Friday, June 22, 2012

Notre Dame Freshman Class Preview

It's been a trying summer. The Bulls season ended early with the horrific injury to Derrick Rose, which will even affect the next season going forward. The Cubs are awful; really, there's nothing else to say about that. The Hawks season ended early as well, and they're left with questions going forward as to whether their core can get the job done. And for me, personally, I'm left studying for the Bar Exam which leaves my free time (including posting here) sporadic and totally infrequent. So, the only reasonable thing to do during rough times such as these is to look forward. And with the incoming freshman class for Notre Dame arriving on campus this week for workouts and summer school, they're a perfect group to take a look at going forward.

It's a relatively balanced class, with 17 initial commits that fell to 16 after corner Tee Shepard left campus for relatively mysterious reasons (some say health, others say grades) that I won't get into here. There's good prospects at QB, RB, WR, OL, DT, DE/OLB, and S. I'm not entirely sure, even if I will prognosticate here, which will see significant playing time this fall, but one thing is for sure: this is a highly talented group, and all of these kids are coming in with the cohesive intention to be part of a special turnaround at Notre Dame.

Kiel has all the elite tools
Let's start with the offense. About half the class that signed in February will play on the offensive side of the ball. Chief among these, of course, is QB Gunner Kiel. Kiel enrolled in school early after a much talked about recruitment that saw him commit first to Indiana only to decommit, then commit to LSU only to drop LSU for Notre Dame on the eve of enrollment. This clearly infuriated LSU coach Les Miles, as he's spent portions of the spring bashing Kiel every chance he gets. All of that aside, Gunner is probably the consensus best QB in the country for the 2012 class. He's a prototypical pro style QB who has legitimate speed, which will enable him to thrive in Brian Kelly's spread offense. Landing him was a coup for Kelly. Long known as an offensive and QB guru, his ability to bring the nation's best QB to Notre Dame will not only enable him to develop Kiel from the ground up and tailor him perfectly to his system, but it also sends a message to prospective recruits that the QB position at ND will no longer be a hindrance to offensive skill players. Now, I personally feel that a red shirt is in order for Kiel as he has Everett Golson, Andrew Hendrix, and Tommy Rees ahead of him on the depth chart, but there's no doubt that Kiel will have an impact at Notre Dame in the near future.

Carlisle, the transfer from USC, will play right away
Notre Dame added to it's already talented backfield with the additions of RB's William Mahone and Keivarae Russell. And even more than that, Notre Dame landed the transfer of highly touted USC RB Amir Carlisle, who had chosen USC over Notre Dame in the 2011 recruiting cycle but transferred to Notre Dame after the season to be closer to his family (and subsequently received a waiver to play this season as a result). Carlisle actually played for USC last year and showed his immense talent with his best outing a 10 carry, 90 yard performance against Colorado. Carlisle is fast, and like all the running backs that Notre Dame has on its roster, can both run and catch in the slot. Mahone represents more of a between the tackles style RB and is very effective in pass blocking, while Russell seems to be more of a blend between the two styles of running that Carlisle and Mahone bring and thus is more of an all purpose back. I expect that because of the depth at running back, and the fact that Kelly is cross training his RB's to be able to perform in the backfield and in the slot, Mahone and Russell will either see limited playing time or redshirt. That isn't an indication at all of their talent, of which they both have lots, but more of the talent ahead of them. With the likes of Cierre Wood, Theo Riddick, George Atkinson III, and Amir Carlisle all figuring to get significant playing time, it might be best to save the eligibility of Mahone and Russell for later years. Regardless, Notre Dame landed two more promising prospects to continue a good trend at the position.

