Notre Dame Football Mailbag: Irish and the five-star dynamic; spring personnel speculation

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

The latest Notre Dame Football Not-So-Live Chat/Mailbag is a blend of the topical and ponderous when it comes to the questions.

I received much more of the latter, and saved some of them, so I could maintain the balance.

By far the most common theme touched on in the questions received was Notre Dame and its perceived inability to land five-star recruits with some regularity. It’s such a deep topic with a lot of tentacles that I think the best way to address it is in story form sometime this spring.

In the meantime, I provided a small sampling on the topic to get us started down that road.

There’s enough really good questions coming that we’ll move into weekly mode now and continue to do so through at least mid-April. Keep ’em coming.

Rob from Manalapan, N.J.: Why doesn’t the “Four for 40” impact of an ND education resonate with more five-star recruits?

My assumption is that they believe that they will become rich playing in the NFL, and therefore don’t need the degree, but I would like to hear your perspective.

Eric Hansen: The very oversimplified answer is that there is not a universal mindset with five-star recruits. But Four for 40 isn’t for everybody, and that applies to zero-star recruits as well.

The assumption is that the academic demands of Notre Dame are the prevailing reason Notre Dame doesn’t have more Rivals five-stars on the roster than Daelin Hayes or more 247Sports five-stars than Tommy Kraemer and incoming freshman safety Kyle Hamilton.

There are other significant factors: Climate, distance from home, style of play, fit, etc.

My bottom line is this: Notre Dame needs more difference-makers with elite speed at the running back and wide receiver positions, whether they be five-star or four-star prospects.

As far as meeting the academic requirements of Notre Dame, I asked two national recruiting analysts on average what percentage of five-star prospects the Irish could get through their admissions process.

One said a little more than half. The other said most of them.

So there’s still a lot left to unpack here.

Tom from Kennesaw, Ga.: Hi Eric, Hope you are surviving the frigid winter in South Bend.

With Brian Kelly's philosophy of the best players play, and getting the best players on the field, do you see a scenario of Asmar Bilal going to weakside linebacker and Shayne Simon taking over at rover, with Bo Bauer and Jack Lamb battling for the starting spot at middle linebacker? Thanks for answering everyone's questions that you can. Go Irish!!!

Eric Hansen: Tom, that’s as likely a scenario as any coming out of spring. But going into it, I think the coaching staff wants to look at more combinations and options. Senior-to-be Jonathan Jones, for instance, will get a look in the middle. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, coming off an injury, is intriguing at rover. Jordan Genmark Heath was good enough to be No. 2 on the depth chart at buck (weakside) linebacker all of last season. What can he offer? Be open to being surprised and to having some of these positional battles carry over into August.

Mark from Orange County: Hi Eric, I am not a fan of this format change (from the live chat), but I'll take what I can get, as I respect your insights and knowledge. Any C.J. Prosise-like player to step up as a running back next season? Looking forward to your spring practice coverage.

Eric Hansen: Mark, first, thanks for your feedback on the format. As we explore options that make sense financially and logistically, I didn’t want to lose the connection to a part of our coverage that I enjoy thoroughly and that sparks story ideas for me beyond these interactions. In so many ways, I see this as valuable.

This — the mailbag format — was the best option I could come up with while treading water. There are some who prefer it. Maybe the ultimate format will look something like a blend of these mailbags mixed in with an occasional Facebook Live session. I’m open to suggestions.

To your question, I don’t see Brian Kelly pulling from another position group to add to the six running backs in camp unless there is a run of injuries. Avery Davis, who was kind of a flavor-of-the-week guy last spring as a hybrid wide receiver/running back experiment, is someone Kelly is still entertaining as a player who could surprise the outside world as a full-time running back. What kind of winter Davis had with director of football performance Matt Balis will go a long way toward how realistic that notion becomes this spring.

Kaz from Grand Rapids, Mich.: Immediately after the bowl games ended there was a rush of players — especially quarterbacks — transferring to other schools. And it seems like the NCAA generally granted their request to play immediately and not wait a year. I expect this trend to continue and become more widespread. Is ND concerned about this development, or do they view it as an opportunity to open up a roster spot? Personally, I don't like it, but there is so much movement of coaches that the players probably say, "Why not me?”

