A Clashmore Mike Roundtable: Signing Day 2011
When Brian Kelly was hired to coach at Notre Dame, one of the biggest and most legitimate questions Irish supporters had was his ability to recruit on a national level. If Brian Kelly and his staff showed nothing else on National Signing Day, they responded to fans’ worries with an emphatic “yes,” and did their best to put those questions to rest…for now.
On Tuesday, Kelly and his staff inked the #10 ranked class by Rivals.com and the #8 ranked class by Scout.com. But what they accomplished, beyond rankings, was nothing short of remarkable. Kelly vowed to focus on defensive recruits, and that he did. However, Kelly and his staff also recruited exceptionally on the offensive side of the ball.
Our job, as Notre Dame fans and writers, is mainly to predict what will happen in the months and years to come. The problem with predicting how athletes will do at the next level of competition is that, even with a slew of statistics and videos, forecasting how a collegiate or professional career will turn out means that you are like Carnac the Magnificent, but without the punchline. With that in mind, this roundtable article featuring all of the contributing members of Clashmore Mike will focus only slightly on prediction and more on reaction and evaluation.
Following a brief rundown of all 23 commitments to the 2011 class (see table below), are a series of comments/observations followed by each member’s thoughts.
2011 Recruiting Class
|Quarterback||Everett Golson||6'0"||170 lbs.||#15 QB||#16 QB|
|Running Back||Cam McDaniel||5'10"||192 lbs.||#33 RB||NR|
|Wide Receiver||George Atkinson III||6'2"||190 lbs.||#30 RB||#7 ATH|
|DaVaris Daniels||6'2"||175 lbs.||#23 WR||#21 WR|
|Tight End||Ben Koyack||6'5"||242 lbs.||#1 TE||#7 TE|
|Troy Niklas (DL)||6'7"||240 lbs.||#8 OT||#24 OL|
|Offensive Line||Conor Hanratty||6'4"||295 lbs.||#31 OT||#38 OL|
|Matt Hegarty||6'5"||280 lbs.||#11 OT||#6 OL|
|Nick Martin||6'4"||270 lbs.||#39 OT||#66 OL|
|Defensive Line||Brad Carrico||6'6"||287 lbs.||#64 OT||#52 DE|
|Chase Hounshell||6'5"||255 lbs.||#97 DE||#59 DE|
|Aaron Lynch||6'6"||240 lbs.||#2 DE||#3 DE|
|Stephon Tuitt||6'5"||270 lbs.||#10 DE||#2 DE (SS)|
|Tony Springmann||6'6"||275 lbs.||#66 DE||#39 DE|
|Linebacker||Ben Councell||6'5"||220 lbs.||#32 OLB||#5 DE|
|Jarrett Grace||6'3"||235 lbs.||#14 OLB||#24 LB|
|Anthony Rabasa||6'4"||233 lbs.||#50 DE||#11 DE|
|Ishaq Williams||6'5"||242 lbs.||#4 DE||#2 DE (WS)|
|Defensive Back||Josh Atkinson||6'0"||185 lbs.||#46 CB||#41 DB|
|Jalen Brown||6'1"||180 lbs.||#52 CB||NR|
|Matthias Farley||6'0"||194 lbs.||#82 CB||NR|
|Eilar Hardy||6'0"||172 lbs.||#12 S||#15 DB|
|Kicker||Kyle Brindza (P)||6'1"||219 lbs.||#1 K||#17 K|
Which commitment of this class was the biggest win for Kelly and his staff?
Andrew: Troy Niklas. There are higher rated players in this class that received more publicity, but at 6’7″ Niklas has the potential to become an elite left tackle. Not only did the Irish coaching staff beat out hometown USC for the nephew of USC/NFL greats Bruce and Clay Matthews, but they also had to fight off basically the entire Pac-10, Florida, Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Tennessee. Niklas possesses the size and athleticism to play tight end or defensive end, but he looks to have the frame to safely add more weight and make the transition to the line.
