Kelly recruiting football walk-ons to Notre Dame as well

South Bend Tribune

Brian Kelly has charged his staff with finding more than just 85 quality football players. He wants 105 to be enrolled at Notre Dame.

To do so, the Irish head coach has put an emphasis on establishing a stronger program of walk-on athletes. NCAA rules allow the Irish to hand out only 85 football scholarships. The remaining players must be students that can attend the school without financial backing from the football program.

Finding students with the passion to be a part of the football team isn’t the hard part. Former walk-on Rudy Ruettiger’s story is a staple in the tradition of Notre Dame. But finding students with the size and ability to contribute to Notre Dame’s team in a meaningful way isn’t as easy.

“The next 20 guys are what we’re working on, and that’s hard, because to get them in to school here, there’s high, high standards,” Kelly said of the walk-on program at his signing day press conference in February. “Being able to get that next 20 is a challenge, as well. We’re working on getting to 85, which is absolutely crucial, and then the next 20 guys, we’ve got to continue to work in recruiting. We’re working right now trying to get really, really good students into school that have some size so we can lean up against them.”

This week, five freshmen enrolled at Notre Dame as recruited walk-on players. Kelly, who couldn’t speak about the players in specific terms in February, described the importance of the group.

“First of all, three of them have scholarship offers to other schools,” Kelly said. “They’re really good players. Second of all, they have the ability to demonstrate the other team we’re playing at a high level. That is so important that I can have a demo squad that I can put out there that can help us prepare for the team that we’re playing that week. Sometimes it would be better if I just put an orange cone out there. Now I’ve got some guys that can actually help us prepare, and we need to continue to develop that as we move forward.”

Here’s a look at the five players joining the football program as walk-ons:

ATH Grant Hammann, 6-1, 180; Dyersville (Iowa) Beckman Catholic: Hammann passed up multiple scholarship offers to join Notre Dame. He considered his options of Air Force, Army, Northern Iowa, South Dakota State, Yale and Cornell.

Hammann did a little of everything in high school and plans to do the same at Notre Dame. As a senior, Hammann totaled 1,747 yards of offense primarily as a quarterback. He passed for 977 yards, rushed for 589, caught passes for 181 yards and scored 25 touchdowns. He also returned two kickoffs for touchdowns.

A quick player, Hamman will likely end up as a defensive back or wide receiver. He decided to stick with the Irish after visiting for the USC game and an offseason trip in January.

“I had scholarships to other places and that definitely factored into it, but overall it’s a 40-year decision, not just a four-year decision,” Hammann said. “Nothing could be better than going to Notre Dame.”

OL Sam Bush, 6-4, 295; Santa Ana (Calif.) Mater Dei: Bush was closing in on committing to Princeton when he received word of the walk-on opportunity at Notre Dame. He didn’t need much convincing.

“I’ve been a Notre Dame fan since before I can remember,” Bush said. “My entire life I’ve wanted nothing more than to run out onto the field wearing a gold helmet.”

Bush spoke with former walk-on-turned-scholarship linebacker Joe Schmidt, who explained the ins and outs of being a non-scholarship player at Notre Dame. Bush, a two-star prospect according to 247Sports, earned second-team All-Trinity League.

“You have to come in and have something to prove every day so you have to bring your ‘A’ game,” Bush said. “If you do and if you work hard enough, it’s going to pay off. That’s kind of the mentality I’m going in with.”

QB Montgomery VanGorder, 6-1, 190; Buford (Ga.) High: The son of Notre Dame defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, Montgomery VanGorder followed his father to South Bend. It’s a reunion that Montgomery cherished.

“It’s going to be nice having him around,” Montgomery said. “Most kids have to go away from their family. I’ll be able to have dinner with him, ask him for some advice and just hang out with him a little bit more.”

Montgomery passed on opportunities to walk on at Tennessee, Georgia and Central Florida and scholarship offers from Murray State and Eastern Kentucky. At Buford, he split time at quarterback for the two-time Class AAA state champions. He threw for 786 yards and nine touchdowns as a senior.

“I just want to come in and learn the offense,” VanGorder said. “I’ll probably be on scout team. So I’ll try to help out the defense get ready every week. Whatever coach Kelly and (quarterbacks) coach (Matt) LaFleur want me to do.”

WR Keenan Centlivre, 6-6, 216; Fort Wayne (Ind.) Bishop Dwenger: Centlivre ended his recruitment before it really started. Following a camp at Notre Dame last summer, he committed to becoming a walk-on for the Irish.

“They said they had already filled their wide receiver spots for scholarship players but they wanted to have me,” Centlivre said. “I’ve been a Notre Dame fan my whole life. We’ve always had season tickets and went to the games every year. I couldn’t say no, so I accepted right away.”

Centlivre has plenty of ties to Notre Dame. He attended the same high school as former Irish players John Goodman and Tyler Eifert and current defensive tackle Tony Springmann. Centlivre’s great grandfather, ND grad James Keenan, even dedicated a dormitory on Notre Dame’s campus, Keenan Hall, in memory of his late son.

Centlivre’s senior season was cut short in the fourth game when he broke his collarbone. He recovered in time to play basketball and spent the spring preparing for Notre Dame.

OL Ryan Kilander, 6-1, 295; Rancho Santa Margarita (Calif.) Catholic: Kilander was once committed to California as a preferred walk-on before changing his mind. Kilander, who declined an interview request, played left tackle as a senior for a team that passed for 1,835 yards, rushed for 1,551 yards and averaged 22.3 points per game. He was named first-team All-Trinity League.

Massachusetts kicker Justin Yoon commited to Notre Dame on Tuesday, June 24. (Photo provided)