Notre Dame

Five players to watch in Notre Dame's Blue and Gold game

Five players to watch in Notre Dame's Blue and Gold game

Notre Dame’s annual Blue and Gold spring game kicks off at 12:30 p.m. ET Saturday on NBC Sports Network, returning to Notre Dame Stadium after a one-year hiatus. 

It’s sometimes improper to read too much into spring game performances, given that these players will have had 14 practices to work on their craft and impress coaches before taking the field Saturday. Plus, given the game is on TV, Notre Dame probably won’t reveal much in terms of play-calling (why would it show a blitz package, for example, that could help opponents scheme against it in the fall?). But scrimmaging in front of a crowd in a televised game is the closest Notre Dame can come to replicating a game-day atmosphere during the spring and summer doldrums. 

With that atmosphere comes an uptick in pressure and a glimpse into how some of Notre Dame’s players in key roles will handle it. While most of the focus Saturday will be on the quarterbacks (more on them Friday), there are plenty of other players with intriguing storylines heading into Notre Dame’s 15th and final spring practice. 

WR Torii Hunter Jr. (Redshirt Junior)

Notre Dame’s leading returning receiver, by all accounts, has had an excellent month of spring practice despite splitting his focus between football and baseball. With Will Fuller, Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle all gone, it’s been Hunter who’s emerged not only as a top target, but as a leader in Mike Denbrock’s receiver room. 

We’ve only seen flashes of what Hunter can do on Saturdays, but he’s generally had to take a back seat to Fuller and Brown. Watch for Notre Dame to move Hunter around to different receiver positions — slot (Z), wide (W) and boundary (X) — in a showcase of his flexibility in the Blue and Gold game. 

TE Alize Jones (Sophomore)

One of the more intriguing wrinkles to come out of spring practice was Jones getting a shot at playing X receiver in addition to tight end. Tight ends coach Scott Booker said earlier this month he’s trying to push Jones into being a complete tight end, not just someone who could be a factor in the red zone and on third downs. But what if the 6-foot-4.5, 240-pound Jones does well on the boundary, too? That’d give Notre Dame’s offense plenty of flexibility as it looks to replace all those targets lost by the departures of its three leading receivers from 2015. 

Maybe Jones’ career path follows the one paved by Devin Funchess, Michigan's super-athletic 6-foot-5, 230-pounder who was named the Big Ten’s Tight End of the Year in 2013 and caught 62 passes for 733 yards as a wide receiver in 2014. It’s too early to tell, but Jones has sky-high offensive potential, and Notre Dame coaches are still figuring out how best to use it. 

DE Jay Hayes (Redshirt Sophomore)

After a rocky first two seasons on campus, Hayes switched from defensive tackle to weak-side defensive end this spring and has practiced well at his new position. Listed at 6-foot-3, 285 pounds, Hayes is bigger than you’d expect for that position — Romeo Okwara, for example, weighted 270 pounds there last year. 

But Notre Dame is in desperate need of pass rushers to offset the departures of Okwara and Sheldon Day. If Hayes’ strong spring carries over into the fall, it could go a long way toward helping Notre Dame keep pressure on opposing quarterbacks in 2016.

“We’ve got an ascending player,” defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder said. “But I think the position change for him has definitely helped motivate him and help him gain the positive attitude he has right now.”

LB Nyles Morgan (Junior)

At or near the top of the list of players who’ve had an impressive spring is Morgan, who finally gets to take the reins of the Irish defense after two years behind Joe Schmidt at Mike (middle) linebacker. Morgan’s physical traits aren’t in question — he racked up 47 tackles as a freshman despite only playing about four games’ worth of snaps — so how he applied the knowledge of the defense he gained as Schmidt’s understudy was the more relevant thing to watch this spring. 

“(He’s) most improved in the communicating area,” VanGorder said. “He does a good job of running our defense, he knows it well and he does a good job.”

While Notre Dame’s defense was porous when it came to allowing big plays last year, Schmidt’s ability to communicate the calls and get everyone on the same page helped keep things from going from bad to disastrous at times. For Morgan, though, the Blue and Gold game will be his first taste of non-garbage-time snaps in a semi-competitive setting. All eyes will be on his ability to communicate the defense and align the front seven. 

S Max Redfield (Senior)

Speaking of those big plays, the culprits on many of them were Irish defensive backs. 2016 will be Redfield’s third and final year in VanGorder’s scheme, and this defense can’t afford to continue to allow explosive plays if it hopes to improve off last season’s results. We heard earlier in spring practice about how early-enrolling freshman Devin Studstill was taking first-team reps over Redfield, which VanGorder said wasn’t done to light a fire under Redfield. 

Notre Dame will probably be running a vanilla defense on Saturday, so reading into individual results for VanGorder’s players may be a little bit difficult. But the last thing anyone on the sidelines or in the stands wants to see is the kind of back-end communication breakdowns that’ve plagued this defense for the last two years. 

For on Notre Dame's spring game, listen to Notre Dame Insider JJ Stankevitz's podcast with J.B. Long previewing what to watch for on Saturday. (link: )

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.