Thursday, February 11, 2010

Team Transition | by Pat

Ok, let's get to breaking down the latest recruiting class. What was shaping up to be a decent class took a big hit when Charlie was fired. Most recruits said they would remain with ND, but over time a few were chipped away. Kelly's recruiting prowess, one of the major unknowns at this point, was put in the spotlight as he tried to keep the current commits intact while closing with a flurry of offers and last minute commits. So how did it all turn out once the dust settled?

First, just the facts. Here are the links to the newest crop of freshmen and Brian Kelly's first public words about them. There is also a nice collection of highlight clips.

• The Official Notre Dame Signing Day Central
• Brian Kelly's Signing Day Press Conference (Transcript /Video)
• 2010 Recruit Bios and Highlight videos

The players will ultimately be judged by their performance on the field, but Kelly as a recruiter will be judged in part by how this class is ranked against his peers. Fair or not, it's one way coaches are judged against one another. The image of being a strong recruiter can help buy a coach another year (Weis) while not measuring up against other national recruiters can help lead to a coach get the axe early (Willingham). With that in mind, here's where the three major recruiting rankers put the Weis/Kelly transition class.

14th - Rivals
19th - Scout
21st - ESPN

Overall, this certainly wasn't a strong class rankings-wise, but considering yet another coaching transition and a sub-.500 record over the past three years, getting inside of the Top 20 on average certainly wasn't a given. Re-mapping the rankings by average star value rather than the results of each website's ranking algorithm, you'll find ND's class doesn't move much at all. It drops one spot on Rivals and doesn't change on Scout.

Here is the breakdown of 23 players who will be suiting up this fall, complete with links back to our original posts on them when they went public with their commitments.

Offense (12)
QB - Andrew Hendrix, Tommy Rees, Luke Massa
RB - Cameron Roberson
WR - Daniel Smith, Bennett Jackson, Tai-ler Jones, Austin Collinsworth
TE - Alex Welch
OL - Christian Lombard, Tate Nichols, Matt James

Defense (9)
DL - Louis Nix, Bruce Heggie, Kona Schwenke
LB - Justin Utupo, Prince Shembo, Kendall Moore
CB - Spencer Boyd, Lo Wood
S - Chris Badger

Athlete (2) - Derek Roback, Danny Spond

Double Up

Every year I like to put the latest class together with last year's class and see if any position has been underrepresented for two straight years. That's usually your first clue where the priority will be in the coming class. Here are the numbers for ND's last two recruiting classes. Note: I left off Danny Spond and Derek Roback because I'm not really sure where to put them yet. The likely case is they split between LB and TE, so you can probably mentally add one to both columns. Then again, they might just wind up at QB.

QB - 3
RB - 3
WR - 6
TE - 3
OL - 6
LS - 1
DL - 4
LB - 7
CB - 3
S - 1
K - 1
P - 1
Safety is the one that really jumps out with only one incoming safety recruit over the past two seasons (and only two over the past three). If you're looking for positions to practice your depth chart engineering, this is the first place to start. The DL numbers are pretty low as well, even if ND is switching to a 3-4. If Tyler Stockton moves to DE, that means only one of those four defensive linemen are a nose tackle (Louis Nix), which is another area of concern for future classes. Offensively, the numbers look pretty balanced although it would have been nice to have the OL count be just a bit higher.

In Early

ND brought in a record number of early enrollees this year with 5 of the 23 recruits well into winter conditioning with the rest of the team at this point. Tommy Rees, Tai-ler Jones, Lo Wood, Spencer Boyd, and Chris Badger mark the first time ND has brought in more than three early enrollees. So far the practice has been a great success with the first class (Aldridge, Stewart, West) all earning their degrees prior to their senior year. Football-wise, it will be a big help to QB and safety depth to have Rees and Badger available for spring practice.


Every year it seems that more and more recruit commit to one school only to change their mind. ND was certainly caught up in the middle of it this year, largely due to the coaching turnover. Four one-time commits changed their mind and wound up signing letters of intent to other programs last week including Chris Martin (Cal), Blake Lueders (Stanford), Toney Hurd, Jr. (Texas A&M), and Giovanni Bernard (North Carolina).