Brian Kelly has experience taking an elite athlete and bulking him up into a left tackle: 2007 first round draft pick Joe Staley originally came to Central Michigan as a tight end, but Kelly reportedly had Staley add 80 pounds to his 6-5 frame during Staley’s freshman year. Staley was starting at right tackle by his sophomore year and then switched to left tackle during the remainder of his CMU career. According to a 2007 article on Staley:
“Joe always put the team first,” Staley’s offensive line coach and current Cincinnati assistant coach Jeff Quinn said. “When we came and put the spread offense in, he was excited because he thought he would get the chance to be bigger part of the offense as a tight end. We approached him and told him that team needed him at right tackle. That wasn’t what he wanted to hear, but he knew it was best for the team and he made the change, and he embraced the change.”
Nobody outside of the Irish coaching staff knows for sure what position Niklas will eventually play, and he could very well end up at tight end or defensive end. But, at least to me, Kelly’s history combined with Niklas’ frame, elite cohort, and the ability to fill a critical need with a little extra weight speaks of a potential future at left tackle.
Andy: Stephon Tuitt. There are so many blue chip recruits in this class—not to mention a host of players which have tremendous upside and are exciting in their own right—that it’s difficult to point to one as the largest victory. But Tuitt’s commitment turned de-commitment and subsequent re-commitment not only secured Kelly’s staff a high-profile player and outstanding talent, but the story of Notre Dame redoubling it’s efforts and the tremendous amount of chutzpah involved was also broadcast around the country on ESPN. A huge recruit and an equally large marketing win for the university and program.
Anthony: There are a host of ways to define “biggest.” Is it a recruit with the star power and notoriety of Jimmy Clausen? Is it a game-changing athlete like Michael Floyd? For me it wasn’t a singular recruit, but rather the type of recruit Kelly landed that Notre Dame simply hadn’t secured in the past.
Ishaq Williams, Stephon Tuitt, and Aaron Lynch are dynamic front-seven defenders with athleticism to spare. Williams is the tweaner of the trio, a long, rangy player that can man the outside linebacker position or play in a three-point stance and come off the edge. Lynch is a dominant pass rusher with an extremely explosive first step. And Tuitt is simply a man amongst boys. These three players will open up the playbook by allowing defensive coordinator Bob Diaco to get pressure with only three and four defenders.
Jon: Ishaq Williams. He’s probably already one of the most athletic recruits in this class, but the fact that he was able to enroll early into school and participate in off-season conditioning with the rest of the team really makes him a huge part of this class.
The outside linebacker/defensive end hybrid position has been painfully pedestrian in recent years with Brian Smith and Kerry Neal not performing up to their potential and hopefully Ishaq Williams will be able to rectify that. Considering the physical demands that the position puts on a player, it’s critical that the position be filled by someone who has the strength to rush the end, but also the speed and athleticism to drop into coverage to cover a tight end or a running back out in the flat. Ishaq has that athleticism and, with the added fact that he enrolled early, it makes him the most important piece of this class.
Which commitment is the most likely to have an early significant contribution on this team?
Andrew: Ishaq Williams. He’s an early enrollee who will have an entire spring and summer to bulk up in coach Longo’s strength and conditioning program while he learns how to be an outside linebacker in the 3-4. You will have to go back a long way to find an Irish linebacker prospect as physically gifted as Ishaq: 6’5″ and 245 pounds with the frame to put on more weight while maintaining an elite burst. He looks like a prototypical weakside NFL linebacker and will likely move to the line when Notre Dame is in a 4-3 look. Outside linebacker was an area of weakness for the Irish much of last season; Kerry Neal and Brian Smith are moving on, and it remains to be seen how Darius Fleming and Steve Filer will be used. Prince Shembo and Justin Utupo will also be in the mix. None of these players have Williams’ upside, however, and the battle for both outside linebacker positions is going to be interesting to watch this spring and summer.
Andy: While Ishaq Williams is the odds-on bet to see a fair amount of playing time in his rookie campaign, history has informed us that the most likely contribution by true freshman will come as a member of special teams. And Lord knows the Irish can use some help in the return game. Bennett Jackson was clearly not the long-term answer Kelly was looking for last season and I would put my money on George Atkinson III to lend his incredible speed and nose for the end zone to kickoffs and punt returns.