Neal could be the most exciting recruit in the class
The most exciting additions, for me anyway, are at WR. Here, the Irish picked up Chris Brown, Justin Ferguson, and Davonte Neal. This group has the task of attempting to help the Irish make up the production of the departed Michael Floyd, who set and broke nearly every single Notre Dame receiving record in his tenure. This is an exciting group, though, so let's start with Ferguson. Ferguson is a possession type receiver who figures to line up on the outside for the Irish. He's cut from the same mold as a Michael Floyd where he won't blow you away with his speed but is excellent at going up and catching the football and moving the chains. I expect him to be a legitimate target in the red zone just for that reason. Brown and Neal, though, are elite athletes. Brown is a track champion from South Carolina and could be one of the more underrated recruits in the entire class. If he played for a bigger school or in a bigger conference, there's no question that he would have been much more highly recruited. Regardless, Kelly is known for finding players like this and turning them into elite players. He'll fit in nicely as a slot player, and a big one at that at 6'2. One look at his tape is all you need to see to realize the potential this player has. Lastly, Davonte Neal is probably my favorite recruit of the class. He's one of the nation's top athletes, as his tape certainly shows below.

He already reminds me, and yes I know this is hyperbole, of a Notre Dame legend:

You can see the elite type of athlete that Davonte is. This is a steal; these types of athletes are usually those who land in the SEC and end up winning national championships. Kelly knows how to use these types of elite athletes too, as he helped develop and turn Mardy Gilyard into an elite receiver at Cincinnati. As a result, I think Neal will be used in much the same fashion as Gilyard was, at KR, PR, and slot receiver, with the opportunity to come out of the backfield at RB as well. Neal excels at quick tunnel screens, slant routes, and any formation designed to take advantage of his superior skills in open space. It also helps that he's reportedly shown up to school in tremendous shape and is demonstrating his desire to play right away. I don't think that will be a problem, as I fully predict that he will be in the starting lineup in the opener against Navy. His type of explosiveness just cannot be kept off the field.

Stanley is the future at LT
At OL, the Irish picked up three players: OT Ronnie Stanley, OT Mark Harrell, and LS Scott Daly. It may seem strange to offer a scholarship to a long snapper, but the decision to grant one to Daly, by all accounts the best long snapper in the country, comes as part of a new emphasis on the importance of special teams by Brian Kelly. Boggled snaps can potentially mean the difference between a win or a loss, and given how important each regular season win and loss is in college football, I see no problem with using a scholarship on a long snapper, especially when he's the best in the country at it. Harrell is a big lineman who should be rated higher than he is, as is the case for many of the prospects in the woefully underrated Carolinas region of recruiting. He had offers from major programs like Auburn, Clemson, Georgia Tech, Michigan, N.C. State, UNC, South Carolina, Stanford, Tennessee, Virgina Tech, and West Virginia. He has the potential to be an elite offensive lineman, especially under the tutelage of new Notre Dame OL coach Harry Hiestand, who has received rave reviews from the coaching staff, current players, and the highly regarded committed Notre Dame OL class in 2013. Stanley is the gem of this group. Hailing from Las Vegas, he had his pick of schools across the country to attend but fell in love with the Notre Dame campus and what the school had to offer on an official visit and committed soon thereafter. Both Stanley and Harrell figure to redshirt this season because the Irish have, like many other positions, great depth across the offensive line, but Stanley is probably the left tackle of the future. When you combine this class and the 2013 OL class for Notre Dame, the future is bright on the line.

Day, who enrolled early, has already impressed this spring
On defense, the Irish focused on adding depth on the front and back ends of the defense. On the defensive line, they continued to land high elite prospects with the additions of Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones. In addition, they added a potentially huge prospect at DE/OLB with Romeo Okwara. Day enrolled early on campus and immediately made a name for himself. At first it was thought that both Day and Jones would potentially redshirt, but with the sudden departure of freshman superstar Aaron Lynch, it is likely that both will see playing time. This is especially true for Day, who had an impressive spring and showed the versatility and talent he can bring to the line, whether it be lining up inside or flexing out to play DE in the Irish's 3-4 scheme. Jones is another of these types of linemen that the Irish seem to love to recruit. He's an absolute beast at 6'6 and about 300 pounds, but as his distinguished basketball career in high school shows, is extremely athletic and quick at the same time. I figure he'll spend most of his time on the outside as a pass rusher, but he does have the ability to slide inside if need be. As for Okwara, he'll operate mostly in the hybrid DE/OLB position that Notre Dame calls the "Cat." There, he'll be rushing the passer, using his athleticism and size to get to the quarterback. Okwara spent his senior season tearing it up at only 16 years old. So there's no telling the type of potential he has but all indications are that the sky is the limit for this kid. He may see limited time as a freshman depending on how he physically develops (and recent pictures suggest he's gotten huge), and how he picks up the playbook, quite similar to how Ishaq Williams came in as a freshman last year.

