Notre Dame

Notre Dame players will honor Greg Bryant: 'A lot of this season is for him'

Notre Dame players will honor Greg Bryant: 'A lot of this season is for him'

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame players won’t let Greg Bryant be forgotten this fall. 

Whether it’s through “RIP GB” scrawled on their towels or cleats, T-shirts to wear under their pads, post-practice prayers and down-time social media posts, the memory of Bryant, who died at the age of 21 in May after being found shot in the Miami area, will live on in South Bend. 

“Anything possible to show that this is for GB,” running back Tarean Folston said. 

Folston and Bryant were close, having both come to Michiana from Florida as highly-touted running backs in Notre Dame’s 2013 recruiting class. Along with quarterback Malik Zaire, Folston is working on getting T-shirts made for teammates to wear under their pads that honor Bryant. 

“GB was very loved,” Folston said. “Not just by his teammates, but by everybody. He’s one of those guys you can’t not love, you know what I mean? He was a great guy. He’s definitely going to be missed. Definitely going to be missed.” 

Zaire said Bryant was his “best friend” and fondly recalled when the pair teamed up to be the only bright spots in Notre Dame’s blowout loss to USC in 2014. Both players hadn’t been given a significant role in the Irish offense until that day in Los Angeles, and Zaire after the game talked about how the “1-8 guys” — a reference to their numbers — were primed for promising futures. 

“That was my brother in arms and we did what we did best, and that was to move the football,” Zaire said last month. “It’s sad that we don’t have him here today, but I know he’s looking over me and he means a lot to me and this team."

The impact Bryant made on his teammates shines through as soon as any of them begin talking about him. While Bryant’s five-star football potential didn’t materialize at Notre Dame, his gregarious personality stood out not only inside the Guglielmino Athletics Compex, but across campus. 

“Man, Greg could get along with anybody,” redshirt junior wide receiver Torii Hunter Jr. said. “He had his accent, and he kind of maybe seemed out of place, but he could get along with anybody on campus. I hadn’t seen him not get along with anybody. GB was definitely somebody who could always put a smile on your face no matter who you were. He’s always smiling. Yeah, GB was the real deal.”

“You miss a guy like that,” senior linebacker James Onwualu, who was Bryant’s freshman year roommate, said. “He brought so much energy every single day. 

“He was a great guy. He was a little different, probably not your typical Notre Dame mold, but he was so open and willing to meet new people and understand other people.”

Running backs coach Autry Denson knew Bryant from their days in Florida, while Bryant was still at American Heritage High School and Denson — a native of the state — coached at Bethune-Cookman University. They only overlapped in South Bend for a few months in 2015 before Bryant left Notre Dame (he transferred to a Miami-area community college and was going to re-start his career with UAB) after being ruled ineligible for that season, but Denson said it was “an honor” to know and coach Bryant. 

“That was a very tough situation, still is,” Denson said. “His impact is being felt. You see practice, you see GB towels, things of that nature. And that’s a testament to who Greg is because Greg was such a great young man. He needed guidance, just like anybody else, as he was figuring out. But even though he wasn’t here, everybody here was still wishing him well. Nobody had any ill will. It was like, do what you have to do for you and we still have your back. 

“Greg is Greg. He had an unbelievable smile and an unbelievable — it was just infectious, his attitude.”

The love for Bryant isn’t limited to the guys quoted in the this article, it should be noted. When he died in May, players from every unit — offense, defense, special teams — tweeted and Instagrammed their thoughts, prayers and support for their former teammate. 

All those players, too, will have an opportunity to wear Bryant’s old No. 1 this fall. Notre Dame is giving out a No. 1 jersey every week to a player “based upon a number of factors within our program that have to do with character both on and off the field,” coach Brian Kelly said. Kelly didn’t start that initiative because of Bryant, but for Folston or Zaire or Hunter or plenty of others, earning that No. 1 jersey would be a way for them to honor their friend. 

“I mean, if I get it, it would mean a lot,” Folston said. “I’d love to wear it for the whole year. It’s coach’s decision, but it would mean a lot for me to wear that jersey.”

“Me and Tarean talk about it a lot, to get No. 1 and stuff like that,” Hunter said. “If you get No. 1, you gotta have the game of your life. That’s GB’s number. You gotta bring all the sauce.” 

But even if those players don’t get the jersey for a game, Denson said he’s conveyed to them they don’t need a number to honor Bryant. He’s reminded Folston during some of the dog days of August practice, “What would No. 1 do here?” which Folston said gave him a boost. 

Folston said he wasn’t sure what the under-the-pads T-shirts will look like yet, but they’re “definitely” getting made. 

However Irish players can do it, they’re going to honor Bryant. The memory of GB1 won’t fade away this fall, certainly not in South Bend. 

“A lot of love for him and his family,” Zaire said. “A lot of this season is for him.”

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.