Anthony: The safe pick is one of the dynamic front seven defenders like Williams, Lynch or Tuitt. But I think the most significant contributor in the early going will be a defensive back. The Irish don’t have depth to spare in the secondary as the departure of Darrin Walls leaves only Robert Blanton and Gary Gray as experienced players on the edge. Harrison Smith, Jamoris Slaughter, and Zeke Motta have all proven capable of manning the backend but having only five experienced defenders leaves very little margin for injury and likely means there will be playing opportunity for some of the younger players. Lo Wood has a year of experience in the system, but hasn’t exactly drawn rave reviews, so athletic newcomers like Josh Atkinson and Matthias Farley may be thrust into action in the early going.
Jon: Aaron Lynch. Another early enrollee, Lynch is the star of this class. Even though Ishaq Williams is probably the most important recruit of this class, Lynch may end up being the best and, like Williams, Lynch will have the ability to participate in off-season workouts, which should bulk up his frame a bit.
The only thing Lynch has going against him, that Ishaq Williams does not, is that he is entering Notre Dame at a position that already has two returning starters (Ethan Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore) and with a class that features six defensive ends. However, Lynch’s sheer athletic ability and his knack for getting by blockers should have him making early and significant contributions to this year’s defense in a back-up position behind Johnson and Lewis-Moore.
Which commitment will be an unheralded contributor by the end of his career (not highly ranked, but makes significant impact)?
Andrew: Tony Springmann. He’s an Indiana kid that looks like a stereotypical orange-haired Irishman and could end up playing one of a number of key positions. He has the size to play an interior line position either as an offensive guard or as a nose tackle/defensive tackle. He’s one of those players who you may forget is on the roster for a few years because there’s already some depth at the positions he’s best suited for. But two or three years down the road, Springmann could be an unheralded starter that grows on Irish fans.
Andy: Matthias Farley. Already well suited to the physical aspects of college ball, Farley is joining a fairly depleted unit and has a real opportunity in a year or two to be able to make an impact. He’s only been playing football for two years—which Kelly sees as a positive—and was rated as a Top 25 safety by MaxPreps. Whether he ends up there or at defensive back, Matthias has the athletic ability and attacking mentality to become a solid contributor on the defensive side of the ball.
Anthony: Nick Martin. Martin may not have generated the same fanfare as his older brother (and current Irish left tackle) Zach, but he looks every bit the part. Nick has the frame to add more weight and plays with good physicality, but it is his footwork that really set him apart. The younger Martin works very well in space and a few years in coach Longo’s strength and conditioning program should allow him to fill out and reach his potential.
Jon: Everett Golson. He may be the prototypical quarterback that Brian Kelly is looking for to run his offense. From all accounts, he has great accuracy and is quick on his feet. Like any quarterback, there will be a transition phase for Golson from high school to college, but the fact that he enrolled early in school bodes well for his physical and mental development.
Going into the spring, it will be interesting to see just exactly where Golson falls on the depth chart. Crist probably has the upper hand on the starting job and, because of his stellar performance in a reserve roll, Tommy Rees will probably be the main backup. The question for the future is if Golson can pass Andrew Hendrix on the depth chart and, maybe, make a run for the starting position once Crist graduates. If this happens, Golson could be a Tony Rice-type quarterback for the Irish in the future.
What do you think of Kelly’s defensive-minded philosophy for recruiting, and how do you think that panned out for the class?
Andrew: What’s amazing is how closely Kelly stuck to the goals he outlined at the 2010 signing day. Kelly said this year’s class needed to improve the size and athleticism of the front seven, and then went out and recruited a bunch of tall athletic players. The difference between Kelly and Weis when it comes to recruiting appears to be this: Kelly has a plan. He clearly has physical requirements, or prototypes, that players must meet before Kelly will consider them for a position—his comments about how Harrison Smith would have never been considered a linebacker in his eyes, for example.
