The first six verbal commitments in Notre Dame’s Class of 2018 came during the summer of ’16, prior to the disastrous 4-8 season. All six, so far, have held true to their commitment.
The newly-constructed football staff, six of which are assistant coaches, has by all accounts hit the recruiting trail with a vengeance. Meanwhile, Matt Balis – Notre Dame’s new Director of Football Performance – has Irish players tweeting daily about what a difference (and pain) he’s creating with their bodies.
It looks and sounds and feels like a new day for Notre Dame football, particularly with the rapid-fire verbal commitments from cornerback Kalon Gervin and safety Derrik Allen.
What is happening? Why is it happening? It started with a disastrous fall season, followed by a youthful infusion of coaches and a thoroughness to their recruiting approach, which paid dividends at the end of the 2017 cycle that has carried into assembling the Class of 2018.
Spearheading the defensive charge is coordinator Mike Elko, whose performance as coordinator at Bowling Green and Wake Forest was eye-opening enough to catch the attention of his new students. So, too, is the opportunity in the Irish secondary to help turn around a program that never should have lost eight times in 2016.
Notre Dame had good recruiters in Mike Denbrock, Mike Sanford and Scott Booker. Keith Gilmore made inroads in Michigan for some young defensive linemen. Brian VanGorder never tried to be a good recruiter.
The addition of Elko, Brian Polian, Chip Long, Clark Lea, DelVaughn Alexander and Tommy Rees has brought with it, in addition to youth, a sense of urgency. They’ve joined solid recruiters Mike Elston, Todd Lyght and Autry Denson.
A more proactive approach to recruiting has taken hold. It’s necessary in order to land a quality 2018 recruiting class and, quite frankly, to save their jobs if they want to coach at Notre Dame beyond the 2017 season.
“Last year, we were secondary-heavy in the recruiting class; this year not so much,” said Lyght on signing day, Feb. 1, when the Irish failed to nab a cornerback. “Next year will be very advantageous for us in the secondary moving forward for the 2018 class.”
As Irish Illustrated editor Pete Sampson pointed out, next year became next week with the verbal commitments of Gervin and Allen.
Offensive lineman Cole Mabry became Notre Dame verbal commitment No. 9 earlier this week. There are some real quality prospects already in the Class of 2018, including quarterback Phil Jurkovec, linebacker Matthew Bauer, defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola and cornerback Kalon Gervin.
But if you asked me which player would be most prepared to step onto the Notre Dame practice field now – all nine still have their senior seasons of high school to play – I would pick safety Derrik Allen.
Things are trending in the right direction for the newly-shaped Fighting Irish.
Just three Irish players have been invited to the Feb. 28-March 6 NFL Combine in Indianapolis – quarterback DeShone Kizer, and defensive linemen Isaac Rochell and Jarron Jones.
Kizer, who could be the first quarterback taken in the upcoming NFL draft, and Rochell – who impressed during Senior Bowl week – are no surprises. Jones was tabbed early in the selection process, which is a bit of a surprise considering his injuries and inconsistent play. But that’s a big body that the NFL wanted to see up close.
Linebacker James Onwualu has not been invited, which is a tough break, but there are dozens of prospects that don’t get invited to the combine but still end up drafted. Onwualu should be one of those.
Kizer will be among the most scrutinized players at the combine. Rochell’s skillset has its limitations, but he could solidify a spot in the mid-to-late rounds by putting on display what he does best – battle and hold the point of attack.
Jones is the most interesting of the Notre Dame invitees because there are so many questions surrounding his past injuries and his desire to play the game. Needless to say, Jones better be in the best physical condition of his life if he wants to leave an imprint come draft day.
Prediction: Onwualu, despite not getting an invitation to Indianapolis, ultimately goes ahead of Jones in the draft.
CANTEEN IN THE FOLD
Notre Dame has added a graduate transfer player for the 2017-18 seasons from, of all places, the Michigan Wolverines.
Canteen, originally from Elkton, Md., caught just six passes for the Wolverines in his two-year stint in Ann Arbor. He did not play in 2016 following shoulder surgery in the spring, which allows him two seasons with the Irish.
What are the Irish getting in Canteen? He’s a Z/slot receiver who perhaps has a chance to get some reps at the X position. His longest reception of his six at Michigan was just eight yards, so slot receiver is more likely. He came from a full-blown spread offensive system in high school, which helps.
I don’t anticipate Canteen denying anyone a meaningful spot on the depth chart that otherwise would have made a significant contribution in ‘17. But over the course of two years, he could make an impact. At the very least, he adds another body to the mix, which Notre Dame lost when Corey Holmes decided to transfer.
In an interview with Canteen in 2013, following his verbal commitment to the Wolverines and prior to his arrival in Ann Arbor, he was asked what he thought about Michigan’s 41-30 victory over the Irish a week earlier.
“I think the same thing I thought before: Michigan is the place for me,” Canteen said.
