Notre Dame

Notre Dame following through on promise to play plenty of freshman DBs

Notre Dame following through on promise to play plenty of freshman DBs

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Julian Love grew up a Notre Dame fan in the Chicago suburbs, but resisted the urge to tell everyone who would listen that he was going to play immediately as a true freshman in 2016. So after the Nazareth Academy alum got on the field quite a bit as a nickel cornerback in Week 1 at Texas, Love said he received “hundreds” of messages from family and friends who were surprised he was already playing for the Irish. 

But the expectation for Notre Dame’s freshmen defensive backs has always been that they would contribute in 2016. The level of those contributions, though, has been turned up since defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder was fired a day after the Irish suffered that embarrassing loss to Duke in late September. 

When Notre Dame officially signed its 2016 recruiting class in February, the message from coaches was that more than half of the seven defensive backs the team signed would see playing time as freshmen. Five games into the season, cornerbacks Love, Troy Pride Jr. and Donte Vaughn and safeties Devin Studstill and Jalen Elliott have each played significant roles on the Irish defense and combined for six starts. 

“I think our confidence is growing each day,” Love said. “At first we were nervous but now when we step on the field, we feel natural and it’s something that we’ve all worked for and we’re building off each other.”

The expectation to be ready to play immediately was set for these young defensive backs during the recruiting process, but there’s a difference between being told you can compete for playing time and knowing it’s there. That knowledge usually doesn’t come until sometime during preseason camp, explained captain and linebacker James Onwualu, who himself played as a true freshman (at wide receiver) in 2013.   

“I think it's tough to really know if you're going to play or not until camp, and you get into situations where you are competing against very good players,” Onwualu said. “So until you're matched up against our best running backs and our best receivers, you don't really have an idea. Like a lot of these guys are great athletes and can do summer training and look good through summer training, but putting it all together in fall camp is I think when you really start to know.”

Almost every Irish recruit, save for quarterbacks and most offensive linemen, is told they're in a position to compete for playing time immediately. But for these defensive backs, there were clear openings that only became more apparent after cornerback Nick Watkins broke his arm in April, cornerback Devin Butler re-fractured his foot in June (and was arrested in August), safety Max Redfield was dismissed from the team in August and cornerback Shaun Crawford suffered a season-ending injury in Week 2. 

“I didn’t expect to play, I prepared to play,” Love said. “So I really worked hard, kept quiet and just tried to focus on the task at hand by getting better each day.”

With senior Cole Luke moving more into a nickel role, the Love-Pride-Vaughn trio will see plenty of time at cornerback going forward. Studstill became a staple at safety only two quarters into the season, and Elliott has been part of a growingly-effective safety rotation, too. 

This group will make mistakes typical to freshmen and will need to continue rotating in and out to not burn anyone out over the grind of their first seasons at the college level. But Kelly & Co. see them as the best options for a defense in need of playmakers and short-term fixes. Notre Dame's defense is allowing 8.5 yards per passing attempt (110th in FBS) and has allowed five passing plays of 60 or more yards, 

Throwing Elliott, Love, Pride, Studstill and Vaughn (safety Spencer Perry has played a bit too, while safety D.J. Morgan is the only freshman defensive back to not appear in a game this year) into the crucible so quickly, too, could pay off in 2017 and beyond. 

The prime objective, though, is getting Notre Dame to six wins and bowl eligibility (doing so would also trigger an important month of December practices). And while their play won’t be perfect, this collectively-young group of defensive backs has at the least impressed Notre Dame’s best player. 

“It looks like they haven't skipped a beat since high school,” quarterback DeShone Kizer said. “They have the same confidence that they've always had. They're flying around, they're not afraid to get in your face and play like the direction that they're playing like. 

“… With a bunch of young guys you can't really expect them to come out and be studs in the first couple of games, so they're developing right on track. And the second half of Syracuse showed how good our secondary actually can be and what we expect them to be moving forward.” 

Is Brian Kelly out at Notre Dame if new QB Brandon Wimbush’s rocket arm doesn’t deliver for Irish in 2017?

