A possible grad transfer and a united front add to Brian Kelly's signing day exuberance

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The heel click on Brian Kelly’s victory dance Wednesday is that the perceptual roll the Notre Dame head football coach so fiercely needed probably isn’t over.

Shortly after recruit No. 21 — Washington D.C., defensive end Kofi Wardlow — gave him a trifecta of National Signing Day mojo, Kelly revealed addition No. 22 could soon be coming from the grad-transfer market.

“We’ve put a scholarship aside,” Kelly said on Wednesday night’s Weekday SportsBeat radio show on WSBT. “We think we’re in a very good position with one right now that we’ll be able to close on within the next couple of weeks.”

Kelly declined to identify precisely what position that player might line up as, but eliminated him being an offensive or defensive lineman, tight end or linebacker.

Even if that momentum goes south, Kelly, recruiting coordinator Mike Elston and a staff that includes six assistants who weren’t on the payroll eight weeks ago were able to add six prospects in the final six days of the 2017 recruiting cycle, including a Kelly Era-high three on signing day itself.

That after the class had atrophied to 15, when cornerbacks Paulson Adebo and Elijah Hicks parachuted out on consecutive days, Jan. 9 and 10, bringing the decommitment tally for the cycle to six — a year after sustaining zero.

Five of the six late additions had to be flipped from other classes. Defensive lineman Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, who will be the 10th player ever from the state of Hawaii to earn a letter in football at ND, was the lone uncommitted player in the group.

It wasn’t just that Notre Dame finished with the 13th-ranked class nationally — the exact same ranking as last year’s talent haul, following a New Year’s Six bowl appearance — the Irish class filled needs at all positions but cornerback.

The not-so-obvious stroke of benevolence in helping Kelly draw closer to turning the page on the oppressive 4-8 narrative is how committed his athletic director, Jack Swarbrick, and president, Rev. John I. Jenkins, were to the recruiting process.

“With the kind of season we had, the first question out of everybody (was), ‘How long is coach Kelly here? Is this his last year? What kind of year does he have to have (in 2017)?’ ” Kelly said Wednesday of Swarbrick’s role.

“(Swarbrick) assured them there's no problems with the football program. ‘This is a program that is on solid ground. It was not the year that anybody wanted, (but) we're certainly not going to come in here and invest in all the (new) coaches we've invested in because we think we're in a short-term situation.

“'We're in a great situation here. We're going to build on the young players that we played last year, and we're going to return Notre Dame to where it should be.’ Again, I think that's the kind of support that we got.”

Jenkins specifically went out of his way to meet with Tagovailoa-Amosa and his parents during a midweek recruiting visit last week.

“(Usually), if he’s on campus, he’ll get involved,” Kelly said of Jenkins. “But in this one, he felt a very close, personal investment in that we had such a great feeling with (former Hawaii players) Manti (Te’o) and then Kona Schwenke’s family and what they brought culturally to our university, he wanted to be involved in it.”

Jenkins was also involved in the hiring of all six new assistant coaches and director of football performance Matt Balis.

“That was unprecedented,” Kelly said. “He hadn’t done that before. He did it with just coordinators in the past. But he did it with every one of them (this time).

“This was an investment from the top down. Everybody was on board with what we were doing. And it was a plan that was laid out by Jack and I, and it came to fruition in a really short period of time.”

The following are some of the subjects Kelly also touched on, both recruiting-related and beyond:

Aloha again, Hawaii

Kelly inherited a pair of Hawaii natives in All-America linebacker Te’o and Robby Toma when he took the ND job. In his first recruiting cycle as Irish head coach (2010), Kelly was able to land defensive lineman Kona Schwenke from Hauula but lost out on safety Jeremy Ioane, a former high school teammate of Te’o and Toma who opted for Boise State.

And then the Irish lost interest in 4,300-mile recruiting junkets to Oahu all together.

The signing of Tagovailoa-Amosa Wednesday and the return of assistant Brian Polian to Notre Dame have reopened Kelly’s interest in the nation’s southernmost and westernmost state.

Polian did most of the legwork in terms of home visits with five-star prospect Te’o and continued to recruit that state in his four seasons as head coach at Nevada (2013-16).

“You can’t hold him back,” Kelly said of Polian. “I mean, he doesn’t mind sitting in the middle seat all the way to Hawaii. He wants to recruit out in Hawaii. You have to have a commitment in terms of wanting to get out there.”

Kelly also feels comfortable Polian — ND’s new designated West Coast recruiter — will get enough help in California from new receivers coach and USC grad DelVaughn Alexander that he can free up Polian for some Hawaii trips.

“We’ll rekindle that relationship and begin to look at a recruit from that area, possibly yearly,” Kelly said.

Rover revelations

Newly signed Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, a flipped Virginia commit, becomes the first player recruited specifically to play new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s “rover” position, a linebacker/safety hybrid that replaces a traditional linebacker.

Among the players on the existing roster, Kelly and Elko both said Wednesday that junior safety Drue Tranquill is the most likely player to end up as the starter at that position. Freshman safeties D.J. Morgan and Spencer Perry will also get an extended audition there when the Irish open spring practice March 8.

“D.J. and Spencer find themselves in a really good positon with the creation of this position,” Kelly said.

Ready to pitch in

Kelly’s on-again, off-again aversion to his football players participating in a second sport at ND has softened again. First it was wide receiver Torii Hunter Jr. to baseball, and this winter it’s been freshman cornerback Troy Pride Jr., running the sprints in indoor track.

Next spring it’s very likely to be Wednesday signee and tight end Cole Kmet latching on with the ND baseball team once football spring practice has concluded in 2018. Kmet, a 6-foot-5, 238-pound left-handed pitcher/outfielder has reportedly touched 92 mph with his fastball.

He’s one of two tight ends ND signed in the 2017 class, joining early enrollee Brock Wright.

“(Kmet) can go in the bullpen, and then they’ll stretch him out later,” Kelly said. “I mean, we want to win baseball games too. He’s a unique kid. Mature physically. There can’t be two better looking kids that can run, catch block.

“We’re blessed. I mean, if I could find a way to put four tight ends on the field, I’m going to figure it out. Because we’ve got those two guys and Durham Smythe, who looks like a million dollars now, and Alizé Jones. We’re in pretty good shape there.”


• Kelly confirmed Smythe and offensive linemen Mike McGlinchey and Hunter Bivin would be the only fifth-year candidates coming back for 2017. Tight end Jacob Matuska, Kelly said, is finished with football and won’t pursue a grad transfer.

• Among ND players rehabbing from surgery, cornerback Shaun Crawford appears way ahead of schedule in coming back from a torn Achilles tendon.

“An incredible healer,” Kelly said of the projected starter. “He’s moving around to the point where we won’t have him in contact drills, but we will have him in individual drills in spring ball.”

• Kelly deemed the sleeper in the recruiting class to be three-star wide receiver Michael Young. He said the Destrehan, La., product helped his hand-eye coordination this offseason by flipping playing cards and catching them.

“He’s a track guy,” Kelly said, “but he’s got some unique traits that will really translate for us on the football field.”

• Former Irish safety Mykelti Williams, who played this past season at Iowa Western Community College, will transfer to Syracuse.

• One-time ND wide receiver target Jamire Calvin verbally committed to Oregon State on Jan. 7, then flipped to Nebraska, on National Signing Day ended up in Washington State’s class.

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly welcomed athletic director Jack Swarbrick's heavy involvement in the recruiting process. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)