SLIP SLIDING AWAY
The notion midway through the 2016 football season that a) Notre Dame would stem the tide of a 2-5 start and b) maintain one of the top 10 or so recruiting classes in the country began to unravel on a sunny day in Jacksonville when the Irish fell to Navy, 28-27.
Instead of a 4-5 mark with a chance to get back to .500 against Army in San Antonio, Notre Dame dropped to 3-6, defeated the Cadets as expected, lost its fourth home game of the year to Virginia Tech, and then fell into a complete heap of despair (after a valiant effort) at USC.
What could have been a 6-6 season with victories over Navy (4-5), Army (5-5) and Virginia Tech (6-5) at home became 4-8.
As this was unfolding, perhaps the most important piece of the 2017 recruiting class – defensive end Donovan Jeter – de-committed from the Irish after falling to 2-5 with a loss to Stanford.
Then came linebacker Pete Werner, or rather, then went Pete Werner as the dreadful regular season closed.
Wide receiver Jordan Pouncey – whose commitment to Brian Kelly during the summer Irish Invasion was must-see video – said adios near the end of December.
Paulson Adebo’s athleticism/performance during the week of the Under Armour all-star game in early-January provided a glimmer of hope for the Irish. That glimmer was extinguished within days of his departure from Orlando.
Four-star cornerback Elijah Hicks wielded a dagger to Notre Dame’s heart as Adebo’s departure remained a fresh, open wound.
Notre Dame didn’t just lose five committed prospects. In Jeter, Werner, Adebo and Hicks, the Irish lost four of the best players in the class, one-quarter of its freshmen-to-be, and virtually all hope of salvaging a group that will represent the senior class of the 2020 season with great distinction.
Usually amidst adversity within a college football program, reasons can be ascertained – legitimately -- in numerous areas. Inexperience, injuries, bad breaks/bad calls, the talent of the opposition, etc. are part of the scenario that creates a collapse.
While Brian Kelly certainly has been pigeon-holed as the main culprit of the ills that befell the Irish during the 2016 season, the fact that the Irish lost so much talent from the 2015 team would have been a legitimate if not accepted alibi for 6-6.
But under no circumstances should Notre Dame, in the seventh year of a regime with a favorable schedule, have fallen to 4-8, particularly in a season in which injuries certainly did not decimate the team.
Keeping a defensive coordinator after two miserable seasons got the ball rolling was the beginning of the end.
Yes, 4-8 leads to discontent on the recruiting front, and yes, a staff overhaul – at least six new faces (out of 10 assistants) will represent the Irish coaching staff in 2017 – creates problems in keeping a recruiting class together.
While other factors contributed to the demise during the ’16 season, the crumbling of this recruiting class falls directly on the shoulders of Brian Kelly.
Recruiting classes collapse without the necessary leadership in difficult times. Recruiting classes collapse when the lines of communication with the assistants are severed.
Notre Dame can recover the numbers in this recruiting class. New offers have been made and renewed interest from recruits who were overlooked or come from the recruiting experiences of the new assistants allow for a recovery. When all is said and done, the Class of 2017 likely will reach 20 again.
But the Irish won’t be able to replace the talent lost by the de-commitments of Jeter, Werner, Adebo and Hicks, and that directly correlates to weak leadership at the top.
THE GOOD NEWS
Steve Hare / IrishIllustrated.com
So what’s left in Notre Dame’s Class of 2017?
While skill-position players took a huge hit with the loss of Adebo, Hicks and Pouncey – as well as two key front-seven defenders in Jeter and Werner – there remains notable talent in other areas.
Presuming there are no further defections, which is the ultimate in presumption under the circumstances, here are the current strengths among those still committed:
• Tight end: The profiles of Brock Wright and Cole Kmet are on the rise, and they were pretty good from the outset. Few teams in the country will be able to boast the tight end talent the Irish are bringing in.
• Offensive line: The Irish have at least three legitimate four-star blockers up front -- Aaron Banks, Josh Lugg and Robert Hainsey. Banks was a late great catch, Lugg is on a rapid ascent, and Hainsey has high-level potential and size.
• Running back: Four-star C.J. Holmes will have much to prove on the next level. But the early enrollee will get a jump this spring, and his speed, particularly in this class, is highly coveted, particularly after the loss of other skilled athletes.
• Defensive line: Notre Dame’s interior defensive line recruiting is strong with nose tackle Darnell Ewell and three-technique Kurt Hinish. Ewell looks to have the strength and tenacity to be an early contributor.
• Linebacker: Drew White is undersized, but if he can catch up to the competition strength-wise, he has disruptive tendencies as a pass-rusher/run-blitzer.
• Safety: With his size, range and athleticism, four-star Isaiah Robertson can be an impact player for the Irish.
THE NEW(ER) STAFF
Clark Lea is in as linebackers coach. Add receivers coach DelVaughn Alexander to the mix as well. Tommy Rees will join the coaching staff in some capacity early on and then become the quarterbacks coach when the NCAA Football Oversight Committee makes a 10th full-time coach official with the late-April vote.