Is Brian Kelly out at Notre Dame if new QB Brandon Wimbush’s rocket arm doesn’t deliver for Irish in 2017?

A 4-8 season in 2016 has put Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly firmly on the hot seat as he heads into his eighth season with the Fighting Irish.

In response to a tumultuous season, Kelly made major changes to his staff this past offseason by hiring new coordinators on both sides of the ball.

Mike Elko, who previously led Wake Forest to an FBS Top-40 total defense ranking, was hired by Kelly to be Notre Dame's defensive coordinator, and Chip Long — former offensive coordinator at Memphis — will now be in charge of the Fighting Irish offense.

However, the biggest change and arguably the No. 1 factor in Kelly's long-term future in South Bend, will be the person under center in 2017.

Barring an unforeseen circumstance, junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush — a former Rivals four-star recruit — will lead Notre Dame out of the tunnel in Week 1 vs. Temple.

Wimbush has only thrown five passes during his time at Notre Dame, but showed what kind of talent he has with a 58-yard rushing touchdown as a freshman in 2015.

Wimbush was one of the focal points of a recent Rivals story regarding quarterbacks who will be facing pressure in 2017

Earlier this week, Rivals Recruiting Director Mike Farrell gave his scouting report on the Notre Dame quarterback.

I’m a big fan of Wimbush but that hasn’t always been the case. It’s not that I didn’t like him when I first scouted him before his high school career took off, but what I saw way back when was a kid who had a rocket arm and zero touch. But throughout his high school career he improved every time I saw him, showed much more than just a strong arm and flashed impressive poise for his age.

I’ve seen very limited action when it comes to Wimbush in college as he hasn’t played often and his spring game performance had ups and downs, but I believe in this kid’s ability. He can extend the play, has that great arm and just needs to get comfortable in the Notre Dame offense and make sure he doesn’t try to use that cannon to fit the ball into tight spots. I can see him having some growing pains this season, but as he gets more comfortable and learns to take what the defense gives him while keeping defenses off balance with his athletic ability, I think he’ll finish strong.

Will Wimbush's rocket arm be enough to save Kelly from the hot seat?

That's still to be determined.

Two views of Notre Dame's 2017 signing day class

Two views of Notre Dame's 2017 signing day class

After a handful of late additions sent in their national letters of intent to the Guglielmino Athletics Complex, Notre Dame on Wednesday announced its 21-player recruiting class of 2017. There are a couple of ways to view the end of what was a volatile recruiting period for the Irish:

The glass-half-full take:

Two and a half months after wrapping up an embarrassing 4-8 season, Notre Dame's 2017 recruiting class ranks 11th by 247 Sports, 13th by Rivals, 13th by Scout and 16th by ESPN. In fact, Notre Dame actually ranks higher this year in 247 Sports' composite rankings (11th) than it did in 2016 (15th), when the Irish were coming off a 10-win season and a Fiesta Bowl berth. 

Nearly scraping together a top-10 class after going 4-8 and losing four assistant coaches in Mike Sanford, Mike Denbrock, Scott Booker and Keith Gilmore is an impressive feat (Greg Hudson was only an interim defensive coordinator, and Brian VanGorder was far from a reliable recruiter). Plenty of kudos should be extended the way of recruiting coordinator/defensive line coach Mike Elston for heading up the program's efforts to keep what began as a pretty strong class from disintegrating. 

Additionally, coach Brian Kelly pointed to the work of the 15 verbally-committed players who stuck with their pledges even as Notre Dame sustained a string of confounding losses and significant coaching turnover. 

"We couldn't be where we are today unless we had 15 student-athletes that were committed to Notre Dame from the start to the finish," Kelly said. "Really during a very difficult season, this group of 15 really had to endure the things that would occur out there in recruiting during a very difficult season. Other schools reminding them about a very difficult season that we had. Then there was them sticking together because of why they wanted to come to Notre Dame."