Eric Hansen: Kaz, there are a couple of layers here that I’ll put on the back burner — whether we’re actually headed to full-blown free agency of sorts in college football and equating coaching movement with player movement. Those are deeper, complex topics for another day.

I’ll answer the gist of your question, which I take to be: Would Notre Dame be alarmed IF the transfer process became less restrictive for the players? Without having a chance to run this by Brian Kelly, my sense is that he and many other coaches would be alarmed by this.

It’s very rare for Notre Dame to take a traditional transfer (Amir Carlisle, Alohi Gilman) and not really that common to take grad transfers. Should there be a run of transfers outward that takes ND well below the 85-scholarship limit, the Irish have fewer microwaveable options, if you will, to address that.

David from Washington, D.C.: I'm curious what people around the Gug think about highly anticipated prospects who have not been able to make it onto the field, including Darnell Ewell and Derrik Allen, who many projected to be playing significant snaps as freshmen. Is there an expectation that they will make an impact in 2019? Thanks.

Eric Hansen: It’s difficult to paint the players who fit into that category with one broad brush, even if I narrowed it down to the two you mentioned.

Twenty of the 27 players in last year’s freshman class redshirted, including some who didn’t play at all. When that happens on a 12-1 team that made the playoff, there really aren’t any red flags. If that happened on a 4-8 team, that might be a different take.

Remember, there have been star players at ND in the Kelly Era (and before) who redshirted, and not just at the positions you’d expect a redshirt (offensive line, quarterback). Harrison Smith redshirted. Quenton Nelson, Mike McGlinchey, Zack Martin, Nick Martin, DeShone Kizer, Ronnie Stanley, C.J. Prosise, Louis Nix, Chris Watt and Tyler Eifert also did. And the thing they have in common?

They all were selected in the first three rounds of the NFL Draft.

Let’s focus on the two players you mentioned, who have very different scenarios facing them. Ewell, a junior-to-be, struggled with instincts and technique at defensive line, then moved to offensive guard in the hopes of a reinvention. He may have to move back to defensive line this spring because of sheer numbers.

If he evolves into an eventual starter at either position group, it will be a great story. It is not a probability, however.

There was confidence from the coaching staff after the season that Allen, a sophomore-to-be, could make headway into the two-deeps this spring if he committed himself to getting leaner in winter workouts. If that didn’t happen, then Brian Kelly would probably funnel him into the rover/linebacker mix, which may be like starting over for him.

He’s an intriguing player to watch this spring, because of his potential and that dynamic.

Greg B. from Chicago: Hi Eric. Notre Dame will host the New Mexico Lobos this fall, which will be the first meeting between the teams. Obviously, the big storyline here is that former Irish coach Bob Davie leads the Lobos. But why would Notre Dame schedule a team like New Mexico? It seems very odd. Is it because of the connection with Bob Davie or some other reason? Thanks. I enjoy your mailbag and try to stay warm!

Eric Hansen: Thanks, Greg. First, Notre Dame has to have an opponent or two each year that’s willing to play at Notre Dame Stadium without getting a return trip to their own stadium from the Irish (or do a 2-for-1). That balances the schedule and allows the Irish to play only five true road games each season.

That New Mexico is one such team in 2019 (Sept. 14) was not random. It absolutely had to do with Bob Davie having coached at Notre Dame, though he almost didn’t survive the 2018 season, his seventh at New Mexico.

That former Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder is returning to South Bend on Oct. 5 as Bowling Green’s defensive coordinator is coincidental, however.

James from Dallas, Texas: What is your evaluation of Chip Long’s use of his tight ends? Alizé Mack seemed capable of a 600-yard season. With only 36 receptions in 2018, he will be ND’s first tight end drafted since 2015.

Eric Hansen: James, I think Chip would be the first to tell you there’s more out there for this position group. However, it should be noted that in 2018, the Irish tight ends collectively had the most catches in a season (56) since the Tyler Eifert-led group had 58 in 2012. And the six tight end TDs last season tied for the second-most by an Irish team in this century.

