Insider Report: Backfield Audibles

Notre Dame changed up its quarterback recruiting approach last month. Now it’s changing at running back too. The Insider Report hits those topics and updates the status of Rashan Gary.

Quarterback recruiting made a sudden about face this week.

Notre Dame seemed content to pass at the position in the Class of 2016 and turn to the junior class with its top prospects all off the board. Instead, it hosted then flipped three-star prospect Ian Book, who had previously been committed to Washington State. Book revealed the news via Twitter almost at random.

Turns out the move had been building for some time after the Irish staff decided it shouldn’t go through two seasons with just three true scholarship quarterbacks: Malik Zaire, DeShone Kizer and Brandon Wimbush.

Former walk-on Montgomery VanGorder is also on scholarship.

But the change in recruiting perspective didn’t have anything to do with how Kizer and Wimbush have developed in South Bend.

“Those two guys are not impacting our recruiting,” said head coach Brian Kelly. “We know what we have there. We’ll continue to recruit for ’16 and ’17. Those two guys really, we have a great understanding of what their skill set is. I don’t think they impact ’16 and ’17 for us. I think we’ve already made that decision that we want to take a ’16 and we want to take a ’17.”

Now the spotlight turns (again) to four-star junior Hunter Johnson, long a top target at the position regardless of class.

Johnson has been on campus multiple times, including for the Irish Invasion, where he worked out for quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator Mike Sanford. He will return later this month for a pre-season visit to reconnect with Sanford, who’s become the key figure in this recruitment. That date is scheduled for Aug. 15.

There are questions the Irish need to answer: How long will Brian Kelly be around? Could Sanford be on the move soon as he climbs the coaching ladder?

Meanwhile, things have changed in terms of the competition for Johnson. Tennessee emerged as a serious threat after Johnson visited in July, his sixth trip to Knoxville. Northwestern and N.C. State are hanging around the fringes.

Stanford, on the other hand, appears to have dropped off.

The Cardinal worked out quarterbacks in the Class of 2017 all summer, including Johnson. This week they offered four-star prospects Davis Mills and Jake Bentley.

“Stanford is the one school in the Pac 12 that still runs a 100-percent pro-style offense, so they recruit quarterbacks that are pure drop back guys,” said Scout.com national recruiting analyst Greg Biggins. “They’re not looking for a dual-threat type and mobility isn’t important to them. They want a guy who can run play action and get the ball down the field. Their offense is very run dominant but they love to run play action when the safeties creep up and hit the defense over the top. As a result, they like a quarterback with a strong arm who can throw the deep ball.”

Bottom line: Stanford saw several top quarterbacks in the Class of 2017 during the summer then offered Bentley and Mills. They’re the top targets. Johnson, at least for now, doesn’t appear to be an option for David Shaw.

Notre Dame could prove the beneficiary, but Johnson is pumping the brakes on a possible pre-season commitment. At least for now.

Reset At Running Back

Kelly revealed during his Thursday press conference that Justin Brent will audition at running back during camp, arming Notre Dame with practice depth at the position.

Tarean Folston enters camp as the featured back. Kelly said on Thursday he believes Folston is capable of handling the increased responsibilities that come with that role.

“I think another strength of our offense is our running back situation,” Kelly said. “And I know many could argue with the depth of it, but we have an established running back in Tarean Folston. He’s experienced. He’s handled the ball in many different circumstances and situations. He’s going to be called on this year to carry a larger load for us as a featured back, but what we like about him is we know what we have there and he is an established, national caliber running back, and that is a strength for any football team going into the season.”

C.J. Prosise is expected to contribute to the ground game as well with “home run” ability, as described by Kelly. The ideal situation is for freshmen Dexter Williams and Josh Adams to take a redshirt year.

Following 2015, Folston could opt for the NFL. But betting that doesn’t happen, Notre Dame should return all backs to its roster in 2016. That could even include Greg Bryant, whose father told Irish Illustrated on Thursday afternoon that his son will return to Notre Dame.

We are hearing the goal is to "definitely” add a second running back in the current recruiting haul to complement four-star commitment Tony Jones Jr. Expect to see Notre Dame expand its targets at the position as the season gets underway.  

Some names to keep in mind: 

Amir Rasul - Miami, Fla. - A Florida State commitment that plans to take an official visit to Notre Dame in the fall thanks to a strong connection with Autry Denson.

Deon McIntosh - Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. - Notre Dame is in line to receive one of McIntosh’s official visits. Louisville, Tennessee, West Virginia and Wisconsin make up his top five, and the Mountaineers lead.

Rico Dowdle  - Asheville, N.C. - Dowdle does not hold a Notre Dame offer, but he visited in the spring, and he will likely be on the staff’s radar this fall. Vanderbilt and Wake Forest are his top choices. 

Slot wide receiver Damian Alloway has running back skills and Notre Dame feels confident about its chances of landing him in the near future. His versatility will give Notre Dame increased options in the backfield but they do like him at receiver first.

Irish still waiting on Gary

Rashan Gary, the nation’s top prospect, vowed to visit Notre Dame before making his college decision. The Irish are still waiting.
  
According to his mother, Jennifer Coney, the best bet for a summer visit would have been during the week of Aug. 3. Obviously that didn’t happen and now she said a visit would likely have to take place during Gary’s bye week. Paramus Catholic is off the weekend of Sept. 25. The Irish host Massachusetts on Sept. 26.

At this point, Gary has yet to identify a list of favorites but his mother said he is likely down to about 10 programs.

“He still has a little time and this is a life defining decision so he needs to take his time,” she said.

Gary’s official visit schedule is open, which keeps the Irish in play for a visit but it becomes less and less likely he’ll make an appearance in South Bend.

News and notes
  • Four-star cornerback Eric Cuffee visited Texas earlier this week. He made the trek to Notre Dame for the Irish Invasion but has yet to set an official visit.
  • Four-star linebacker Dontavious Jackson announced this week he plans to make a commitment on National Signing Day. He recently cut to a top 12 that includes Alabama, Miami, Notre Dame, Florida State, LSU, UCLA, Michigan, Texas, TCU, Oklahoma, Ole Miss and Fresno State. He’s talked about an official visit to Notre Dame for the opener against Texas, but it’s not clear if that’s set.
  • Five-star defensive end Oluwole Betiku committed to UCLA on Thursday, despite insisting barely one month ago that he’d officially visit Notre Dame this fall. UCLA had been the presumed leader entering training camp, but Betiku’s timeline, at least the one he discussed at The Opening, did not favor an August decision.


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