The last position group to discuss is safety, where the Irish picked up 4 quality players, welcoming Elijah Shumate, Nicky Baratti, C.J. Prosise, and John Turner to the fold. These players are in addition to the welcoming of former signee Chris Badger, who had signed with the Irish in 2010 but spent the last two years on his Mormon mission and is just now joining the Irish. While it may seem strange to pick up 5 safeties, consider the following factors. First, the Irish have to replace Harrison Smith, who was a first round pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. Second, Austin Collinsworth, a potential starter or player in the 2 deep, is probably out for the season after shoulder surgery. Third, starter Jamoris Slaughter, who the Irish thought would be able to slot in at CB to shore up depth issues there, moves back to safety but will graduate after this season anyways. And finally, with the direction that offenses are headed in, with uber-athletic tight ends and empty wide receiver sets, the role of an athletic safety has never been more important. Hence, the need to have good depth at the position.

It remains to be seen what roles the incoming players will fill and who will gain playing time, but one thing is for certain - there is playing time to be had. Badger is a tough, sure-tackling player who would serve well up in the box playing the run and coming off on tight ends. His skill set is thus better suited for strong safety, but after two years away from football, the jury is out on what he can bring at this point. We'll know more once fall practice starts. Turner is relatively big safety from Indiana who comes in slightly less heralded than the less. But here again is the perfect example of why coaches do not pay attention to star rankings. Turner showed up to a Notre Dame camp with MAC offers and the coaches offered him a scholarship contingent on him running a certain 40 time (presumably 4.5 or lower). Turner achieved it, the coaches saw what they like, and now he has a shot at making a name for himself. Baratti is an elite athlete from Texas, where he played several different positions for his high school. He reflects the hybrid safety model that Notre Dame has been looking at recently, with the ability to probably play either safety position.

Shumate is an elite prospect
Prosise is an elite athlete who dominated in the return game for his high school and is yet another underrated prospect, likely due to his small high school. Regardless, Prosise seems to be a perfect model for free safety, where he can use his excellent athleticism to be a ball hawk for the Irish. And last, but certainly not least, is Shumate. Shumate is my bet to get on the field first and is a superb athlete who can definitely play either safety position and even drop down into the box and play a sort of hybrid safety/linebacker position. He played a lot in high school on the defensive side of the ball doing this exact same thing, but the fact that he played running back as well shows you that he has the athleticism to survive just fine in coverage. Big, physical, and athletic, Shumate has the look of a future NFL safety written all over him. With injuries and uncertainty at safety above him on the depth chart, I'm predicting that once fall practice starts, he'll sky rocket up the ladder and earn significant playing time as a freshman.

All in all, it's excellent class that will continue to build on the foundation that Brian Kelly has laid with his first full recruiting class last year. There are several pieces that will now be able to complement both existing strengths and bolster positional weaknesses. I fully expect the two most productive freshmen to be Davonte Neal and Sheldon Day, but I would not be surprised to see Jarron Jones or Elijah Shumate make a name for themselves either. It is certainly notable that the Irish whiffed badly on a position of dire need, CB, in this class, and that leaves them struggling to fill that with existing players on the roster and recruits in the 2013 class. But if you look at the rest of the roster, there are few glaring weaknesses. Brian Kelly, in only two full recruiting classes, has already assembled one of the more talented Notre Dame teams in years. With the hardest schedule in the nation, it's going to be difficult to see what this means in terms of production. But one thing is for sure - the highly talented class of 2012 is going to help the Irish continue their march back towards perennial national relevancy.


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