Notre Dame

Notre Dame: For Jones family, 2016 has 'layers of blessings'


Notre Dame: For Jones family, 2016 has 'layers of blessings'

The last time Jarron Jones and his younger brother Jamir played on the same team was back when the pair of siblings were kids on a youth basketball squad. It didn’t go well. 

“That team was not pretty good,” Jarron laughed. “I’m not gonna lie.”

Notre Dame’s football team, complete with the two Jones brothers, should be in line for better fortunes this fall. 

Jamir will arrive on campus in South Bend this summer as a freshman member of Notre Dame’s 2016 recruiting class, joining his older brother, who’s in line to start as a graduate student nose guard on a defense that sorely missed his presence last year. For the entire Jones family, the one-year opportunity for the brothers to share the same uniform and field is an incredible development.

“It’s a blessing just for them to be in the same state next year,” Jarron and Jamir's mother, Kiescha, said. The family has previously had to split time between attending Jamir's games in Rochester, N.Y. and Jarron's games in South Bend and across the country. She added: "Just that they are blessed with a scholarship, they’re doing something that my husband nor I, could not even fathom or afford."

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The impetus behind having both brothers on the same team is twofold: First, Jarron is on track to earn his degree in May and can return for a fifth year as a graduate student this coming fall; and second, Notre Dame offered Jamir a scholarship — which he quickly accepted with a verbal commitment — after seeing him work out at a camp last summer.

Neither were guarantees. Kiescha admits Jarron wasn’t a model student in high school at Aquinas and marvels at the in-the-classroom growth he's made over the last eight years. For her, the football side of things is “just the icing on the cake,” as she and her husband, Matthew Jones, have watched their son turn into mature, responsible adult who will have a degree from Notre Dame in a few months. He’s finished with the coursework for his sociology major and only has to take two classes to finish up as an undergraduate.

“I’ve been hashtagging (on social media) #TeamProudMom because Jarron, this was a kid who wouldn’t even write down his homework assignments,” Kiescha said. “He would go to classes and didn’t care, and didn’t even care even with the Notre Dame offer at his footsteps. Now he cares.”

Jarron, though, admitted he would’ve considered turning pro after the 2015 season had he been healthy. He still would’ve earned his degree, but building off a solid 2014 season could’ve propelled him into the NFL Draft — his 6-foot-5, 315 pound frame and excellent athleticism will give him a good opportunity to make it at the next level. But that torn ligament eliminated the possibility of going pro, which is why partly his mom believes there was a silver lining even to such a devastating injury.  

Kiescha hopes her son takes some finance or business classes as a graduate student so he’s better prepared for the next step in life, whether or not that takes him to the NFL. 

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And, of course, everything comes back to the family aspect of a fifth year. Jarron and his mother are splitting the lease on an apartment for the fall, which will provide Kiescha with an opportunity to get into South Bend a day early, cook for the defensive line, hang with fellow parents and partake in Notre Dame’s pregame traditions — she still hasn’t had an opportunity to, for example, go to the Grotto or experience trumpets under the dome. 

“I’m really doing this for her,” Jarron said. “I think she’s happy I’m staying another year.”

But, again, all this wouldn’t be possible without Jarron earning his degree later this year. 

“To me, nothing’s bigger than Jarron graduating this May,” Kiescha said. “I don’t know what more could top that except the rest of my kids getting their college degrees. It’s just layers of blessings. It’s just nothing but, I’m just thankful. That’s really all I could say. I couldn’t even have dreamt it.”

Jamir always knew he wanted to follow his brother to Notre Dame, but was just waiting on the offer.

That came quickly last June after coaches saw the younger Jones work out on the defensive side of the ball. An offer was extended, and Jamir pledged his verbal commitment soon thereafter. The family had known Notre Dame was interested for a while, but it was a scholarship Jamir earned on his own merits, not because his brother was part of the team. 

“Throughout the whole process, we never took for granted just because Jarron was there that automatically he’s going there and automatically they were going to offer him,” Kiescha said. “… It was much easier to convince him to go to Notre Dame than it was Jarron. Jarron was kind of resistant to the idea. Jamir understood what Notre Dame had, and two different kids. Jamir, from Day One, if they offered him, he was going.”

Jamir said playing football with his brother is “always been something I’ve wanted to do,” but that he also committed to the Irish because “there’s nothing that compares to Notre Dame.” He’ll likely begin his college career as a linebacker, but could also put his hand in the ground and rush the quarterback as a defensive end. 

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The question for just about every freshman player when they arrive on campus is if they’ll take a redshirt year or not. Jarron, though, said he’s going to push his younger brother to see the field as a true freshman.

“If he’s going to play with me, he’s going to play, I don’t want him to take a redshirt, I want him to play and contribute because I feel like he can contribute,” Jarron said. “He’s a strong kid, he’s smart and that’s one thing about him, he doesn’t give up on himself. Especially when I’m here to push him, he knows not to let us down because we’re going to let him have it if he does. It’s always high expectations for him and I feel like he’ll do great.”

The Jones family will have eight tickets to Notre Dame home games this year, double the usual amount. Jarron and Jamir's grandfather is planning to attend his first Notre Dame game. The entire season will be a celebration of what Jarron, Jamir and the family have accomplished, as well as what's in store for the future. 

"It’s been a dream," Kiescha said. "I don’t think anyone could’ve scripted 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.