February 03, 2010

Signing Day: Thoughts on Notre Dame's class, Matt James, "oversigning" in the SEC, depth charts, and why I wish more of the RKGs were black guys.

10) Nice finish to the class with Matt James to make this class solid on paper, but it's also a class that got derailed by a coaching change and never lived up to high expectations. At this time last year, we were pulling down Te'o and Chris Martin and looking like we were poised for a monster recruiting class with guys like Henderson and Prater and Barr and others in the mix. And now, we're looking at a class that just doesn't have a whole lot of impact guys and really will need a number of sleepers to come through for this class to leave a positive legacy at ND.

Now, I’m not blaming Kelly or anything. He was in a tough spot, and he really has not had enough time to develop the types of relationships that you need to land the elite guys. I’m withholding all judgments on him until the class of 2011 returns start coming in (which could be happening as soon as this spring). If he can develop a few of those late signees into solid two deep players or special teams contributors, I’ll take it. We haven’t pushed up against the 85 scholarship limit in a long time, so maybe he felt like he could get up toward that number with the expectation that scholarships will open down the road following inevitable transfers and dropouts.

The other thing is that Kelly seems to be coming to ND with a different perspective on how to build a program. He's like the George Costanza of our program doing the opposite of everything that everyone before him has done. Weis came in flashing his Super Bowl rings and talking big about his offensive prowess, and he took that to the recruiting trail. Willingham came in selling....well.....stoicism?? And Davie came in selling this "player's coach" thing like he was going to make ND more modern and all that. And none of it worked because none of those guys really had their finger on the pulse on how to build a staff. Kelly is building this program from the ground up with an emphasis on player development and conditioning and discipline and teamwork.

Interestingly, Kelly's philosophy mirrors that of another coach.....Louis Leo Holtz. Great Lou Somogyi article here about Holtz's first recruiting class and his approach to building a program. (As an aside, is there a ND writer out there than Lou Somogyi?? I have yet to find one. I feel like I'm always learning something when I read his columns, and he's two steps ahead of every other ND guy out there. If you told me that Lou Somogyi was actually Lou Holtz writing under an alias, I wouldn't even bat an eye. Why BGI puts his columns out there for free I will never understand.)

Holtz focused on three things in order:

1) Uplift the players already on the roster
2) Assemble a staff
3) Recruiting

Lou's top priority that year was setting the tone for his program with the guys who were already there. Build the staff, build the program, and the wins and recruits will follow. He took a lot of "RKGs" that year like Pat Eilers and Stan Smagala, and those guys ended up becoming valuable contributors down the road.

Kelly has taken the same approach. He took his time making sure he got the right staff, and the top priority is on changing the minds and bodies of the guys already on our roster. Kelly wants to create a completely different culture at ND. I love the new attire requirements and things like that. It’s sort of a “Broken Windows” theory on building a program. Pay attention to the little things, and the big things will take care of themselves. Attention to detail. Weis never understood the importance of attention to detail, and it showed on the field. Poor discipline, dumb penalties, bad tackling, bad conditioning.

Kelly has changed everything at the Gug, and now has guys spending more time over there to foster team-building. This is what everyone else in college football is doing. If you want to win, your players need to be spending most of their time at the football facility working out and eating at the training table and getting better and building camaraderie. And put the academic stuff in the Gug to keep the guys in the building. Maybe this isn't the ideal "student-athlete" model that Monk Malloy envisioned, but this is how you win games. A culture of winning.

9) Biggest sleepers in my opinion are Utopo and Massa. I really like Utopo, but unfortunately I don't know what position he's going to play. He was probably looking like a 4-3 DE or maybe bulking up as an undersized 4-3 DT, and now I don't know where he fits in. Is he a 3-4 DE or OLB?? Just seems like he's a tweener there, and I wonder if he'll get lost in a 3-4 defense. Some of the Weis recruits that I was excited about are guys that I am less certain about in different schemes.

Just a hunch, but I think the guy who could end up playing QB out of this crew is Luke Massa. Maybe I'm wrong and Tommy Rees emerges as the Zach Collaros of ND football, but I've always felt that Kelly loved Luke Massa. The only reason it took awhile to bring him in was Kelly's reluctance to raid the UC program. Kelly feels like Massa is a perfect fit in his offense. I'm glad we pulled the trigger and brought him in.

