Notre Dame

Notre Dame expects Torii Hunter Jr.’s versatility to expand offense


Notre Dame expects Torii Hunter Jr.’s versatility to expand offense

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — On a crowded wide receiver depth chart, Notre Dame redshirt sophomore Torii Hunter Jr. appears to have carved out an important niche during his first healthy preseason camp.

Hunter came to Notre Dame as an injured freshman — he broke his leg in January 2013 — and last year tore his groin in early August. Once healthy enough in 2013, he served on the scout team; and he admitted his injury never fully went away in 2014. So practices this August have been the first real look Notre Dame coaches have had at the son of the Minnesota Twins outfielder.

And they’ve come away impressed.

[ND CENTRAL: Notre Dame feels it has more depth, athleticism than 2012’s BCS team]

“We’ve seen flashes and for two years we’ve said boy, when he’s healthy, he’s as good as anybody we got,” wide receivers coach Mike Denbrock said. “It just hasn’t come to fruition because he hasn’t been healthy enough for that to be a reality. Good lord wiling, now that he is healthy and playing at full speed and feeling strong, he’s been able to showcase what those abilities are and it’s really good to see.”

Those abilities, Denbrock said, include “terrific” hands, good speed, strong football knowledge and most importantly, important versatility. Hunter primarily works as a slot receiver, but coaches believe he has the ability to play outside on the field (behind Will Fuller) and boundary (behind Chris Brown/Corey Robinson).

“He's probably our most versatile receiver in that he has the size and the speed, and the ability to work inside out at the slot position because of his elusiveness,” coach Brian Kelly said. “We probably don't have another player that has that ability on the roster.

“So (he’s) a unique talent from that standpoint, so you'll hear a lot about him this year. He'll get a lot of playing time. He's had a very good camp, and I think consistency he's been as good as anybody we've had in preseason camp.”

That versatility is something Notre Dame didn’t have last year, even when its receiver corps had a breakout star in Fuller (76 catches, 1,094 yards, 15 TDs) and a strong tandem opposite him (Robinson and Brown combined for 79 catches, 1,087 yards and 6 TDs). But Hunter was banged up, only catching seven passes for 65 yards and rushing twice for 13 yards.

[ND CENTRAL: Brian Kelly says there’s no ‘comfortable seat’ at Notre Dame]

"We really were more pigeonholed into specific places," Denbrock said.

With Hunter healthy and C.J. Prosise moving from the slot to running back, the Irish offense will have plenty of versatility for third downs and late-game plays. And the kind of mismatches Denbrock thinks he, Kelly and offensive coordinator Mike Sanford can create could be the difference between converting game-changing or game-saving plays.

“When you get to third down in particular or you get to critical situations in the game, those are the things you spend the whole week game planning,” Denbrock said. “This is the matchup we’re going to create with this formation. We want him matched on a safety, we want him matched on a linebacker. let’s flip this guy over here and move this guy over here instead of just lining up the same way all the time.”

Hunter reached the precipice of contributing to the Irish offense through a remarkable persistence, not only fighting through his two injuries but dealing with a grueling two-sport schedule during spring practice. He joined the Notre Dame baseball team earlier this year — which also has on its roster Houston Astros Hall of Famer Craig Biggio’s two sons and former Astros/Phillies closer Brad Lidge’s cousin — and had to be at football practice at 6 a.m., then go to class, then go to baseball practice and then finish his homework and tutoring. 

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Notre Dame fans!]

Hunter’s father said there was a day he called his son around 8 or 9 p.m. and it sounded like Hunter Jr. was already asleep — a fairly uncommon bedtime for a college student. But it’s not surprising Hunter Jr. was willing to put himself through those 14- or 15-hour days earlier this year since he cited the work ethic instilled in him by his father, who at age 40 is still an everyday player in the major leagues.

“He just told me like, if you want something bad enough, you just gotta go do it,” Hunter said. “You gotta do it, don’t complain about it, just go do it.”

If all goes according to plan for Notre Dame and Hunter this fall, he’ll have a chance to pay homage to his father in late November. 

On Nov. 21, Notre Dame plays Boston College at Fenway Park, where his father famously flipped over the right field wall trying to catch a David Ortiz grand slam in the 2013 ALCS all while a police officer rose his arms in celebration. Hunter knows the photo well, and laughed when asked if he hoped to re-create it in the right field end zone this fall.

“That would be epic if that happened,” Hunter said. “That would be epic. With the hands up, that’d be pretty cool. I’d do it just for laughs. I’d just go jump over it.” 

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.