Bigger, Stronger, Faster…by Design

An influx of new athletes has brought more than a cosmetic change to Brian Kelly's 2011 Irish, and the future of his football program will be molded to his specifications.

There's a new breed of football player invading South Bend.

This foreign form first appeared on campus last September, wearing white jerseys, white pants, and red trim. And as visitors, they delivered a 37-14 beat down to their too-gracious hosts, eliciting this bit of post-game praise from Notre Dame head coach, Brian Kelly.

"If you look at the physicality that Stanford played with; their body types, they were lean, athletic," Kelly said of the victors that afternoon. "That's the model I've built my programs on. We're moving in that direction.

"We're going to talk about where we are, but...where we want to be? That's a pretty darn good football team and that's where you want to look."

Fast forward to August 2011. The new brand of athlete now wears a more familiar blue and gold outfit and presently enjoys squatter's rights at both the Guglielmino Athletics Center and LaBar Practice Complex.

Stephon Tuitt, Aaron Lynch, Troy Niklas are the easiest of this new lot to discern. Part defensive end, part power forward, all athlete. They're joined by the likes of Jarrett Grace, Tony Springmann, Jordan Prestwood, and soon, many others.

Over the next four-to-five years, each along with their 18 classmates and scores of recruits to follow, will be molded in Kelly's image.

Welcome to the future of Notre Dame football, where the 6'6" 260-plus pound freshmen – those fitting Kelly's unique "Big Skill" and "Power" recruit models – will be the norm rather than the exception.

"I can tell you we're a lot longer," Kelly said Saturday of the rookie invasion. "The things we wanted to achieve as a football team: we wanted to be bigger; we needed size and length; we needed some speed. We clearly have that, now we need to refine that."

One athlete that possesses ideal measurables in need of refinement is former signing day surprise, Troy Niklas, currently a defensive end but a player capable of moving to offense as either a tackle or tight end should the need arise.

"He's extremely athletic and he has a high motor," Kelly said of Niklas. "I'm basing (that assessment) a lot off of our conditioning movement drills this morning vs. what we did in the afternoon (practice), because again, it's a little bit slower (freshmen tend to hesitate) when they're trying to think about where to be.

"But Troy Niklas, Tony Springmann (Stephon) Tuitt, (Aaron) Lynch, Jarrett Grace – I could give you about 10 (freshmen) that really impressed when we met as a staff after morning conditioning. There were a lot of smiles on a lot of faces."

Niklas is 6'6½" and 250 pounds. Springmann: 6'5½" 280 pounds. Tuitt 6'6¼" and an imposing 295 pounds. Lynch weighs in at 265 pounds while standing every bit of 6'6½" as well. Grace, the midget of the group as in inside linebacker prospect, entered college at 6'2½" 240.

The athleticism carried in those frames should equate to many-a-future smile between Kelly and his staff.

(Add freshman Cat Linebacker Ishaq Williams to that list at 6'5" 255 pounds…six months shy of 19th birthday.)

"There are a lot of guys that we can see – down the road...now, believe me, once you ask them to get the curl/flat (an example of a defensive assignment), there's a disconnect there, so that's going to take time."

Because it's the Exception that Proves the Rule

The list of 6'6" and 250- to-300-pound football players who can't, or never learned, to excel at the game is both frustrating and endless. For every future NFL star that fits and hits the mold, major college players, including many at Notre Dame, stroll onto campus looking the part, but ultimately disappoint between the lines.

One former 1980s prospect and Notre Dame player/graduate (who shall remain nameless) served as the poster boy for this athletic phenomenon: a vexing disconnect between the perfect football frame and body vs. on-field production when the whistle blew.

In other words, the phrase: "Looks like Tarzan; plays like Jane," applied.

That should be the exception under Kelly, a coach who prides himself, and chose his staff based on its ability to develop collegiate football talent.

"We had some guys evaluated in the morning (conditioning work)," Kelly said following his first practice. "And in the afternoon (actual practice) those guys are swimming a bit (to keep up) so they don't play as fast as you would like. But, there's no mistaking their size and athleticism. It'll just take some time to get them to where they can rely on their athletic ability."

Though Kelly's three-tiered recruiting model ("Skill" rounds out the trio alongside the aforementioned "Power" and "Big Skill" categories) is firmly entrenched as the staff's evaluation bible, the 20-plus-season coaching veteran knows exceptions must be made.

Kelly noted in our first meeting nearly 20 months previous that, if a player doesn't hit one of the three listed profiles above, that player can still be viewed as a prospect, but he has to meet what Kelly referred to as the "compelling" reasons.

"Give me the compelling reasons that he doesn't hit the 6'6" range as an offensive tackle," Kelly used as a general example at the time. "There must be compelling reasons (to nevertheless recruit a player)."

Kelly's notable example was Dwight Freeney, the former Syracuse star and current Indianapolis Colts star), who did not fall into the "Big Skill" category, but listed his incredibly quick first step as a "compelling reason" to recruit him as an undersized player.

In other words, there's room for a 6'0" 250-pound freshmen nose guard or a barely-6'2" freshmen inside linebacker…but special players such as Chris Zorich and Manti Te'o, or diminutive former standouts such as Joe Howard and Joey Getherall – or present-day 5'9" slot competitor Robby Toma, are exceptions to the new recruiting rule.

That new norm, the powerful, long, Stanford – sorry, Irish – athlete, was on display at Saturday's practice, the first of the 2011 season.

"When we looked out there today at our second and third units, we had a number of freshmen that we're really high on," Kelly said, notably of his incoming offensive line recruits. "If you take (Conor) Hanratty and (Matt) Hegarty; the two redshirt-freshmen in (Tate) Nichols and (Christian) Lombard; Brad Carrico…we had a number of freshmen including (transfer) Jordan Prestwood, that picked things up quickly.

"We're excited about having a number of freshmen linemen that have a chance to be successful down the road."

None of the team's 14 Power or Big Skill recruits is under 6'2 1/2" (Grace is the shortest); 12 stand at least 6'4". Only one (Dog Linebacker Ben Councell at 230) weighed less than 240 pounds hitting campus.

As for Prestwood, the newest member of the 2011 class after his summer transfer from Florida State, Kelly offered, "He wasn't in any of our summer workouts so he's a step behind, but he has all the tools necessary for us."

In other words, he fits the mold.


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