8) The other thing I like is that we brought in a lot of size. We have lots of 6'4" and above guys with big frames who could transfer around to different positions. Those guys could be anything from DEs to LBs to OTs to Safeties to TEs to H-backs to quarterbacks. Just a lot of versatility there. I'd rather have a bunch of 6'4-225 guys with room to grow on my roster than a bunch of 285 pound guys who are fat in the middle and won't get a lick better. Or 6', 200 pound LBs who peaked in their junior year of high school.

7) Six Cincinnati-area guys is something that's always going to get me excited. James, Massa, Welch, Collinsworth, Nichols, and Hendrix. It’s an area that is naturally inclined toward ND with a lot of Catholic schools, and it’s a pretty fertile recruiting ground. We should always be a player for the best guys in the Cincy area. Great to see that we got six of them this year.

6) I also like that we have a lot of guys who are coachable and love football and are excited to be at ND. This is an underrated quality. We brought in a lot of late bloomers and underrated types who are going to come to ND with a chip on their shoulder to prove everyone wrong. That type of attitude can lay the foundation for this program. Give me a 2 star who loves the game and loves to hit and will lay it all on the line over some 4 star with an overinflated ego who doesn't love football or is going to ND for the wrong reasons.

At the very least, these guys are going to bust it on special teams. If a few of them crack the two deep, even better.

5) Where are the impact guys?? – James and Nix and Lombard look like building blocks up front, but there are not a lot of major impact guys in this class. It’s the type of class where guys will eventually grow into starters, but I don’t expect to see a lot of these guys on the field in their first year or two.

Think about where we were with this class when Chris Martin committed, and it seemed like every guy in the Rivals top 100 was in play for us. We were talking about Henderson and Prater and Barr and Riley and McCay and all these guys, and we didn't get one of them!! We went from thinking that we'd be getting 5-6 major impact guys to a class where we got one top 100 guy (Nix) and that's it. No five stars, no top 50 guys, no guarantee can't miss superstars like Floyd or Clausen or Te'o.

In the last two years, we've landed one five star guy (Te'o), zero other top 50 guys, and maybe 4-5 other top 100 type guys. After a couple monster hauls in 2007 and 2008, we've fallen off the last couple years in terms of the difference-makers and elite guys. We got no elite QBs, only one real promising WR prospect, no real RB stud to get excited about, no elite corners or safeties, and only 1-2 real horses in the front seven. There's just not much there at the top end.

Here's a sobering stat on the state of college football recruiting these days. There were 26 Rivals five stars this year, and all but 1-2 of them ended up south of the Mason-Dixon line. Of the top 7 classes on Rivals, five of them are SEC schools, and the other two are Texas and Oklahoma. The North-South class divide in college football seems to get wider and wider every single year. The Southern schools are just playing a different sport than the Northern schools for the most part. I know the Big Ten had a nice run in the bowl season this year, but we saw ten years of southern dominance prior to that.

I was down in Naples, Florida over the weekend visiting family, and it was jarring to me to see people out on high school fields playing football or baseball or whatever. I'm used to seeing snow on the ground in the winter, and not seeing people outside until mid-April. 365 days a year of sunshine to be outside down in Florida. This is what we're competing against up north.

You can overcome these things in the north to some degree (as we've seen at OSU and Penn State), but you gotta get the horses. Even though Ohio State has won with a lot of 3 star types, they also have landed the Claretts and Ted Ginns and Beanie Wells and Terrelle Pryors of the world. And we've seen this with the Floyds and Clausens and Te'os.

4) Future depth charts-- I'm looking at the last two classes, and here's what we've got in terms of depth at each position if you project these guys to where they are most likely headed.