Weis didn’t care if a player fit any specific type of mold and figured he could “gameplan” the team around what he had. There was no consistency to the types of players he brought in, and I think that stems from Weis’ background with the Patriots. By this I mean the Patriots took players whom they felt were simply good football players and figured out how to build a scheme around them later, whether it be pint-sized possession receivers like Deion Branch and Wes Welker, or tall, rangy wide receivers like Randy Moss; a smaller but versatile running back like Kevin Faulk or a big bruising runner like Corey Dillon. I don’t think Weis would have recruited a class that was this consistently full of similar types of players because he doesn’t have the kind of foresight or ability that Kelly has to build a system and then develop players to fit it.
Andy: This was the year of the defensive end, but I think analyzing this class by looking at individual players’ projected positions is a bit of a fool’s errand. Kelly loves to recruit based on the measurables first—speed, size, and versatility—and in that regard Kelly himself views this as a great class. I am inclined to agree. I also believe that Kelly has much more confidence in his offensive acumen and wanted to shore up the defense by paying particular attention to the defensive line in this class. Let’s be honest though, Koyack, Golson, Daniels, Atkinson III, McDaniel, and possibly Niklas at TE is not a bad skill position class. No true 5-star recruits to get the headlines, but Kelly is very confident he can work with that group’s athletic abilities.
Anthony: It was a bit of hit and miss. As Andrew alluded to above, Kelly hit a home run at his primary target position—defensive end. Lynch, Tuitt, Brad Carrico, Troy Niklas, Chase Hounshell, and Tony Springmann all either have the ability to contribute right away or have tremendous upside. Williams, Anthony Rabasa, and Ben Councell also round out defensive front recruiting as dynamic playmakers.
But recruiting along the defensive front was only part of what this class needed. Following the 2011 season the Irish project to have no corners and only two safeties with any meaningful game experience. Furthermore, Wood is the only scholarship corner (minus Bennett Jackson who is making a position switch) on the current roster to fill in for the departing Gray and Blanton. Kelly needed to land quality and quantity in the secondary and missing out on recruits like Wayne Lyons and Bennett Okotcha may prove tough to swallow down the road. This has to be a high-target position in next year’s class.
Of course, if the front-seven recruits pan out and play to their potential, a strong secondary may not be needed.
Jon: While Kelly did commit to a more defensive-minded recruiting approach, the numbers suggest otherwise. Kelly and his staff recruited 12 defensive players this season, but he also recruited 10 offensive players and one special teams player. So while he did put an emphasis on defense, the numbers of recruits are almost split evenly between offense and defense.What numbers can’t quantify, however, sheer talent can.
Lynch, Tuitt, and Williams are all star players and will contribute in a significant way in the future. Eilar Hardy and Jarret Grace are also highly ranked in their position and have a good chance of contributing significantly at the next level. Manti Te’o was the best linebacker when he signed with Notre Dame and Lynch, Tuitt, and Williams all have the potential to produce like Te’o did when he came to Notre Dame. What’s spectacular is that all three of those players came in the same class. Bravo.
What positions should Kelly and his staff focus on for next year?
Andrew: Next year it’s imperative that the Irish bring in the so-called “skill athlete” types. Defensive back depth was already a concern entering the 2011 season, so much so that Bennett Jackson is switching to corner. It didn’t help that 2011 corner prospect Okotcha defected to Oklahoma at the 11th hour. The Irish also need some depth at running back and wide receiver, so it’s highly likely that Brian Kelly will be recruiting skill players that have the versatility to play both offense and defense. If Notre Dame’s 2011 class was the year of “big skill,” 2012 will be the year of the skill athlete.
Andy: Skill players are the obvious targets next year, with running back, defensive back, and wide receiver obviously in most demand. At least one 5-star recruit at RB and WR is a virtual must and if Kelly can improve Notre Dame’s record this season and give himself some momentum I will be anxiously awaiting what he can do to land recruits in 2012.
