Notre Dame

Five storylines to watch during Notre Dame preseason practice

Five storylines to watch during Notre Dame preseason practice

Football season is almost upon us. Brian Kelly will meet the media to kick off Notre Dame’s 2016 preseason preparations on Friday, and the team’s first practice is Saturday in Culver, Ind. Here are five storylines to keep an eye on over the next month as the Irish work toward their season opener Sept. 4 at Texas.

1. Who’s the QB?

Obviously, this is the storyline that’ll dominate talk about Notre Dame until a starter is named, likely sometime on or after Aug. 19 (the team's 13th practice and midway point to the Texas game). DeShone Kizer probably has an edge over Maik Zaire, however slight, given his greater experience (11 starts vs. three starts) and larger volume of work. Kizer completed 211 of 335 passes (63 percent) for 2,884 yards and 21 touchdowns with 10 interceptions and also rushed 134 times for 520 yards and 10 touchdowns; Zaire is 47-for-75 (62.6 percent) for 694 yards and five touchdowns with no interceptions and also rushed 52 times for 290 yards with two touchdowns in his career. Zaire has the potential to be the perfect quarterback for Kelly’s system, but Kizer already showed he can be that ideal offensive fit. So who’s the choice? Ultimately, it’ll probably be difficult for coaches to pick against Kizer, but that doesn’t mean Zaire can’t win the job. He just might have more of an uphill climb to it.

2. Who emerges as team leaders?

The losses of Ronnie Stanley, Nick Martin, Chris Brown, Sheldon Day, Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt, Matthias Farley and KeiVarae Russell will hurt from a production standpoint, but each of those players were also key leaders on 2015’s Fiesta Bowl-berthing team. These kind of leadership vacuums happen from time to time in college football, but that doesn’t mean they’re always easy to fill. Seniors like Torii Hunter Jr., Durham Smythe, Mike McGlinchey, Isaac Rochell, James Onwualu and Cole Luke are natural fits to develop as team leaders, as well as Kizer/Zaire, Tarean Folston, Jarron Jones, Nyles Morgan and Max Redfield, among others. The process of sorting out Notre Dame’s leadership began during spring practice, and the team's leaders separated themselves over the summer. Preseason camp will cement who slides into those leadership roles vacated by last year's seniors.

3. Who steps up on defense?

Notre Dame’s defense ranked 35th in S&P+ last year and allowed 5.57 yards per play (64th in FBS), and that was with NFL draft picks on every unit in Day, Smith and Russell. So where does Brian VanGorder’s group go without any of last year’s star power? Rochell, Onwualu and Luke are known quantities, but for this defense to be successful, it’ll need a number of players to live up to their potential. Morgan, Jerry Tillery, Daelin Hayes, Te’von Coney, Shaun Crawford, Max Redfield — the spotlight will be on those guys, and their collective success or failure (which is dependent on them and Keith Gilmore, Mike Elston, Todd Lyght and VanGorder) will go a long way toward determining how good a defense the Irish will have this year.

4. Who fills the void left by Will Fuller and Chris Brown?

Fuller and Brown combined for 110 receptions (46 percent of the team total), 1,855 yards (55 percent of the team total) and 18 receiving touchdowns (72 percent of the team total) last year, and neither is back this fall. With Amir Carlisle (32 receptions, 355 yards, one touchdown), C.J. Prosise (26 receptions, 308 yards, one touchdown) and Corey Robinson (16 receptions, 200 yards, one touchdown) also gone, a number of pass-catchers who haven’t been tested will be thrust into significant roles in the Irish offense. Hunter Jr. — Notre Dame’s leading returning receiver with 28 receptions, 363 yards and two touchdowns last year — took command of his wide receiver unit during spring practice, and Alize Jones looks like a decent bet to see an increase in targets either as a receiver or tight end (UPDATE: Jones will not play for Notre Dame in 2016). Guys like Smythe, Equanimeous St. Brown, Corey Holmes, C.J. Sanders, Miles Boykin and Kevin Stepherson will have an opportunity to carve out significant roles in Notre Dame’s passing game, too. Wide receivers coach Mike Denbrock has consistently developed productive players over the last few years, so while there’s some uncertainty here, there should also be plenty of optimism.

5. Can Notre Dame stay healthy?

Even before the 2015 season — which saw a slew of players suffer serious injuries — Notre Dame lost nose guard Jarron Jones and defensive back Shaun Crawford to what were initially ruled season-ending injuries (Jones returned for a handful of snaps in the Fiesta Bowl). The Irish were able to withstand most of their injury-related losses last season — mostly on offense — thanks to the outstanding depth developed by the team’s coaching staff. Ideally, though, that won’t be a question this fall. Yes, depth is always important, but if Notre Dame is able to come out of August practice without many significant injuries — besides cornerback Devin Butler’s foot, which he re-fractured earlier in the summer — it’ll be a positive development after last year’s massive, across-the-board two-deep attrition.

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.