Notre Dame

Seven Notre Dame players who could see more time after 1-3 start

Seven Notre Dame players who could see more time after 1-3 start

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Brian Kelly has publicly vowed in the past to play plenty of players who ultimately saw sparing, or no, snaps during the season. But those claims have come during winning seasons in which at the least Notre Dame was all but guaranteed to reach a bowl game or, at the best, was a championship contender. 

So this year is different, with the Irish off to a 1-3 start and in desperate need of a spark on both sides of the ball. 

“You're going to see a lot more players playing,” Kelly said when specifically asked about the defense. “There is going to be some depth, some camaraderie. We need to get that morale up on defense, and we will do that with a lot more players involved in what we're doing on a day-to-day basis.”

While most of the players receiving increased volume are on Greg Hudson’s defense, there are a few on the offense that are in a position to play more, too. Kelly wouldn’t go into direct specifics about who would be the beneficiary of the team’s renewed push for better depth, but there are seven guys who can probably be earmarked for more snaps going forward:

1. RB Dexter Williams

Williams shed two unblocked tacklers on his way to a 13-yard touchdown against Duke and was praised after the game as “the only one” that Kelly saw play with emotion and fire in that embarrassing 38-35 loss. 

Kelly pointed to Williams only playing 10 snaps against Duke against fellow sophomore Josh Adams’ 54, saying that “the cliff for me in terms of the number of reps that we're getting is too stark.” While Adams won’t see a significant reduction in snaps, expect Williams — perhaps at the expense of redshirt junior Tarean Folston, who’s only averaging 3.9 yards per carry — to see an uptick in use starting this weekend against Syracuse. 

2. DE Jay Hayes

Hayes began taking first-team reps at weakside defensive end near the end of spring practice and held on to those through preseason camp until he suffered a high ankle sprain that sidelined him for a few weeks. Kelly said Sunday Hayes is fully healthy, but he hasn’t seen many snaps this year, with most of those going to junior Andrew Trumbetti.

“Jay Hayes had zero reps (vs. Duke),” Kelly said. “That can't happen.”

The 6-foot-3, 285 pound former four-star recruit could, at the least, probably help Notre Dame’s rushing defense. At the best, if he splits time with Trumbetti and gives Notre Dame 30-40 max-effort reps a game, he could grow into a factor in the team’s lagging pass rush. 

3. LB Asmar Bilal

The redshirt freshman turned some heads during preseason camp with his outstanding speed trait, but hasn’t played much through Notre Dame’s first four games. With Kelly pointing to the guy ahead of Bilal on the Will linebacker depth chart — sophomore Te’von Coney — playing too much against Duke, perhaps Bilal (along with junior Greer Martini) has an opening to play more. 

4. CB Donte Vaughn

Vaughn had an impressive interception in the end zone against Duke after not playing against Michigan State or Texas. Notre Dame needs its cornerbacks — whether it’s Cole Luke, Nick Coleman, Julian Love and/or Vaughn — to make plays in the absence of Shaun Crawford, Nick Watkins and Devin Butler. In picking that pass off against Duke, Vaughn likely earned himself some more snaps, and he could continue to carve out a larger role with more plays like that. 

5. S Jalen Elliott

Kelly pointed to Devin Studstill playing 67 snaps against Duke — and on one of his final plays, he missed a tackle that wound up allowing a 64-yard game-tying touchdown. Elliott, a four-star member of Notre Dame’s 2016 recruiting class, is listed as Studstill’s backup on Notre Dame’s depth chart, so he’ll probably play a little bit more to aid in that quality-over-quantity concept. 

6. DE Daelin Hayes

Hayes broke up a pass against Michigan State, but his five-star talent is best utilized as a pass rusher. Notre Dame needs to figure out a way to get Hayes on the field and in a position where he can be triggered toward the quarterback on passing downs. Maybe streamlining the defense and simplifying things will make it easier for Hayes to get on the field — and into the backfield — with more frequency.  

7. WR Chase Claypool

After Claypool impressed with a 33-yard reception against Michigan State (and a near-grab of a Hail Mary to end the first half), Kelly said he and his coaching staff were looking at ways to get the Abbotsford, British Columbia native on the field. Claypool mostly saw special teams work against Duke — an area in which he’s done well, it should be noted — though he could get some more plays on offense going forward as Kelly aims to avoid over-working some of Notre Dame’s other underclassmen. It's also worth noting Claypool lined up as a tight end when Notre Dame had to air things out during its furious and futile comeback against the Spartans. 