DL (4) - Stockton, Nix, Utopo, Schwenke
LB (7) - Moore, Shembo, Motta, Fox, Te'o, Calabrese, Spond
DB (5) - Banks, Collinsworth, Badger, Boyd, Wood
TE (3) - Eifert, Welch, Roback
OL (8) - Watt, Bullard, Golic, Martin, Lombard, Heggie, Nichols, James
QB (3) - Hendrix, Rees, Massa
WR (5) - Evans, Toma, Daniel Smith, Bennett Jackson, Tai-Ler Jones
RB (3) - Riddick, Wood, Roberson
K (3) - Tausch, Turk, Cowart

Presumably, these guys will be the backbone of years 4 and 5 of the Brian Kelly era when this program is hopefully peaking. The concerning part for me is that I'm seeing a lot of potential trouble spots that will need to be supplemented in the next class or two.

--Defensive line looks like a massive concern. We've landed four d-linemen in the last two years, and one of them (Utopo) might end up as a linebacker. I know we've switched to the 3-4, but you still need 6-8 linemen in the stable that you can rotate in and out. Stockton and Nix can probably hold down the fort on the interior, but we need some ends to emerge in these next couple classes. If there's any saving grace, it's that we do have quite a few DL in the class of 2008 with 5th year eligible status. And I was impressed with Stockton from what I saw of him in the spring game last year. No margin for error though.

Biggest problem that I see with getting DL going forward is convincing them that they can thrive in the 3-4 defense. Their role in that unit is to take on blockers. What high school kid who had 15 sacks in his senior year of high school wants to show up and play a 3-4 where he might have 2-3 sacks all year?? It's a tough sell. College kids don't want to play in some defense where the best they can hope to be is "workmanlike." That's why I'm not crazy about the 3-4 defense in general.

Bottom line, we gotta get several d-linemen in this next recruiting class. We cannot go into 2012 and 2013 with 4-5 linemen on the roster. Kelly should be able to offer playing time galore to every guy out there.

--Linebacker looks fine, but I'm concerned that some of those guys are 4-3 and some are more 3-4 oriented. This is where that Weis flipflopping stuff killed us. We've been recruiting back and forth the last couple years between the 3-4 and the 4-3, and now we have a bunch of guys we've recruited who don't seem to fit in as well with the 3-4.

Weis was nothing short of a disaster at ND. I don't know why he still hasn't gotten lumped in with Willingham and Davie at this point. He flipflopped, he grab-bagged, his recruiting was hot and cold, he coddled players and played favorites, and he did absolutely nothing on the development front. This team completely wasted a bunch of talent the last three years. Maybe he wasn't as damaging to the program as Willingham was, but the Charlie Weis era was a complete waste of time.

--Incredibly, for all the hand-wringing, the o-line looks fine as well. We’ve brought in 8 big bodies in the last two classes. James, Martin, Nichols, and maybe even Heggie give us options at tackle, and we have Watt, Bullard, Golic, and Lombard on the interior. Look around college football. Most teams are not bringing in 4 OL a year. I’m glad that’s what we have done. You can’t have enough options up front in my book. Win the game on the lines.

--The secondary took a major step back in these two classes. We're going to be starting two white guys at safety for about the next five years. Depressing. We haven’t landed an impact safety in a long time.

And at corner, we fell off the last couple years from that strong run of Walls, McNeil, Gray, and Blanton. Doesn't really surprise me. Why would a corner have wanted to play for our team under Weis?? Guys like Walls and McNeil completely fell off the map this year.

Kelly needs to get out and find 2-3 impact guys in the secondary next year. I'd like to see one top 50 guy and maybe one other 4 star who turns down a bunch of SEC schools or something. Really want to get a Glenn Earl or David Bruton type stud safety who is all over the field. We can't go into 2012-13 staring at Austin Collinsworth at safety.

--Running back seems ok, but we gotta get another horse next year. Theo Riddick is going to be a stud, but you need depth. Not sure what the plan is for Cierre Wood, and I don't know if Roberson will end up at running back. I know we're running a spread now with more of a one-back emphasis, but it never hurts to have running backs on the roster. If they can't make it at running back, they can play safety. Give me a bunch of running backs who are fast and athletic at safety over a bunch of white guys all day long.

