Notebook: Brian Kelly details Notre Dame recruiting philosophy changes and roster odds and ends

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — For the first time since the 2008 recruiting cycle, the Notre Dame football program won’t sign a single prospect from the state of Florida.

That includes a possible late addition or two in the remaining hours of the early 72-hour signing window or in the traditional/late period in February.

Why that’s significant is that the first nine recruiting runs of the Kelly Era produced a total of 29 Florida prospects — 14 percent of the high school players ND signed during the Kelly Era coming into this cycle, and eight more than the next closest state, Ohio (21).

Why it’s not significant is that Georgia is the new Florida, where Kelly is concerned.

“It was an intentional geographical shift,” Kelly said Wednesday during an interview with me on WSBT’s Weekday SportsBeat radio program (96.1 FM,

The Irish picked up three Georgia prospects Wednesday in a class that sits at 21 players overall — linebacker JD Bertrand, safety Kyle Hamilton and cornerback K.J. Wallace. That gives the Irish six in the past two classes, with Georgia safety Derrik Allen, tight end Tommy Tremble and running back C’Bo Flemister all a part of the 2018 class.

Since 2008, Georgia has produced the fourth-most Power 5 signees of any state — behind only Texas, Florida and California, but No. 1 in Power 5 signees per capita.

Before the 2018 and 2019 cycles, the Irish had signed only four scholarship players from Georgia high schools under Kelly, but all four were major contributors — defensive ends Stephon Tuitt and Isaac Rochell, wide receiver TJ Jones and current punter/captain Tyler Newsome.

There was high attrition with the Florida prospects, with 41 percent of them eventually transferring (eight traditional transfers, three grad transfers and one pending transfer).

“We felt the profile fit better in the state of Georgia,” Kelly said of the geographical/philosophical shift. “The kids that we were going to recruit from like schools had the football that we were looking for that was similar to the athlete that was in Florida. So it was an intentional decision on my part.”

And the 2020 class will be more of the same, per Kelly.

“(Georgia) is where we want to be right now,” he said.

The following are some recruiting odds and ends from Kelly as well as some notes that address the current Irish roster:

Linebacker recruiting

The soon-to-be expired eligibility of starting linebackers Drue Tranquill and Te’von Coney leaves plenty of numbers behind when it comes to their successors, but not a clear lineage of who that might be.

Including the players designated as rovers, there are nine players with the potential to return at the three linebackers spots. Add to that four signees Wednesday to push that number to 13, with ND still open to adding one more at that position group.

So are there some obvious answers among those numbers as to who will be the linebacker starters in 2019?

“We went into this year losing two first-round offensive linemen,” Kelly said. “And if you just change the question around and ask me, ‘Do I have really good answers there,’ I’d say no. I don’t really have a great answer for you other than we think we have players we can plug into those positions that will be good players for us.”

Kelly is open to the freshmen competing for those spots, but doesn’t know yet whether that’s realistic.

“It’s so hard to say,” he said. “To play inside, you really have to have an innate ability to just find the ball. And you know that after the first couple of weeks (of practices). They either have this immediate indecision of, ‘I don’t know where it is’ or they just go find it naturally. So you’ve got to go play and figure that out.

Rover recruiting

One of the biggest schematic makeovers Mike Elko concocted when he became defensive coordinator in December of 2016 was the addition of the rover position — a safety/linebacker hybrid to which Elko planned to and did specifically recruit.

Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah was the first to be so designated in recruiting, followed by Shayne Simon.

Then Elko left for Texas A&M after a year, and the rover position evolved — as did the recruiting philosophy that went with it.

“Clark and I changed it,” Kelly said referring to Elko’s successor, Clark Lea.

“We changed it, because it became an additional position that I didn’t think we should recruit. It always seemed to be somebody that we recruited for another position and we moved them there (a la Drue Tranquill in 2017 and Asmar Bilal this season).

“So why are we continuing to go outside of that and recruiting somebody specifically for that position? And then you’re going to tell me in two weeks or three weeks or four weeks he can’t play rover? Well then where can he play?