Anthony: I echo Andrew’s input. Defensive back, running back and wide receiver are the primary targets, and the Irish need at least one game-changer at each position. You can never take a year off in recruiting at any position but Kelly has secured enough solid players in the defensive front seven and front five on offense that they can be lower priority in the near future. Missing out on a “true” running back in this class, the graduation of wide receivers Michael Floyd, John Goodman, and Deion Walker after the 2011 season, and the aforementioned lack of secondary depth all point to the skill positions as the primary recruiting targets of 2012.
Jon: Running back, wide receiver, nose guard, corner back, and safety are all major concerns for next year. Losing Savon Huggins was a big blow to the offensive side of this recruiting class. Although the Irish will probably be alright without him, his absence makes it imperative that the Kelly and his staff land a Top 10 running back next season. Along with that, the Irish only netted two, maybe three wide receivers this season and one receiving tight end. This position will also be crucial next season.
On the defensive side of the ball, while this was an epic defensive-based recruiting class, there are some glaring holes, mainly in the secondary. Because of the lack of depth at cornerback, Bennett Jackson must move to that position. And with Gary Gray and Robert Blanton graduating after next season, the depth at cornerback will be slim-pickin’s. Landing a couple high-profile cornerbacks and a safety will be paramount to ensure that the Notre Dame secondary doesn’t return to the same form it had a few years ago.
As recruiters, what did you learn about Kelly and his staff this year?
Andrew: That they’re not afraid to get down and dirty and fight in the recruiting trenches. Between stories of Diaco showing up at Ishaq Williams’ house at 4:00 in the morning with donuts and coach Kelly appearing at the then-decommitted Stephon Tuitt household on less than 24 hours notice to “answer questions” concerning Georgia Tech’s negative recruiting tactics, it’s clear that the Irish staff is in the recruiting game to win. It was refreshing to see the Notre Dame fighting off poachers and re-winning battles after too many years of the Weis regime seemingly giving up on any player that decommitted.
Andy: Kelly’s staff will out-hustle anyone and they work incredibly well as a team. It’s hard for me to be more positive and upbeat about this year’s class and the staff’s response to adversity and recruiting on a truly national level. Every assistant coach is pulling weight on the recruiting trail and the focus and organization in who they pursue and what physical characteristics they’re looking for is very encouraging.
Anthony: They’ll go head-to-head and work as hard as anyone. Diaco is a growing legend, wide receivers coach Tony Alford is an excellent recruiter in his own right, and secondary coach Chuck Martin more than pulls his weight. Additionally, Kelly’s staff has shown a marked departure from that of former head coach Charlie Weis’ “if they’re looking, we’re looking” mantra. The latter seemed to produce more negatives than positives and Kelly and his staff aren’t afraid to battle to the end for every recruit they value. The dividends in this class alone—Lynch, Tuitt and Williams—are ample evidence that this approach works.
Jon: What I learned about Kelly and his staff is probably along the same lines as what he learned about himself in the process:
When you’re recruiting nationally, you’re going into everybody’s home base and you’re taking their kid and that’s difficult…it requires a tenacity, it requires an attention to detail, and it requires a great deal of resources on Notre Dame’s part to fight that fight.
Along with the fact that Kelly and his staff did a remarkable job luring high-talent players to Notre Dame, what amazed me was the amount of players that they poached from other schools. Not necessarily stealing recruits that were committed to other schools, although that did happen, but the amount of players that also had offers from other schools, including USC, Florida, Alabama, Miami, and other high-profile schools.
Notre Dame was 8-5 last year, which by Notre Dame standards is a sub-par season. I am almost slap-happy thinking about what kind of recruiting classes Kelly and his staff would be able to sign if the Irish could form some sort of consistency on the field. Time will tell, but if Kelly and his staff could reel in a #8 ranked class, think what they could do if they won a BCS game or a National Title. Chuck Martin, Bob Diaco, and Brian Kelly all have shown the knack for getting high-profile recruits to Notre Dame, let’s just hope they can do it on a consistent basis.
We’ll wrap up this monster post with two videos a video from CBS Sports regarding the 2011 recruiting effort (CBS removed one of the videos, our apologies). Enjoy!