Kelly expects no limitations for Wimbush moving forward.
“[He] checked in today, felt good,” Kelly said. “He’ll enter tomorrow’s workout with no restrictions.”
The missed block on the punt block
When North Carolina State blocked a Notre Dame punt at the goal line in the first quarter Saturday to give itself a 7-0 lead, the uneducated eye — this eye — put the impetus on the mishap on sophomore Daelin Hayes for turning a rusher loose to devote a second pair of hands to Wolfpack senior defensive end Bradley Chubb.
In the postgame media availability, senior linebacker and captain Drue Tranquill donned his captain’s hat and took responsibility for the missed block, serving as the up-back on the punt.
Neither was correct.
Kelly attributed the special teams disaster to miscommunication leading to sophomore long snapper John Shannon missing his assignment.
“Our long snapper has to block in protection, that’s what’s unique about this,” Kelly said. “This was some miscommunication as to whether he was going to be part of the check. We moved it from an overload right to an overload left. The center thought differently. Everybody else was on the same page.
“… It was a blown protection. Obviously it can’t happen.”
Aside from the blocked punt, Irish junior punter Tyler Newsome averaged 34.6 yards on seven punts, a seemingly-low figure, but it was part of Notre Dame’s plan to neuter the Wolfpack’s dangerous punt return possibilities. Five of those boots went unreturned, and the two others gained a total of 22 yards.
Looking forward to Wake Forest
The Demon Deacons beat Louisville 42-32 on Saturday, raising their record to 5-3 after suffering three consecutive tough losses in ACC play. Of course, much of Wake Forest is very familiar to Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko, who held the same role with the Deacons for the last three seasons.
“We’ve got a great challenge,” Kelly said. “They’re going to play inspired football, obviously, with coach Elko here. We know what we’re going to get from Wake Forest.”
Questions for the Week: Ankles, Claypool and Notre Dame’s history at Spartan Stadium
As always, these are questions with answers likely to come before Saturday night’s kickoff …
Will Cam Smith be healthy enough to get back on the field?
The fifth-year receiver suffered a sprained ankle in practice last week, limiting his reps throughout the week and keeping him from playing Saturday, per Irish coach Brian Kelly. That absence may have held more of an effect than was anticipated by anyone.
Certainly, Notre Dame’s receivers totaling three catches for 11 yards is not solely a reflection of Smith not being on the field. It is a sign of bigger issues, but that does not mean Smith would not have aided the cause. With his institutional knowledge of offensive coordinator Chip Long’s scheme from their days together at Arizona State, Smith has been consistent. His seven catches for 54 yards come from running clean, disciplined routes.
Getting him back onto the field could alleviate a slight bit of junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s accuracy issues. By no means would this eradicate the concern entirely, but even a small step in the right direction would be a welcome trend for the Irish at this point.
If Smith remains sidelined, did Chase Claypool do enough to maintain his spot as a starter?
Kelly answered this question Sunday, but it had already been worked into this concept’s draft and emphasizing it seems a valid decision.
Claypool will continue to see time, though more so at the boundary receiver position than the slot spot he worked at throughout spring and preseason practices. Of those three catches for 11 yards the receivers managed against Boston College, Claypool accounted for two receptions and eight yards.
“He was assignment correct,” Kelly said. “We saw him really grow in the areas that we wanted him to grow in.”
Along with Claypool, there was also some Michael Young innuendo last week. Will the depth chart now reflect that?
When Kelly discussed coming changes at receiver before the trip out east, he mentioned Claypool by name. He also seemed to imply another unexpected option could emerge.
“Guys are going to get banged up and we’re going to call on what I think will be outstanding depth at our wide receiver position,” Kelly said Thursday. “But we really do have to start to feature some guys that might not have all the experience but have a higher ceiling.”
At that point, Kelly knew Smith was injured, though perhaps he was still questionable to play. Kelly also presumably knew senior Freddy Canteen would need season-ending shoulder surgery this week. Those two bits could explain the first half of that paragraph.
The second half suggests Claypool would have company in the inexperienced with a “higher ceiling” category. With sophomore Javon McKinley intended to preserve a year of eligibility this season, freshman Michael Young is the most-likely candidate.
That presumption could be quickly confirmed in the Notre Dame depth chart this week.
How badly is Tony Jones’ ankle sprained?
Exactly a week ago, this piece wondered, “Through two games, are the Irish really still this healthy?” Through three games, the answer has become no.
Sophomore running back Tony Jones sprained his ankle against Boston College, only x-rays confirmed no further damage. As a running back, that injury can obviously be more than a nuisance and waiting for Jones to return to full health before playing him makes sense. If that takes longer than a week, it should lead to a bit more playing time for junior Dexter Williams. (more…)
Sunday Notre Dame Notebook: Canteen out for the season, Javon McKinley probably sitting also; Kelly on blocking strategy
As Notre Dame struggles to find contributing receivers, the option have diminished by two. Irish coach Brian Kelly said graduate student Freddy Canteen will undergo season-ending surgery this week to repair a torn labrum and sophomore Javon McKinley is likely to preserve a year of eligibility this season.
Canteen started Notre Dame’s first two games before injuring his shoulder against Georgia. The Michigan transfer made one catch for seven yards. He does have another season of eligibility remaining, making a 2018 return likely, though not guaranteed.
In Canteen’s place, the Irish will turn more to sophomore Chase Claypool, though that may have been the case, regardless. Claypool made two catches for eight yards in Notre Dame’s 49-20 victory over Boston College on Saturday.
“He’s big, he’s physical, he’s got speed,” Kelly said of Claypool. “He needs to continue to grow at that position. We just like that he blocked very well for us. He was assignment correct. We saw him really grow in the areas that we wanted him to grow in.”
Kelly said Claypool will see time more on the outside of the field, rather than Canteen’s position in the slot. That alignment could hint at increased usage of the already often seen two tight end packages.
McKinley saw action in six games during his freshman season, recording no statistics.
“We didn’t get enough of his year last year, so I try to save a year under those circumstances for those guys,” Kelly said. “… If they’re still growing, still learning — I don’t want to accelerate them through the program unless they are squared away in terms of all of your traits.”
With or without Canteen and McKinley, the Irish still need to find reliable receivers, currently a vacuum best-exhibited by the passing total of 96 yards amassed against the Eagles. (more…)