The Pieces Fit

Brian Kelly's 2011 recruiting class won't wait long to begin its collective development, regardless of position.

Note: For an explanation of Power, Big Skill, and Skill categories discussed below click here.

Bring ‘em all in – let the man in charge sort ‘em out

8 power players and another that could easily fit the mold (Troy Niklas) will join the Irish roster by next August. Three of the aforementioned power guys – Brad Carrico, Chase Hounshell, and Tony Springmann – will likely get an early look at defensive end but could be deemed better fits for the program along the offensive line of scrimmage.

With three veteran defensive ends (Kapron Lewis-Moore, Hafis Williams, and Kona Schwenke) all still eligible through 2012 and beyond, as well as redshirt-freshman Bruce Heggie, how does Kelly plan to slot his power players in Year 1?

"I just want the very best players and I think that will all sort itself out very early in the process," Kelly noted of the power-heavy haul. "I don't think it's going to be two, three years down the road. I think it sorts itself out very quickly, and I know that we've got a great understanding of our players, even in this one year. More than anything else, we know where our guys will best fit our program."

That final sentence has been a post-season theme of the head coach entering his second year. 2010's winter and spring sessions were more about preaching, than teaching.

"We don't have to concentrate on how their locker room looks and what laundry loop to take out, which we did last year at this time," Kelly noted of the minutiae his staff dealt with upon installing a new program. "We can now concentrate on where our players best fit in helping themselves as well as our football team."

As for the perceived "problem" of having a few too many defensive linemen in the mix?

"If your assets are on the defensive line, that's a good place to start and that's where it will start," Kelly added.

The method negates any madness

Theo Riddick from running back to slot receiver. Lane Clelland from the offensive to defensive line – and back. Bennett Jackson from wide receiver to cornerback. And (rumored), Austin Collinsworth from the wide receiver corps to the secondary.

Only Collinsworth was recruited by Kelly, and with the knowledge that he was unlikely to occupy a singular position during his college years.

After a full season in the recruiting cycle, how does the head coach feel the nation's top recruits embraced his flexible position plans?

"Most of these young men, they want to be in the best position to help the team win," he began. "And obviously each one of the young men that we have on this roster, they have dreams, too, about getting a degree and playing in the NFL. And that's fine. I want those kinds of guys.

"So I think it's less about, ‘No, I'm only this (position)' – and when we do get that, that sends up a bit of a red flag for us," he admitted of a prospective recruit married to a certain positional role. "And that doesn't mean we're going to drop them. But there is a bit of a red flag if somebody is (adamant). That concerns us sometimes."

Annually, of the three recruiting profiles, Big Skill (6 players this year including final addition Troy Niklas) appears to have the most positional flexibility. But that might not be the case this season with a four-linebacker haul in Ishaq Williams, Jarrett Grace (pegged for inside), Anthony Rabasa and Ben Councell (both slated for OLB duties) as well as top tight end prospect Ben Koyack (he's not moving).

When Kelly's recruiting net spanned a self-assessed "300 miles" the flexible, Big Skill athlete was one of necessity. (As Kelly noted last December – if I could get 20 Big Skill guys, you'd never know where they would end up). Now it appears a luxury with a national recruiting base, one that included commits from 14 states in 2011.

"There's certainly the Ishaq Williams's of the world that can certainly play any position at 6'5", 245 pounds. There are more of those guys available (to Kelly at Notre Dame). It allows you to fit them in. Anthony Rabasa played with his hand down, but he could play up," Kelly offered. "So our defensive structure allows us to cast that net, as you speak of."

It's a defensive structure that's first based upon stopping to opponent – then luring top talent.

"I think this has been talked about a lot," Kelly said of the notion that it's now easier to recruit athletes to a 3-4 defensive scheme. "There's such a competitive run for defensive linemen throughout the country. So obviously three-down (linemen) versus four-down allows you now to take those ‘tweeners' and add them to your defense.

"The 3-4 was not a defense that I jumped into to gain a recruiting advantage as much as it was to get great flexibility in defending offenses. Having said that, we all know that getting a lot of defensive linemen at any one school is a difficult chore….So I think both of those things in play. Not having four down linemen to worry about and having four linebackers that help us in the recruiting process."

365-day cycle begins anew

At the conclusion of his 2010 NSD press conference, Kelly noted the definitive need for bodies along the defensive line in his next recruiting class. With top-tier edge prospects Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt as well as four more prospective defensive ends included in 2011's recruiting haul, that plan came to fruition.

What's on tap for 2012?

"I think we have to get some depth at the back end of our defense," Kelly offered of a secondary that will lose three key pieces (Harrison Smith, Gary Gray, and Robert Blanton) at season's end. "We have to continue to build depth there. That's absolutely crucial. I think if you look at the running back position, that's one that stands out for us (four on scholarship with the addition of Cam McDaniel). We're always going to take a quarterback. That's always in the mix.

"And probably playmakers, you're looking at playmakers on the offensive side of the ball as the criteria. Who is the guy that can potentially change the game on offense?"

Notre Dame's 2011 secondary includes the trio of aforementioned stars as well as senior safeties Jamoris Slaughter and Dan McCarthy (both of whom will likely apply for a 5th-year of eligibility next January), junior safety Zeke Motta, sophomore cornerback Lo Wood, and converted sophomore offensive contributors Bennett Jackson and (we believe) Austin Collinsworth.

2010 Early Enrollee Chris Badger will rejoin the group – with four seasons of eligibility remaining – for the 2012 season upon return from a religious mission.


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