This isn’t an exhaustive list, and practice for Syracuse week — which began Tuesday — will determine plenty about who emerges on Saturday at MetLife Stadium. But Kelly made it clear Notre Dame needs to get more players on the field to pull out of its tailspin.

“I'm not saying everybody's gotta play and we all gotta go have a big, group hug at the end of practice,” Kelly said. “It's merit based, too. But there are too many good football players that haven't been playing, in my estimation, and I'm making the calls on both sides here and they gotta get in the game.”

Is Brian Kelly out at Notre Dame if new QB Brandon Wimbush’s rocket arm doesn’t deliver for Irish in 2017?

Is Brian Kelly out at Notre Dame if new QB Brandon Wimbush’s rocket arm doesn’t deliver for Irish in 2017?

A 4-8 season in 2016 has put Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly firmly on the hot seat as he heads into his eighth season with the Fighting Irish.

In response to a tumultuous season, Kelly made major changes to his staff this past offseason by hiring new coordinators on both sides of the ball.

Mike Elko, who previously led Wake Forest to an FBS Top-40 total defense ranking, was hired by Kelly to be Notre Dame's defensive coordinator, and Chip Long — former offensive coordinator at Memphis — will now be in charge of the Fighting Irish offense.

However, the biggest change and arguably the No. 1 factor in Kelly's long-term future in South Bend, will be the person under center in 2017.

Barring an unforeseen circumstance, junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush — a former Rivals four-star recruit — will lead Notre Dame out of the tunnel in Week 1 vs. Temple.

Wimbush has only thrown five passes during his time at Notre Dame, but showed what kind of talent he has with a 58-yard rushing touchdown as a freshman in 2015.

Wimbush was one of the focal points of a recent Rivals story regarding quarterbacks who will be facing pressure in 2017

Earlier this week, Rivals Recruiting Director Mike Farrell gave his scouting report on the Notre Dame quarterback.


I’m a big fan of Wimbush but that hasn’t always been the case. It’s not that I didn’t like him when I first scouted him before his high school career took off, but what I saw way back when was a kid who had a rocket arm and zero touch. But throughout his high school career he improved every time I saw him, showed much more than just a strong arm and flashed impressive poise for his age.

I’ve seen very limited action when it comes to Wimbush in college as he hasn’t played often and his spring game performance had ups and downs, but I believe in this kid’s ability. He can extend the play, has that great arm and just needs to get comfortable in the Notre Dame offense and make sure he doesn’t try to use that cannon to fit the ball into tight spots. I can see him having some growing pains this season, but as he gets more comfortable and learns to take what the defense gives him while keeping defenses off balance with his athletic ability, I think he’ll finish strong.

Will Wimbush's rocket arm be enough to save Kelly from the hot seat?

That's still to be determined.

Two views of Notre Dame's 2017 signing day class

Two views of Notre Dame's 2017 signing day class

After a handful of late additions sent in their national letters of intent to the Guglielmino Athletics Complex, Notre Dame on Wednesday announced its 21-player recruiting class of 2017. There are a couple of ways to view the end of what was a volatile recruiting period for the Irish:

The glass-half-full take:

Two and a half months after wrapping up an embarrassing 4-8 season, Notre Dame's 2017 recruiting class ranks 11th by 247 Sports, 13th by Rivals, 13th by Scout and 16th by ESPN. In fact, Notre Dame actually ranks higher this year in 247 Sports' composite rankings (11th) than it did in 2016 (15th), when the Irish were coming off a 10-win season and a Fiesta Bowl berth. 

Nearly scraping together a top-10 class after going 4-8 and losing four assistant coaches in Mike Sanford, Mike Denbrock, Scott Booker and Keith Gilmore is an impressive feat (Greg Hudson was only an interim defensive coordinator, and Brian VanGorder was far from a reliable recruiter). Plenty of kudos should be extended the way of recruiting coordinator/defensive line coach Mike Elston for heading up the program's efforts to keep what began as a pretty strong class from disintegrating. 

Additionally, coach Brian Kelly pointed to the work of the 15 verbally-committed players who stuck with their pledges even as Notre Dame sustained a string of confounding losses and significant coaching turnover. 