Those three will join defensive coordinator Mike Elko, special teams coordinator Brian Polian and offensive coordinator Chip Long – all of whom have been announced by the University.
Holdovers from the 2016 include Autry Denson, Harry Hiestand, Mike Elston and Todd Lyght.
As Irish Illustrated indicated on Dec. 28, defensive line coach Keith Gilmore will not be a part of the 2017 staff, joining Mike Sanford, Mike Denbrock and Scott Booker among the departed.
Long-time Kelly assistant, former Buffalo head coach, former Notre Dame analyst and current assistant strength and conditioning coach Jeff Quinn – whom Irish Illustrated had listed as the next tight ends coach – is not expected to be a part of the 2017 full-time assistant coaching staff.
We still believe that was part of the initial plan. What capacity Quinn will serve moving forward – or if he’ll move on to opportunities outside of Notre Dame – is not known at the present time.
Short of calling it “addition by subtraction,” this decision is in the best interest of the coaching staff’s chemistry. Harry Hiestand coaching the offensive line with Quinn – a former offensive line coach -- instructing the tight ends in the blocking schemes would have been a contentious relationship.
THE LONG WAY
Most were surprised to hear upon the announcement of Chip Long’s hiring as offensive coordinator that the 33-year-old’s duties would include play-calling on game day.
In a statement released by the University, Brian Kelly’s first quote – it was no coincidence that it was the first sentence – stated that Long would take over play-calling duties.
This is a forward-thinking, progressive move on Kelly’s part. They share the basic principles of a spread offense, but Long’s nuances to the attack should help freshen up an offense that simply could not get into the end zone in the fourth quarter in 2016.
Some have concern that Kelly will meddle with the process when the games begin. I don’t believe that’s true. Kelly certainly will have his usual input during the week and may have more to say during in-game communications than he did with his trusted assistants.
But as we’ve seen in four of the last five seasons when first Chuck Martin (2012-13) and then Denbrock (2015-16) called the plays, Kelly has let his play-callers play call. If Kelly wanted to call plays, he would have done that more than 20 percent of the last five seasons.
It’s up to Long to preserve and add to the uptick of Notre Dame’s offenses the last three years when the Irish averaged better than 30 points per game.
IN THE FILM ROOM
Jack Freeman / IrishIllustrated.com
At the current rate of defections, we’ll have the Class of 2017 wrapped up by next week’s Thursday Thoughts. Seriously, we have a few more to cover and undoubtedly a few more to add to the list in the three weeks before signing day.
• DE-Jonathon MacCollister: Tough, gritty contact-seeking defensive lineman who projects as a strongside defensive end, but also could be a three-technique. Could offer the inside-outside versatility of an Isaac Rochell. Excellent pad level and spring-loaded get-off. Shows strength to get off blocks and makes it difficult for offensive linemen to cross his face. Question: Can he provide enough pass rush from an end position?
• RB-C.J. Holmes: Long-striding, breakaway-type back who plays longer than his listed 6-foot-0. Plays predominately a north-south game, but will bounce it outside when the situation dictates. Shows good balance and acceleration after contact. Physicality and competitiveness show up on the defensive side of the ball. Question: Can he get his pad level down and be an effective between-the-tackles runner, ala Josh Adams?
• OG-Dillan Gibbons: Nasty-tempered interior offensive lineman who played tackle on prep level. Good not great feet. Tenacious in short space; out of his element in open space. Has to be careful about “creating impression” of holding. Needs to be in better physical condition. Question: Can he get the leverage he needs against longer defensive linemen?
• NT-Darnell Ewell: Plays with an angry, violent nature. Quality surge off the snap and the strength to maintain it. Shows the ability to take on blocks while keeping hands/arms free to make stops. Has the tenacity/strength to require double teams. Wired for all-day effort. Question: Can he give the Irish a much-needed early contribution?
CRABLE TO THE HALL
Former Notre Dame great Bob Crable is one of 10 players and three coaches who will be inducted into the National Football Foundation’s 2017 College Football Hall of Fame class. Crable is the 46th former Notre Dame player to be elected to the Hall and the first since Thom (known as Tom during his playing days) Gatewood in 2015.
For those who didn’t see Crable play from 1978-81 – which is virtually everyone under the age of 45 – he remains Notre Dame’s all-time leading tackler with 521. He was a mature, dedicated, tenacious player with a knack for finding the football.
While Crable and his linebacker contemporaries certainly benefitted from an era when offenses weren’t nearly as complex and spread out as they are today, he was a menacing presence for one of Notre Dame’s all-time great units in 1980 when Notre Dame ranked fourth in the country in total defense, eighth in rushing defense, eighth in passing defense, and fifth in scoring defense (10.1 ppg.).
To put Crable’s 521 tackles in perspective, consider that Manti Te’o (2009-12) finished his Notre Dame career with 437 tackles – 84 behind Crable – in 51 Notre Dame games played. Crable accrued 84 more tackles than Te’o when the Irish played 46 games in a four-year span.