Brian Kelly outlined a couple recruiting directives on National Signing Day.
First, Kelly noted the need to recruit cornerbacks after signing zero. Then he noted a need on offense: Elite speed. Former Irish wide receiver Will Fuller had that element to his game. Think back to all the times Fuller blew the top off a defense with pure speed.
“I think elite speed on offense will be a primary goal for us,” Kelly said. “Guys that can change the game on one possession. I think we’ll see that. I think we’ve got very good size. I think we’ve got guys that can run. We want a couple of home run hitters.”
Game breaking speed is always in high demand and football coaches searching for it often turn their attention to players with a sprinting background. Kelly has already done so.
Four-star athlete Braden Lenzy, who committed last month, runs track for Tigard High School in Portland and plans to do so at the college level. Kelly plans to use Lenzy’s speed at wide receiver. Other programs recruited him as a cornerback.
Lenzy flashes his speed on film, getting behind defensive backs on the regular. That’s an important factor: Track speed has to translate onto the football field. The very best prospects make it happen. And that’s no accident. Elite sprinters often have to double down on football-specific drill work to make sure their speed is functional.
“It’s a lot of drills to make him stop and change directions, stop on a dime,” said Tracy Ford, who runs Ford Sports Performance in Bellevue, Wash. “A lot of hip mobility, change of direction, flexibility and range of motion type deals to make sure their body is ready to go to plant and change direction as opposed to running straight ahead.”
Ford has trained some of the top prospects in the Pacific Northwest in recent years. Former UCLA and current Jacksonville Jaguars linebacker Myles Jack, former Washington safety Budda Baker and incoming Huskies cornerback Salvon Ahmed all work with Ford. Four-star cornerback Kyler Gordon, a top Irish target, is one of Ford’s star pupils right now.
Ahmed exploded into a national prospect last year while posting elite 40-yard dash times. He ran a laser timed 4.32-second 40-yard dash at The Opening Finals last July, making him one of the fastest prospects in the nation.
But that speed would’ve been for almost nothing if Ahmed couldn’t unleash it in games. Especially at cornerback, Ford views stop-and-start athleticism as the key to unlocking speed for functional football use. That’s an area Ford says Gordon excels, like Ahmed and Baker did.
“I think it’s his ability to change directions,” Ford said. “It’s his ability to change directions, ability to stop and go. I think those are things that are really big. Those are attributes that Kyler has that are very similar to Salvon or Budda. He’s able to stop and go, stop on a dime and change direction. He’s literally 4.5 to the left, 4.5 to the right and 4.4 straight ahead. That’s the difference between that and just being a track kid.”
Four-star wide receiver Anthony Schwartz has built his reputation on the track.
Scwhartz runs the 100 and 200-meter dashes at American Heritage High School in Plantation, Fla., along with participating on relay teams. He won individual state titles in both the dashes last year, as a sophomore, while leading American Heritage to a team state championship.
His personal best time in the 100-meter dash is 10.26 seconds, which last spring was the third best high school time in the country. His personal record in the 200-meter dash is 20.76 seconds.
“There’s one thing about speed,” said Greg Barnes, head track coach at American Heritage. “Speed is speed. But there is football speed and then there’s real world class speed. Anthony has real world class speed. That speed on a football field makes everybody look like they’re not running, especially at the high school level. He actually has world class speed.”
Schwartz has parlayed track success and production as a wide receiver into dozens of scholarship offers. Notre Dame is a top option. Auburn, Florida, Miami, Oregon, USC, Virginia Tech and Wisconsin are some others. Schwartz plans to run track in college as well.
Four-star cornerback Kalon Gervin, an Irish commitment and sprinter in his own right at Cass Tech in Detroit, sees the differences in speed between the two sports.
Sprinting in track requires a lot of technical refinement. Starts, drive phase and finishing. Rarely in football are you running in a straight line. Instead, you’re combining speed with the athleticism it takes to change directions in a hurry.