--Even wide receiver isn't blowing me away. I like Jones and Evans (although he completely faded last year), but who knows what we can expect from Toma and Smith and Jackson. We need a gamebreaker. Really wish we had landed Prater or McCay. Gotta go out and get a beast at WR in this next class. A Mike Floyd type. Seems like this DeAnthony Arnett guy might be the one we go hard after next year.

I could see Tai-Ler Jones coming in and competing for playing time as soon as next year though, which would be nice. In fact, if Shaq Evans isn't ready to go in 2010, Jones could steal that coveted Mardy Gilyard spot out from under him.

--Finally, there's quarterback. What can we make of this QB recruiting?? How many of these guys will end up at QB?? My guess is three will start out at QB, and I'd guess that we'll be down to two of these guys by the winter of 2011. One will inevitably transfer, and maybe two.

Two questions on the QB situation:

1) Can any of these guys start someday?? -- I'd certainly say yes just because Kelly has a reputation for developing quarterbacks, and it seems like a couple of these guys are natural fits for a Brian Kelly offense.

If I were to handicap the QBs in terms of starting at ND someday, here's how I'd put the odds right now:

Luke Massa - 3:1
Tommy Rees - 5:1
Andrew Hendrix - 10:1
Danny Spond - 20:1

Just feels like Massa is "the one" out of this group. Then again, Kelly might bring in someone in 2011 that he absolutely loves, and none of these guys ever sees the field. that wouldn't surprise me at all.

2) Are all these QBs going to scare off 2011 recruits?? -- Hmm, that's certainly something to be concerned about, but the elite guys don't get scared by the Luke Massas and Tommy Reeses of the world. They might even see this depth chart as an opportunity to beat out some less-heralded guys and start almost right away at ND.

We saw this in 2006. We brought in Frazer and Jones that year, and landed Clausen before those guys even stepped on campus. It's the nature of the beast. Clausen wasn't scared by competition for the job because he knew he was the best guy.

That's how I view our situation right now. We have a few birds in hand, but an elite QB might view our depth chart as a good thing in terms of being able to win the job soon after arriving on campus. It's a lot less intimidating than what our depth chart looked like a couple years ago with Clausen and Crist in there.

I'd love to see Kelly go out there and bring in a top 10 QB next year. That would really set up an anchor for next year's recruiting class.

3) The elephant in the room on RKGs
-- Lots of discussions on RKGs lately, and I generally understand what Kelly is trying to do here. He's looking at a program that has had an awfully tough time filling out 85 scholarships on the roster, and he seems to be content to bring in bodies and coach some of these late bloomers up into productive players by the time they hit year 4 and 5 in the program. I get the whole "bird in hand" theory here. If we save scholarships and guys transfer and we don't fill out the class in 2011, we could be looking at a very thin roster in years 4 and 5 when Kelly really wants to crank it up with this program. We might be better off getting bodies and developing them than always waiting until next year. That might put an end to our Chicago Cubs-ish mentality.

I also really think Kelly believes in his system of finding undervalued guys. A lot of these coaches at smaller schools have a "Moneyball" type approach to finding players. When in doubt, they take high school quarterbacks and running backs because those guys are typically the best athletes on the team. Think about that for a minute. That was probably the case at your high school. It was for mine as well. Those guys are typically your leaders and communicators as well out on the field. They are a natural fit for safety or linebacker if you bring them in and switch their position. Kelly believes that if you're a football player, you'll be able to play anywhere. That's probably what he sees in Roback and Spond.

And the other thing is finding guys who big frames who might be able to put on 40-50 pounds in college. Guys like Nichols and Heggie. You might see both those guys playing offensive tackle someday. Take a tight end who is light on his feet and convert him into a quicker tackle who is more equipped for the modern spread offenses, and you might really have something.

Kelly closed out this class with a flurry of RKGs. I only have one problem with this move. These guys are ALL WHITE!! Every one of these RKG types. Collinsworth, Massa, Heggie, Nichols, Spond, and Roback. You're telling me you wouldn't be more excited if a few of these guys were super athletic, black QBs who Kelly was planning to switch positions?? If that was the case, I'd be really buying in. At least I'd view them as guys with higher ceilings. A bunch of 6'4, 220 pound fast black guys sounds like a recipe for a fast, athletic defense that flies to the ball. The fact that all these guys are white makes me wonder about their athleticism and whether we should be putting all our eggs in that basket. It just seems like a lot of effort to bring in a bunch of 3 star white guys and try to develop them when you can just save the scholarships for next year and go for better players next year.