I think the reason you didn’t see even more production in 2018 is that Cole Kmet’s high ankle sprain early in the season somewhat limited him throughout the rest of the regular season and thus cut down on some dynamic opportunities in two-tight end sets. I am still a bit baffled, however, why the tight ends didn’t get more play in the Clemson game — especially early.

Having said all of that, Alizé Mack never turned out to become the mismatch on a consistent basis he could have been, and a lot of that is on him. His improvement in 2018 is the reason he will be drafted. His history, including some inconsistencies, is the reason why his phone won’t ring early in the draft.

As for moving ahead with tight ends, you have to play to the strength of your personnel. There are going to be years where more three- and four-wide receiver sets make more sense than two- and three-tight end sets. This could be one of those seasons. In 2020, it may be just the opposite.

Mike from Toronto: Eric, why does it take so long for the team to announce its spring practice schedule? Is this solely Brian Kelly's call or does it depend on other factors, such as facility availability, spring game TV, etc.?

Eric Hansen: The Blue-Gold Game date (April 13) is actually announced in a timely fashion each year. That is established first, and then you kind of work backward from there in creating the spring schedule.

Easter being so late in 2019 (April 21) is a reason this year’s Blue-Gold Game is so early, relative to other years. Typically, you have to account for an Easter break and, lately, a spring break during the run of spring practices.

You also plug in Pro Day and the coaches clinic. Ideally, you make the practice dates most conducive to class schedules and academic demands. This hints at some of the reasons the exact dates falling into place are more protracted, and yes Kelly’s decisions on these issues drive that. For the record, practice starts on March 2.

Jim from Toledo: Eric, much has been made of ND's "academic standards" in regards to recruiting. I was told by a former player (an All-American) that going back to Leahy, the university allowed five exceptions per year. Father Hesburgh even alludes to this in his autobiography. Supposedly this policy was changed in the mid-1990s, and this was why Lou Holtz resigned. Have you ever heard of this? Anyway, could you research and report on this?

Eric Hansen: Jim, I spoke to long-time recruiting analyst Tom Lemming about this in order to give you more specifics and separate the mythical from reality. Tom says the exceptions you spoke of existed, though he didn’t think the number of five is accurate. He said the number was fluid from year to year.

The 1990 class, perhaps the best of all time at ND and certainly since 1950, had more than five “exceptions.” But Lemming says in 1991 that loophole closed abruptly, and the 1991 class suffered because of it.

To pin this as the reason the Lou Holtz coaching era ended after the 1996 season is inaccurate.

As to what this looks like now, there’s an art and science to the admissions process under current director Don Bishop. Here is what Bishop told me in a 2011 interview that I believe still fits today:

“There’s not a formula, but there is a philosophy. I’ve done a lot of research on this. When you’re loading test scores and grades ... and you’re correlating success in high school to success in college, even the best universities doing the most stringent research can usually explain about 50 percent of the student’s success based upon their (high school) academics.

“The other 50 percent is determined by a lot of personal choices that kids make. So since half the success is going to be how we read them personally, you can’t have it as a numbers game. You really have to look at each individual case.”

When looking at the raw numbers, though, Bishop said high school GPA is a 2 1/2 to three times more reliable predictor of how the student will perform in college than standardized test scores (ACT and SAT).

“At times, we’ll look at a kid on paper,” Bishop said, “Then when we meet them, we’ll see what they say. We’ll look a kid in the eye and talk to him very candidly. There are kids that can’t look us in the eye, aren’t even able to communicate that they get the academic side. If that happens, we’ll tell the coach, and we’re done.

“At the other end, we’ll have a couple of kids that look you in the eye, and you see there’s a competitive spirit there, that they are going to be able to compete in the classroom.”

Matt from Kansas City: How do you think Brandon Wimbush will do at UCF?

Eric Hansen: Let’s assume McKenzie Milton’s knee injury will keep him out of action for 2019, and that’s a safe assumption. Wimbush still must beat out the other QBs on the roster, most notably Darriel Mack Jr.