Five of those players enrolled early — tight end Brock Wright, offensive linemen Robert Gainsay and Aaron Banks, running back C.J. Holmes and safety Isaiah Robertson, all of whom 247 sports rated as four-star recruits — and guys like tight end Cole Kmet, quarterback Avery Davis and offensive linemen Joshua Lugg never wavered, too. 

That those players stuck together helped Notre Dame maintain a good base after the NCAA-mandated dead period lifted after the College Football Playoff title game last month, and new coaches Brian Polian, Mike Elko, Clark Lea, Chip Long and DelVaughn Alexander were able to bring in six late additions to the class: safety Jordan Genmark Heath, wide receiver Jafar Armstrong, kicker Jonathan Doerer, defensive lineman Myron Tagovailoa, linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and defensive lineman Kofi Wardlow. 

Armstrong, Tagovailoa and Wardlow all filled red-line positions of need, while adding more players to increase the pool of talent available to Elko is hardly a bad thing. 

But the optimistic viewpoint here is the deck was stacked against Notre Dame in recruiting, and they actually turned out a pretty good hand thanks to a complete effort from everyone in the athletic department. 

"Every weekend, Jack Swarbrick, our athletic director, met with our recruits," Kelly said. "That's unusual. I don't think that happens everywhere that your athletic director makes himself able to meet with recruits.

"In a lot of instances he had to be there to support our football program and talk to recruits about where this program is and where it's going. There are questions when a family comes on campus. He reminded them about the investment we were making in staff and what we were doing for the present and for the future. So having Jack's involvement in this was absolutely crucial to get to where we are."

Now, for the glass-half-empty take:

Notre Dame had six players decommit, five of whom were at positions of need (defensive line, cornerback, wide receiver). Only four-star defensive end Robert Beal jumped ship before Notre Dame's fall tailspin was underway, and four of those six decommitting players were four-star recruits. 

Notre Dame wound up replacing them with six late commitments, but five of those late-deciding players were three-star recruits and one (Doerner) was a two-star player. That's a good recipe for slipping from having a top-10 class to one on the outside looking in. 

A common lament among fans is that Notre Dame has struggled to sign five-star recruits lately, and while it's true the Irish haven't done that since 2013 — Jaylon Smith and Max Redfield, as rated by 247 Sports — that's not as big an issue as it may seem. Just look at the disparity in college success between Smith and Redfield as a front-and-center example of how a five-star rating doesn't guarantee success in college. Signing more four/five-star recruits than two/three-star ones is far more important (more on that in a bit). 

But the bigger issue with Notre Dame's 2017 class perhaps has more to do with its 2016 class. Notre Dame lost ace recruiters Tony Alford and Kerry Cooks after the 2014 season and re-worked its entire recruiting operation in response, which led to little oomph in a 2016 class that, based on the prior season, should've been much better than it was. 

Last year's group could ultimately build a legacy as a less-heralded crop of recruits that went on to success — the strong debuts of 247 Sports three-stars in cornerback Julian Love and wide receiver Kevin Stepherson were good starts — but there's a long way to go there. 

If 2016 was supposed to be a more transitional recruiting class, though, then 2017 represents a massive missed opportunity. Going 4-8 with all the right recruiting machinations in place is a glaring shortcoming for the future of the program — even a nine-win season could've allowed Notre Dame to hang on to some of those four-star players it lost and earn a top-10 class ranking. 

More importantly than a top-10 class, though, is pulling in more four- and five-star recruits than two and-three star ones. Notre Dame didn't do that in 2017 (10 four-star recruits out of 21) or 2016 (10 four-star recruits out of 23) after hitting that benchmark each of the last three recruiting cycles. That's a worrying trend given the correlation between signing a majority of four- and five-star recruits and winning a championship

The last two recruiting cycles have been, in that context, significant disappointment. While strong classes in 2014 and 2015 could prop up a playoff run as soon as this fall, the future of the program may not be on solid footing even if the Irish engineer a major turnaround in 2017. Next year's class likely will be critical to the long-term success of the program under Kelly, presuming he's still around to usher in the next group of recruits in February of 2018.