Then again, we’ve seen a million no-name high school players come out of nowhere and end up in the NFL. Only difference is that those guys were black!! Guys like Marques Colston and Darren Sharper and James Harrison. A guy like Heggie has maybe a 1% chance of blossoming into an NFL player someday. He didn’t get overlooked because of bad grades or character issues or some other reason (Rivals doesn’t deny that they lower star rankings for those types of guys). He got overlooked because he hasn’t shown any real ability to be a major college player at this point. Mardy Gilyard gets brought up as an RKG type, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Gilyard was a 4 star talent with zero star grades and major issues coming out of high school. Plus, he was undersized. But watch that guy athletically, and it’s not like he’s some overachiever. He has major talent.

I know Kelly has a formula and all for finding players, but there's a reason that the elite teams are loaded with black guys on their defenses. The only team that has really relied almost exclusively on white guys on their defense is Iowa, and I'm not sure I'd call Iowa our "aspirational peer" in terms of what we aspire to be as a program. I'd rather see our defense look more like Texas or USC.

People can deny it all they want, but you can't trot out some whitewash on defense and think you're going to be a championship program

2) How many scholarships are available for 2011??
-- The other thing I'm leery of with these RKGs is that they might eat into Kelly's first big class in 2010. It seems like we will have around 18-20 scholarships to offer in 2010 if guys transfer and Floyd leaves and some 5th years come back. That's not a bad number, but it would have been nice to have all 25 scholarships available next year to hand out when Kelly has had an opportunity to build relationships with high school coaches and really get a feel for what talent is out there nationally. The second class is always a big year for these coaches. They are still in their honeymoon period with a lot of playing time to offer to guys who can come in knowing that they are the new coach's guys. Kelly really needs to hit a home run with this class and bring in a top 10 class (if not top 5).

By offering guys like Heggie and Roback, we might be limiting ourselves to some degree on who we can go after in 2011. We need a QB, 1-2 RBs, 3-4 OL, 3-4 DL, 2-3 LBs, 2-3 DBs, and maybe a couple WRs. And that's before you start talking about tight ends and kickers and random "athlete" recruits. The other thing is that there's a lot of pressure to land a number of sure-thing types next year, but we might also want to reel in some "birds in hand" while we wait for them. Will we have room for all that?? Just seems like Kelly is going to have to thread the needle a little bit.

I don't want to sound all gloom and doom because I do think this is a solid class with a number of building blocks. And I have said all along that Kelly is a great coach who will recruit well when he gets his name out and there and starts selling kids on his vision for this program. But I do think that it’s imperative that we land a big class in 2011 even though we aren't that loaded with scholarships.

It's going to be interesting to watch how this develops this spring. Biggest key for Kelly is to win ballgames in the fall. If he does that, recruiting will take off and probably set us up for a great 3 year run on the trail in 2011-13.

1) National thoughts:

--Amazing what we’re seeing in the SEC right now on the recruiting trail. The top ten on Rivals is like a who’s who of the SEC. That league just gets stronger and stronger every year.

The other interesting story out of the SEC is that the “oversigning” stuff that you see out of these SEC schools is actually starting to create a little backlash from the rest of college football. These SEC schools all sign 27-30 guys (even though they are only allowed 25) knowing that not all of them will qualify and that they can stash the non-qualifiers in prep schools or JUCOs until they get academically eligible. And when these guys do get eligible, they run off underachievers by nudging them to transfer or even by not renewing their scholarships. The whole thing is a monster sham. Everyone else is playing by the 25-85 scholarship rules, and you have SEC teams signing 120 guys in four year periods. They’ve created these all-star teams by oversigning, weeding out bad performers, and replenishing with prep school guys.