On the flip side, ND had one-third (!) of the class go from being commited to one school to becoming the newest members of the Fighting Irish including Chris Badger (Stanford), Tai-ler Jones (Stanford), Tate Nichols (Stanford), Luke Massa (Cincinnati), Louis Nix (Miami), Kona Schwenke (BYU), Danny Spond (Colorado), and Derek Roback (Toledo). Obviously the change in staff had something to do with this, but it's still a very high number. I'd be pretty surprised if it was this high next year.

Moving Target

I really can't remember a class where so many players had their future position in question. Part of it is a new staff switching offenses and defenses with recruits who committed with Charlie's offense/defense in mind, but part of it Kelly's reputation of taking "big skill" types and moving them around as he sees fit. Danny Spond and Derek Roback might get a shot at QB, but could wind up at tight end, H-back, or linebacker. Outside linebacker Prince Shembo could move to defensive end, or perhaps to an inside LB spot. Ditto Kendall Moore. Justin Utupo is listed as a defensive tackle by recruiting sites, as a linebacker by ND, but looks like a future defensive end. Where will he end up? Daniel Smith and Austin Collinsworth are coming in as receivers, but either one or both could be moved to safety to help out with depth there in the coming years. Finally, Bruce Heggie might be considered a defensive end prospect now, but if he keeps growing he could find himself on the offensive line alongside Lombard, Nichols, and James. It's good to have so much position flexibility, but it also has to make future recruiting a bit more difficult as the coaches don't really know exactly what they have yet and won't have a much better idea until they get the recruits into practice this fall.

Get on up, get on down

Another thing I like to take a look at is where recruits wind up rankings wise from when they publicly commit to ND until Signing Day. Remember that only 1 of 10 recruits from last year rose in Rivals rankings from when went public until they signed on the dotted line. (trivia answer: Zeke Motta). I still don't think there is any conspiracy behind the shifts and there is no useful change for any of the last minute commits, but the info is worth noting nonetheless.

This season, despite what I said about no conspiracies, saw a number of ND players (9) drop again on Rivals. Andrew Hendrix, Bennett Jackson, Tai-ler Jones, Alex Welch, Christian Lombard, Kendall Moore, Lo Wood, Spencer Boyd, and Chris Badger all dropped in the position rankings, although occasionally just by a little amount. There were more risers though this year (5) as Tommy Rees, Cameron Roberson, Louis Nix, Tate Nichols, and Prince Shembo were all bumped up a bit in the time between putting on the ND hat and Signing Day.

The numbers were similar on Scout (11) with Hendrix, Daniel Smith, Jackson, Jones, Austin Collinsworth, Lombard, Justin Utupo, Moore, Boyd, Wood, and Badger dropping while Rees, Roberson, Welch, Nichols, Nix, Shembo, and Bruce Heggie (7) all got a bump up.

Enough with the facts and figures. Time to chew the fat with the fellow BGS members in our annual recruiting roundtable tradition. You all know the drill by now, so feel free to chime in with your own answers in the comment section so we can laugh at your picks in a few years too.

Biggest Get:

Kevin: Louis Nix.

Mike: If Christian Jones had committed to ND, then Kelly's biggest get would have been Tony Alford. Alford had already reeled in Louis Nix when ND didn't have a head coach, and Alford was reportedly responsible for Notre Dame being among Jones's finalists. I'm very happy Kelly decided to retain Alford (and was able to convince Alford to stay). I could make a case for Matt James (dire positional need) and Tai-ler Jones (I think he will be a star in Kelly's system), but ultimately I have to go with my favorite recruit in this class, Louis Nix.

Brian: Louis Nix. Irish fans have grown accustomed to having the rug pulled out from under them in recent years when it comes to top defensive line recruits (see Messrs. McCoy, Trattou, and Hunter), and this year appeared to be no exception, with Chris Martin spontaneously verballing to ND only to slowly back off his commitment in a prolonged soap opera that made "War and Peace" look like a pamphlet in comparison. Enter Nix, who, already rumored to be a silent verbal, decided to pull the trigger and go public after the firing of Charlie Weis, as a symbolic gesture to bring some stability to this recruiting class. Bonus points to Nix for joining the Notre Dame family after decommitting from Miami (FL); though we haven't played the 'Canes in nearly two decades, putting one over on them still tastes delicious.