True, but Notre Dame is his place now. He’ll have a chance to visit with some of his former teammates in 2018 when the Irish open the season Sept. 1 against Michigan in Notre Dame Stadium.
ELLIOTT TO NEBRASKA
Knowing what we know about Bob Elliott from his occasional exchanges with the media, there are a lot of disappointed people to see the long-time defensive coach leave Notre Dame.
Elliott is now the safeties coach at Nebraska under Bob Diaco -- the Cornhuskers’ new defensive coordinator.
Elliott came to Notre Dame in 2012 as safeties coach under Diaco. He was shifted to outside linebackers upon Diaco’s departure for Connecticut as head coach. The past two seasons, he served as a special assistant to Brian Kelly.
“Special assistant” doesn’t begin to depict Elliott’s contribution to the program. His background as a defensive coordinator and long-time defensive backs coach played a role in Notre Dame’s overall improved play against Navy’s triple-option attack.
When Brian VanGorder was fired, Elliott teamed with Mike Elston and Greg Hudson to put together a respectable, much more fundamentally-sound defense over the final eight games of the 2016 season.
Elliott is one of the good guys of college football and an excellent hire by Diaco. His presence at Notre Dame will be missed.
Bonzie Colson is on fire, which is why he’ll be a first-team all-ACC selection and remains a leading candidate for conference player of the year with four games to go.
Colson, who leads the Irish in scoring (16.9) and rebounding (10.7), has spearheaded the charge as the Irish recovered from four straight losses with a three-game winning streak, including a huge victory over Florida State last weekend.
In that victory over the Seminoles, Colson scored 33 points on 12-of-18 shooting from the field to go with 13 rebounds. He has nine double-doubles in 14 ACC games while narrowly missing against Miami (eight points), Florida State on the road (eight points, nine rebounds), and Duke (nine rebounds).
In the last seven games, including losses to Virginia, Georgia Tech, Duke and North Carolina, Colson is shooting 64.4 percent (58-of-90) and averaging 21 points per game. He’s averaging 11.1 rebounds per the last six.
He remains Notre Dame’s only true inside presence. But when he’s scoring at a 21-point pace and rebounding in double-figures, he’s enough for the Irish, particularly now that they’ve embraced the four-around-one look that emphasizes Rex Pflueger and T.J. Gibbs over Martin Geben with a little bit of Austin Torres sprinkled in.
Torres remains an integral part of the limited rotation with his infusion of energy, defense and rebounding. But as long as Colson’s on fire, there’s enough of an inside presence to complement Matt Farrell, V.J. Beachem and Steve Vasturia – at least until another matchup against Duke, North Carolina or Virginia in the ACC tournament.
WAKE UP THE ECHOES
I grew up in the Athletic & Convocation Center, which opened in 1968 and eventually became known as the Joyce Center. It’s been called Purcell Pavilion since 2009.
Home games in the ‘70s under Digger Phelps were events. Crowd noise was a constant companion of the Irish, particularly when the Irish snapped UCLA’s 88-game winning streak in 1974 and when 29-0/No. 1-ranked San Francisco fell at the “ACC” in 1977.
Today’s Notre Dame basketball crowds don’t respond the way they used to. The student body generally needs a Duke or North Carolina in the house to raise a ruckus. Two weeks ago, Mike Brey and point guard Matt Farrell had to implore the crowd to offer an assist in a come-from-behind victory over Wake Forest.
But last Saturday against Florida State, Purcell Pavilion was packed and loud, and the Irish responded by claiming a decisive victory over the upstart Seminoles.
It will never be like it was in the Athletic & Convocation Center, but the effort by the Notre Dame home crowd/student body was a pleasant and much-needed surprise.
INGELSBY, BLUE HENS MAKE A MOVE
When former Irish captain/point guard and Mike Brey assistant Martin Ingelsby landed the Delaware head-coaching job following Notre Dame’s second straight Elite Eight run, he inherited a mess.
The Blue Hens’ job – where Brey got his start as a head coach before coming to Notre Dame – was filled with pitfalls. They finished 7-23 overall and 2-16 last season, losing their first 12 games in the Colonial Athletic Association.
Graduation and defections put Ingelsby in a tough spot heading into the first year of his head-coaching gig.
It hasn’t been easy, and by no means are the Blue Hens out of the woods. But a two-point overtime victory over fourth-place Elon and a one-point win at James Madison last week gave Delaware two wins in a row, three of the last five, and four of the last eight for a program that started out 0-6 in conference play.
The Blue Hens are now 11-16 overall and 4-10 in the CAA. By virtue of the back-to-back wins, they’re out of the conference cellar. Their first victory of the conference season came against Northeastern in mid-January, the same Northeastern that the Irish defeated en route to the first of two Elite Eights.
“We don’t have the shot-makers like we had at Notre Dame,” said Ingelsby in a recent interview with Irish Illustrated. “We can’t just shoot our way out of trouble. But we’ve got good kids who are working hard to get better.”
Keep an eye on Ingelsby down the road.