The SEC is not even pretending to be anything other than a football factory. I don’t necessarily have a problem with it, but it’s probably an unfair advantage over everyone else in college football. A school like ND is going to honor a scholarship for four years if you want to stay. If Heggie never sees the field, he’s not going to get run off to open up room for someone else (unless he transfers on his own of course). That’s why it’s so important for ND to hit on as many high school recruits as possible. We don’t take JUCOs or non-qualifiers or oversign with the expectation that guys won’t make it. ND plays by the rules, but it puts us at a disadvantage.

--Amazing how strong USC closes. Ed Orgeron is a recruiting machine.

--Pretty strong effort by Jimbo Fisher in his first year. Seems like a lot of guys went to the Noles late in the process. Should be interesting to see what FSU does this year.

--Of the future ND opponents, Michigan and Stanford had top 25 classes, and Michigan State and Pitt had top 30ish classes. Nothing too groundbreaking there. It will be interesting to see if Devin Gardner gets playing time this year up in Ann Arbor.

--Oh, and future ND opponent Oklahoma has the #6 class on Rivals. That will be a tough series, so hopefully Kelly has the Irish rolling by then.

--Finally, I thought this was fascinating. The #84 ranked class this year?? Wisconsin. And I'd be willing to bet that Wisky will be just fine going forward. Just goes to show that recruiting is a very inexact science, and that some programs have a better feel for what types of players they need to win games. Wisky will turn all those 2 and 3 star linemen into players. They always do.


John1985 said...

Why all of the concern between white and black and whatever color? If a guy runs sub 4.5, it really doesn't matter what color he is. America Somoa produces a number of great players as a percentage of its population, and they aren't white or black. As a whole, your analysis is pretty good. I don't agree with every opinion, but it seems pretty thorough. It's a shame that you have drag race into the equation. It's not productive and irrelevant.

Kevin said...

John - I don't speak for this blog, but I've posted responses to similar comments before, and I'll reiterate. If your own two eyes can't tell you that a majority of skill position and defensive players in the NFL are black, then you aren't looking. Whites are 80% and blacks 12-15% of the U.S. population, and as a whole, whites have better access to quality high school coaching and facilities. Despite these facts, the percentages of NFL players are virtually reversed, with blacks comprising around 75-80%. It is completely nonsensical that blacks would consitute a majority in the NFL if they weren't generally better at football. I have no explanation as to why they are better, I just know they are. If they are better, I would like more blacks on my team than whites. No different than preferring tall people in basketball. It's not racist, not demeaning, simply a statement of fact. There are times to be sensitive to racial issues, and there are not. This is not one of those times.

Anonymous said...

Your racial facts on the NFL are right on - the problem is this isn't the NFL and RKGs are brought in to help win college games and improve the program (disciple & moral)not to become NFL prospects. Most RKGs will be special teamers or Bobby Burger-types or at best David Bruton-types.
With blacks 75% of the population and 75% of the prison population should cops play the odds and go after the black guy or should they get the facts on each individual case.

Anonymous said...

It's also boring, and whether you mean it or not, slightly distasteful, if only slightly. It's not racist, it's just depressing. Not depressing because ND doesn't have enough athletic black bucks patrolling our defensive backfield, just sort of... depressing.

Ok, we get it. We need black DBs, and apparently blacks at every position, if we really want to compete with the big dogs. Great. Duly noted. And I for one wouldn't disagree with that notion, I suppose.

There's just something about the whole realist-sports fan perspective of the ultra-crucial nature of the black athlete that is a bit uninspiring to be reminded of every time a bunch of white guys are on the same team. It's nothing against black athletes at all, it's more against white fans craving black athletes for their favorite teams so unabashedly. It's just sort of on the crass side, IMO.

But whatever, it is what it is. And Collinsworth is going to play WR anyway. But hell, it's not like ND hasn't done so bad with McCarthy and Zibby back there. Or maybe we have. Both are going to have NFL careers, aren't they? BK will be different.

Another very good, readable blog, even if I don't agree. But then again, I'm a sentimentalist and am probably wrong on most counts.

INCITEmarsh/Mike Marchand '01 said...

Rather than lament that ND isn't getting black athletes, it would be wise to remember that ND isn't exactly attractive to your average black recruit, being a fairly undiverse campus.