"We couldn't be where we are today unless we had 15 student-athletes that were committed to Notre Dame from the start to the finish," Kelly said. "Really during a very difficult season, this group of 15 really had to endure the things that would occur out there in recruiting during a very difficult season. Other schools reminding them about a very difficult season that we had. Then there was them sticking together because of why they wanted to come to Notre Dame."

Five of those players enrolled early — tight end Brock Wright, offensive linemen Robert Gainsay and Aaron Banks, running back C.J. Holmes and safety Isaiah Robertson, all of whom 247 sports rated as four-star recruits — and guys like tight end Cole Kmet, quarterback Avery Davis and offensive linemen Joshua Lugg never wavered, too. 

That those players stuck together helped Notre Dame maintain a good base after the NCAA-mandated dead period lifted after the College Football Playoff title game last month, and new coaches Brian Polian, Mike Elko, Clark Lea, Chip Long and DelVaughn Alexander were able to bring in six late additions to the class: safety Jordan Genmark Heath, wide receiver Jafar Armstrong, kicker Jonathan Doerer, defensive lineman Myron Tagovailoa, linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and defensive lineman Kofi Wardlow. 

Armstrong, Tagovailoa and Wardlow all filled red-line positions of need, while adding more players to increase the pool of talent available to Elko is hardly a bad thing. 

But the optimistic viewpoint here is the deck was stacked against Notre Dame in recruiting, and they actually turned out a pretty good hand thanks to a complete effort from everyone in the athletic department. 

"Every weekend, Jack Swarbrick, our athletic director, met with our recruits," Kelly said. "That's unusual. I don't think that happens everywhere that your athletic director makes himself able to meet with recruits.

"In a lot of instances he had to be there to support our football program and talk to recruits about where this program is and where it's going. There are questions when a family comes on campus. He reminded them about the investment we were making in staff and what we were doing for the present and for the future. So having Jack's involvement in this was absolutely crucial to get to where we are."

Now, for the glass-half-empty take:

Notre Dame had six players decommit, five of whom were at positions of need (defensive line, cornerback, wide receiver). Only four-star defensive end Robert Beal jumped ship before Notre Dame's fall tailspin was underway, and four of those six decommitting players were four-star recruits. 

Notre Dame wound up replacing them with six late commitments, but five of those late-deciding players were three-star recruits and one (Doerner) was a two-star player. That's a good recipe for slipping from having a top-10 class to one on the outside looking in. 

A common lament among fans is that Notre Dame has struggled to sign five-star recruits lately, and while it's true the Irish haven't done that since 2013 — Jaylon Smith and Max Redfield, as rated by 247 Sports — that's not as big an issue as it may seem. Just look at the disparity in college success between Smith and Redfield as a front-and-center example of how a five-star rating doesn't guarantee success in college. Signing more four/five-star recruits than two/three-star ones is far more important (more on that in a bit). 

But the bigger issue with Notre Dame's 2017 class perhaps has more to do with its 2016 class. Notre Dame lost ace recruiters Tony Alford and Kerry Cooks after the 2014 season and re-worked its entire recruiting operation in response, which led to little oomph in a 2016 class that, based on the prior season, should've been much better than it was. 

Last year's group could ultimately build a legacy as a less-heralded crop of recruits that went on to success — the strong debuts of 247 Sports three-stars in cornerback Julian Love and wide receiver Kevin Stepherson were good starts — but there's a long way to go there. 

If 2016 was supposed to be a more transitional recruiting class, though, then 2017 represents a massive missed opportunity. Going 4-8 with all the right recruiting machinations in place is a glaring shortcoming for the future of the program — even a nine-win season could've allowed Notre Dame to hang on to some of those four-star players it lost and earn a top-10 class ranking. 

More importantly than a top-10 class, though, is pulling in more four- and five-star recruits than two and-three star ones. Notre Dame didn't do that in 2017 (10 four-star recruits out of 21) or 2016 (10 four-star recruits out of 23) after hitting that benchmark each of the last three recruiting cycles. That's a worrying trend given the correlation between signing a majority of four- and five-star recruits and winning a championship

The last two recruiting cycles have been, in that context, significant disappointment. While strong classes in 2014 and 2015 could prop up a playoff run as soon as this fall, the future of the program may not be on solid footing even if the Irish engineer a major turnaround in 2017. Next year's class likely will be critical to the long-term success of the program under Kelly, presuming he's still around to usher in the next group of recruits in February of 2018.