“So we said, ‘We’re going to recruit safeties. We’re going to recruit linebackers. So that’s kind of where we’re at.”

The skill set that Tranquill brought to the buck linebacker position this season and the large amount of nickel defense the Irish played — with the rover coming off the field in those situations — also factored into the way the rover position, and the development of it, changed.

Nickel and diming

Shaun Crawford remains on track to return from his third season-ending leg injury in four years and to begin competing in the spring as a grad senior to reclaim his former spot as ND’s No. 1 option at the nickel position.

Kelly realizes the Irish need to develop more options there, which isn’t easy given the specialization of the skill set required to cover an elite inside receiver often without safety help.

Among the redshirting freshman cornerbacks DJ Brown and Noah Boykin and Wednesday signees K.J. Wallace and Isaiah Rutherford, Kelly’s sense is that Brown will end up being the one who is the best fit for the nickel position.

And he still thinks it’s the best positional fit for freshman Houston Griffith, who showed up as an outside cornerback, moved to safety and then to nickel when Crawford got hurt. Senior Nick Coleman jumped Griffith on the depth chart late in the season.

“I think that’s where he can excel,” Kelly said. “The game is different there. To me that is not a question of concern as much as experience, and just continue to work that in the spring.”

Safety shift?

Another highly recruited defensive back from the 2018 class may be on the move from the safety position in the spring. And maybe not.

Derrik Allen, who did not see any action during ND’s 12 regular-season games, is 6-2 and 213 pounds, and may grow into a linebacker this winter.

“He’ll have a lot to say with how his January goes,” Kelly said. “A lot of these young players that you didn’t see this year, will get to meet Mr. (Matt) Balis up close and personal in January, so a lot of those decisions will take place over the next couple of months.”

Balis is ND’s director of football performance.

No grad transfers

Even if ND’s tight scholarship numbers eventually loosen up, Kelly doesn’t anticipate jumping into the grad transfer market this winter or spring.

“That was something that we weren’t entertaining at any position at this time,” he said.

Life after Dexter

Who will be Notre Dame’s speed back when Dexter Williams’ redemptive run ends in the College Football Playoff?

It could be Kyren Williams, a 5-foot-9, 200-pounder from Kirkwood, Mo., no relation to Dexter and who is the only running back signee in the 2019 class.

“I would say Kyren is similar in terms of speed, but he’s a different back than Dexter,” Kelly said. “He doesn’t have the size that Dexter has (5-11, 215). Avery (Davis) has that kind of speed. And look, we’re high on our backs — Jafar (Armstrong), Tony (Jones Jr.), our young backs (freshmen C’Bo Flemister and Jahmir Smith).

“What happens is when that guy leaves, it creates space and confidence in that next group to come up, and we think we’ve recruited well. We’re seeing that with some freshmen right now that are really good players.

“It looks like they’ve never played before, and it’s because there is no room at the top for them right now. So once room is created at the top, it always seems to change that way that player begins to play the game. So we’ll see a lot of that in the spring.”

Looking ahead

Both wide receiver Miles Boykin and defensive end Khalid Kareem were pressed this week about the possibility of forgoing their final college seasons to enter the 2019 NFL Draft.

Boykin is a senior with a fifth-year option. Kareem is a true junior who is on pace to graduate in May.

Boykin said he hasn’t made a decision but that he did put his name into the College Advisory Committee, previously called the NFL Draft Advisory Board, for feedback, as did Kareem.

“I'm 100 percent dedicated to this team, and I'm not thinking about anything besides this national championship and this playoff game,” Boykin said. “From that standpoint, it makes it easy for me to put that to the side and not let it distract me. I'll deal with that after the season's over."

Said Kareem, “I will definitely talk to my family and coaches about it, but I'm not really too focused on that right now. I'm focused on Clemson and how this game goes.”

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly shakes hands with 2019 commit Kyle Hamilton following the Notre Dame-Stanford game.