“On the track I think I’m real technical when I’m running,” Gervin said. “There’s steps to all of it, the entire race. In football I’m running with a more controlled speed. I’m not just running around out there. I’m using my athleticism and the speed that I have.”
Yet while there are differences between the sports, their interplay is often viewed as crucial to overall development. Every college coach wants speed, Brian Kelly included. But just because a player runs a 40-yard dash in the 4.5 range doesn’t guarantee that they’re football fast too.
Barnes has a strong working relationship with the American Heritage football program. Other prospects on the team — Florida-bound cornerback Marco Wilson and five-star junior cornerback Patrick Surtain Jr., among others — all sprint during the offseason.
There’s no convincing Barnes otherwise: Their training in track has helped turn them into elite football prospects. Those are the kind Kelly continues to seek out.
“There’s no doubt about it that it makes you better,” Barnes said. “I was that same kid. I know track and football go hand in hand, especially on the skill position side with cornerbacks and wide receivers. Most definitely, it helps them a lot.”
Off The Mat: P.J. Mustipher’s Edge
P.J. Mustipher celebrated by smearing blood on his coach. The 6-foot-5, 282-pound defensive tackle couldn’t help himself after winning the heavyweight state championship two weeks ago.
The moment had nothing and everything to do with football after Mustipher trained himself into a title winning wrestler at the McDonogh School in Owings Mills, Md.
Instead of devoting his winter to Junior Days and combines, Mustipher stayed in the wrestling room. Instead of trying to add scholarship offers beyond Notre Dame, Alabama, Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan, the four-star athlete kept competing.
Now Mustipher has a state title to show for it.
McDonogh wrestling coach Pete Welch had laundry.
“His nose is bleeding, there’s blood coming down his face and he runs over, grabs all our coaches and picks us up to celebrate,” Welch said. “He’s saying, ‘I did it! I’m a state champ!’ Yes, you are. And you’re bloody. Now get off of me.
“It was a great moment.”
Mustipher has kept a low-profile during his recruitment but took a visit to Notre Dame last season to see his older brother Sam start at center. But now that the wrestling season is complete – Mustipher finished fourth at last weekend’s National Preps at Lehigh after placing seventh as a sophomore – the nation’s No. 101 overall prospect can jump back into football.
But it’s not like the programs chasing him, Notre Dame included, took a break for wrestling season.
“We literally had 100 schools come through here during winter and some days I’d come back from lunch and there would be a couple dozen waiting by my door,” said McDonogh football coach Dom Damico. “Alabama, Tennessee, Michigan Sate, Michigan, you name it, they were here. Notre Dame too.”
What all those schools are chasing is a prospect whose conditioning is at five-star levels. Mustipher played defense only as a freshman, then went both ways as a sophomore with some success. He picked up wrestling that winter and got a reality check after a few matches.
Then Mustipher started running in the wrestling room on the side, even wearing a cardio mask to fast forward the process. Routines often involved sprints and jumping rope. When Mustipher returned to football last season, Damico saw a uniquely conditioned defensive tackle.
“I think cardio is the big piece,” Damico said. “Most big guys in football get tired all the time. You add the wrestling season last year to his cardio and he can play the whole game without having to check out. That wrestling conditioning takes him to the next level.”
There’s a fundamentals crossover too.
Both Damico and Welch believe Mustipher’s ability to get off blocks in football gets a boost from his hand fighting in wrestling. There’s a mutual benefit from the competitive edge that comes with wrestling too. As much as playing on the defensive line can expose a player’s toughness, it’s nothing compared to the mat.
“The competition in wrestling, there’s a huge mental aspect,” Welch said. “Lots of guys who lose are the ones who break mentally when fatigue sets in. Six minutes on a wresting mat can seem like an eternity if you’re not in shape.
“It parallels football in that way, where you don’t have time to beat yourself up if you make a mistake. You have to go right on to the next move, the next motion. You have to recover quickly.”