Notre Dame

Even without Martin, Stanley, Notre Dame OL is in good hands


Even without Martin, Stanley, Notre Dame OL is in good hands

Notre Dame’s offensive success began with elite offensive line play in 2015, with left tackle Ronnie Stanley and center Nick Martin anchoring those efforts up front. That’s not to say DeShone Kizer, C.J. Prosise, Josh Adams, Chris Brown and Will Fuller weren’t good on their own, but the work done by Harry Hiestand’s group was critical in turning Notre Dame’s offense into one of the nation’s best in a 10-win season. 

Stanley and Martin are gone for the 2016 season, presenting Hiestand with a difficult challenge. But heading into his fifth year at Notre Dame, Hiestand has the kind of track record that should lend plenty of confidence to the notion the Irish offensive line won’t experienced a significant dropoff without its two best players. 

“He cares about us in the room, there’s no doubt about that,” Martin said. “I think that’s what you realize quick, yeah, he’ll get after you, but he wants the best from you to not only be the best football player you can be but also be the best person you can be. He demonstrates that and shares life lessons and really makes you a better person off the field as well as on the field, which really shows how much he cares about us as people.”

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Hiestand’s brand of coaching skews heavily toward tough love, but it’s that tough love that’s helped forge the successful careers of Zack Martin (a first-round pick in 2014) and Stanley (a likely first-round pick in 2016). Both Nick Martin — whose departure means there won’t be a Martin on Notre Dame’s offensive line for the first time since 2009 — and Stanley said Hiestand’s genuine nature makes that tough love effective. 

“(He’s) never letting off and always trying to push you to your full potential,” Stanley said. “He’s a guy, if you’re playing good but you’re not playing the best you can, he’s going to still get on you until you can play your best. That’s the way he coaches everyone, and that’s why we try to play at such a high level is because we know he wants us to play at it.”

Redshirt freshman left guard Quenton Nelson — one of three returning starters, along with junior right guard Steve Elmer and redshirt sophomore right tackle Mike McGlinchey — laughed when asked if Hiestand frequently critiques blocks he thought were good. 

“That happens pretty often,” Nelson said. “I think I have a good block and it’s not like he’s saying it’s a terrible block, but you could’ve done this better, you could’ve done that better. And just always having that standard of never being satisfied, you can always do something better, you can always improve.”

One of the more important undercurrents to Notre Dame’s offensive line success over the last few years has been better depth — due to a string of injuries, Hiestand didn’t have two full units with which to practice for the BCS Championship in December of 2012 — which will be replenished this fall with three incoming recruits: Rivals four-stars Parker Boudreaux and Tommy Kraemer and three-star Liam Eichenberg. Without any unexpected attrition, Notre Dame will have 15 scholarship offensive linemen in 2016, good enough for three complete units. 

[MORE: J.T. Barrett, Ohio State offer advice for Notre Dame's impending QB battle]

Hiestand recruited the nation’s No. 1 center to Notre Dame last year in Tristen Hoge, who should be in the mix to take over for Martin, and secured verbal commitments from that impressive three-player group for 2016. His recruiting success comes from the same tough love and sincerity that make him a successful position coach. 

“He’s honest from the get-go,” Martin said. “In the meeting room, when you’re a recruit and when you’re in the O-line room, he does not change. Whether it’s good or whether he’s getting after you, he’s not changing, which is refreshing. Because he is who he is.”

Nelson, Elmer and McGlinchey are expected to star the 2016 season at the positions they held in 2015. Alex Bars, who fractured his ankle Oct. 17 against USC, is probably the early leader to take over for Stanley at left tackle so long as his recovery progresses well. Hoge and redshirt freshman Sam Mustipher are likely to compete at center. 

There’s no shortage of talent at Hiestand’s disposal, even with the departures of two of the best offensive linemen he’s coached at Notre Dame. And he’s proven he can mold a successful offensive line, even without a Martin or Stanley on it. 

“Definitely the standard he has for all of us,” Nelson said when asked what makes Hiestand a good coach. “He wants us to be the best that we can be, and as long as we want that too we’ll get there.”

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.