Mack started three games last season when Milton was out, admittedly a small sample size. His 51-percent season completion rate and 11-of-30 passing performance for 97 yards against LSU are underwhelming, though his 4.9 yards per carry rushing and six rushing TDs in 2018 are impressive.

I’m going to assume Wimbush does win the job, in part because he has spring practice to learn the system that a lot of other grad transfers don’t have. My sense is the change of scenery will give him a boost, but not enough to create an NFL future for him.

Matt from Kansas City: Who will be the go-to, get-the-ball-in-his-hands playmaker in 2019?

Eric Hansen: I don’t think there is one. Both the beauty and limitation of the current roster is there is strength in numbers.

Some new names could be part of that formula (Kevin Austin? Lawrence Keys III? Cole Kmet in larger doses?), and that’s what makes spring/summer so intriguing with this team.

Brian from Mishawaka: If my math is correct, Notre Dame still needs at least two scholarship players to leave the program before next fall in order to be compliant with the 85-man scholarship limit (as mandated by the NCAA). I know you hate to speculate on who exactly will leave, but if you were the coaching staff, which position group(s) would you prefer to have attrition? If Eric Kumah joins the team as a grad transfer, in which additional position group would you prefer to see attrition?

Eric Hansen: Far be it from me to correct anyone’s math, except my grandson Liam’s. He’s 7, and that’s about my comfort zone. Notre Dame stands at 89 scholarships without having to get creative. If Eric Kumah transfers in, that’s 90.

The easier answer is where Notre Dame doesn’t want/can’t afford attrition. That would be quarterback, tight end, interior defensive line and cornerback.

Roger from Oland, Ind.: Eric, is it possible for the independent teams to form a conference that doesn’t affect anything they are doing now except they would have a conference championship game? If not, why?

Eric Hansen: My question for you is, why in the world would you want to do this? It’s the football equivalent of putting ketchup on spaghetti.

Remember, in each of the past three playoffs, a team that played only 12 games and was not a conference champ made the College Football Playoff field. So if that’s your motivation ….

To answer your question, there’s no way the NCAA would do this, not if the six independents didn’t all play each other. And even if they did, they’d have to petition for the title game (as the 10-team Big 12 did), because they’re short the minimum 12 teams needed. Chances of being successful at that? Is there a number less than zero?

Even if the NCAA did approve it, why would ND want to play BYU, Army, Liberty, New Mexico State or UMass the first weekend in December, let alone a round robin of those teams? Even worse, why would you do it in a year ND was out of playoff contention?

Jack from Strongsville, Ohio: Eric, with away games at Georgia, Michigan, and Stanford, how formidable is ND's task to reach the CFB playoffs in 2019?

Eric Hansen: When you look at all the way-too-early Top 25s and the only mildly-absurdly-early Top 25s, Georgia, Michigan and Stanford are the teams that consistently show up in them (along with Notre Dame). The thing to keep in mind? What you think are going to be the most difficult games and what actually turn out to be the most difficult are usually not aligned.

Remember last year? ND’s five preseason ranked opponents were Stanford (13), Michigan (14), USC (15), Florida State (19) and Virginia Tech (20). So …

The most formidable hurdle for Notre Dame to get back to the playoff is personnel losses, not its schedule. And that is why my expectations right now sit at around 9-3, until/unless I see reason in spring and/or in August to shift that.

As far as the schedule goes, there are element of it to embrace. For instance, there is no Shamrock Series game, so ND is on the road less this season (five games as opposed to six).

There are no back-to-back road games anywhere on the schedule, and there are two bye weeks. All positives.

Georgia is scary — in Athens, in South Bend, on the moon. But you need a team like that on your schedule to build a résumé. Even if you lose that one in a close game, there’s a chance the Irish could still make the playoff.

Notre Dame former five-star prospect Daelin Hayes (9) pressures Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence (16), another five-star, during ND’s CFP semifinal loss to Clemson, Dec. 29 in Arlington, Texas.