Pat: I'll be the odd man out and say Matt James only because ND was desperate for offensive tackles in this class. James also added a nice Signing Day surprise for Brian Kelly after rumors that he was leaning towards Ohio State. Landing a Top 100 recruit, even one with as many connections to ND and Kelly as James had, was also a welcome sign as we all are trying to figure out how Kelly will be as a recruiter.

Biggest Miss?

Mike: Tie between Christian Jones and Ego Ferguson, both of whom would have provided much-needed pass-rushing ability in the defensive front seven. It's critical to have a number of pass-rushing threats on defense. Take a look at Michigan to see what I mean. Michigan DE Brandon Graham will likely be a first-round draft choice this spring. Yet he did not record a single sack against the Irish in 2009. Or 2008. Nor did any other Wolverine record a sack in those years. Even if a defense has one dynamic pass-rusher, that guy can be neutralized if the defense doesn't have other threats for the offense to worry about. Outside of Manti Te'o, it's not clear to me who in the last two classes will provide that pass-rushing ability. The quote from Ego's dad in the John Walters article ("We were up until two in the morning last night debating this," Ego Sr. said. "I wanted him to go to Notre Dame but he said, 'Dad, it's too cold'.") is crushing.

Kevin: Anthony Barr.

Pat: Chris Martin. Landing a top-10 caliber player at one of the most important positions in the recruiting class would have been on par with landing Manti Te'o a year earlier. Having Martin commit to ND, the same day as Te'o as it were, and then slowly back away from his "I"ll go to ND even if they are 0-12" comments over the course of the year only made the miss all the more annoying. Kelly mentioned the need to add size and speed at the edges of the front seven on defense and Martin would have been the ideal solution.

Brian: Martin, because of what he would have meant to the defense, and what he would have meant to enterprising internet so-and-so's who would have had a field day with hackneyed Coldplay references. Honorable mention to Seantrel Henderson (a pipe dream, but it would have been nice) and Anthony Barr (son of Tony Brooks, nephew of By God Reggie Brooks, and his mother is a SMC alum, if I'm not mistaken---this simply had to get locked down.)

Class Sleeper?

Pat: Kelly raved about Cameron Roberson during his Signing Day press conference and I certainly agree that Utupo will bring a lot of energy to the class, but I think I'll go with Tate Nichols. For much of the year he was considered a 6'7" 235 pound tight end recruit. When he visited campus at the end of January the future offensive tackle measured in 6'7" 291 pounds. He'll still have a lot to learn about blocking, but he's looking more and more like a guy who will be able to contribute and possible be a starting tackle down the line.

Kevin: Justin Utupo.

Mike: Justin Utupo. If there were an expansion draft and I could only protect five of ND's recruits, Utupo would be one of them.

Brian: This strikes me as a question best answered this year by slapping on a blindfold and throwing a dart, but I'll go ahead and pick Bruce Heggie, who, given the extent to which he was plucked from oblivion by Brian Kelly in the past week, is not so much a sleeper as a coma patient. Basically, he will greatly outpace expectations simply by earning meaningful playing time.

What position helped itself the most/least?

Kevin: Most- offensive line, though I would have liked one more interior lineman. Least - safety It's a shame ND couldn't land Ioane.

Mike: Most - if Utupo counts as a DT, then the Nix-Utupo combo is tough to beat. Least - safety. Only one commit clearly projects at safety (Badger). Wood and Boyd don't appear to have the size to move from corner to safety. Collinsworth may be a safety, but he may be a slot receiver. We knew safety was a big need going in, and it became a bigger need as the 2009 season played out. When we were discussing a prospect list in the summer that included Amerson, Badger, Bailey, Carrington, Parker and Riley it looked like the need would be filled. I like Badger, but he does not fill the need on his own.

Pat: Most - You have to say quarterback here, because out of the 5 options the odds are pretty good that we'll find a quality future starter (baring landing a 5-star type dual-threat in the next class). Least - I'll echo Mike's opinion about safety. We needed numbers and while Badger will be the hard hitter that probably makes a few special teams units as a freshman, we needed more bodies. Over the past three (!) recruiting classes ND only landed two safeties and both of them (Badger, McCarthy) appear to be strong safety types. Obviously someone is going to have to move positions to fill the big hole at free safety. Any top safety recruit out there in the 2011 class should realize he could easily be a four year starter with our lack of depth at the position.

Brian: Most - I'm gonna go with QB, because that was a position desperately in need of depth. Least - the answer is clearly long snapper.

Favorite Recruiting Moment?

Brian: Not ND-related, but I enjoyed the Lane Kiffin Tennessee Recruiting Hostess scandal, and eagerly await its west coast spinoff.

Pat: As I mentioned earlier, having Chris Martin commit only hours after Manti Te'o unexpectedly picked up the ND hat was about as good as it got. Unfortunately, that was the first day of the recruiting year and nothing later on really topped that. Landing Nix in the wake of Charlie's firing was a close second though.

Mike: Two contenders: (1) Louis Nix publicly declaring for ND between when Weis was fired and Kelly was hired and (2) when the Joyce Center fax machine spit out Nix's LOI. I'll go with (2), based on ND's DL recruiting history over the last six years. Let's review:
2005 - Lawrence Wilson decommitted from ND in favor of OSU.
2006 - ND lost out on Lawrence Marsh and Butch Lewis because they were saving a spot for Gerald McCoy.
2007 - Good news! ND managed to finish ahead of the home state Buckeyes for Ben Martin. Bad news! ND finished behind Tennessee; second place in recruiting gets you nothing. Urban Meyer convinced ND commit Justin Trattou that he'd rather be a 4-3 DE at UF than a 3-4 DE at ND. Trattou now plays DT for Florida.
2008 - Omar Hunter gave Notre Dame an early commitment, leading the Irish to stop recruiting Mike Martin and Garrett Goebel. By the time Hunter finally decommitted, Martin and Goebel were firmly committed to other schools and not willing to entertain Irish entreaties.
2009 - At long last, a year without defections or near-misses to get upset about. Sadly, this was because Tyler Stockton was the only DL who seriously considered ND who seemed worth getting exercised about at the time.
2010 - Chris Martin committed to Notre Dame on Signing Day 2010. Three high schools later, he signed his LOI with Cal.
Given all that, I will count no DL before the LOI is in hand.

What do you think so far of Kelly as recruiter?

Kevin: Withholding judgment for now. I don't think I can draw too many positives, though I'm very happy for him and ND that James committed. The losses were somewhat understandable, yet still disappointing. At the same time, this short period likely tells us little to nothing about his from-scratch recruiting philosophy. I'll wait to see how he proceeds over the course of an entire year before drawing any firm conclusions.

Mike: I don't have a strong opinion on Kelly's recruiting at this point. I don't think anyone could have predicted Weis's 2007 and 2008 classes based on his transitional 2005 class.

Brian: On the one hand, Kelly appears to have closed better than Weis and his staff did during the '04-'05 transition. However, he had a better class to work with on the day he was hired than Weis did (Willingham Alert!!!), plus he had the benefit of being on the job full-time whereas Weis was hiring assistants sight unseen over the phone while splitting duties between ND and the Patriots. In short, I'm going to defer to the Magic Eight Ball and say, "Ask again later."

Pat: One positive that I noticed was that the staff really hit the ground running and turned over plenty of rocks looking for additional recruits to fill up the class. Granted, many of them came from the recruiting lists they had at Cincinnati, but there were also some signs of reaching out around the nation (and kudos to Dave Peloquin for his help here). Getting Spond from Colorado, Schwenke from Hawaii, and Heggie from Florida, not to mention close misses with guys like Ioane (Hawaii), Bourbon (Missouri), and Taylor (Florida) gave some early hints that the staff's contacts and focus aren't quite as regional as some feared. Still, falling just short for elite recruits like Ego Ferguson, Jr., Anthony Barr, and Christian Jones still leave their abilities to close on the best of the best in question.