Notre Dame Football Mailbag: Making sense of recruiting rankings; assessing Phil Jurkovec

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Welcome to the Notre Dame Football Not-So-Live-Chat/Mailbag.

First, thanks for embracing/tolerating/sampling the new format. It is not necessarily a permanent format, and perhaps a Facebook Live session or two during the spring will help balance out the lack of immediate interaction. I’m mulling and pondering something along those lines.

A couple of programming notes. The NDFBNSLC/Mailbag will shift to Fridays starting next week and through the duration of spring practice. That means the full transcript will be published late Friday afternoon and an abridged version in the South Bend Tribune print edition on Saturday, space permitting.

I also want to let you know we’re back in weekly mode with the Pod of Gold podcasts. Those will be released each Wednesday. Our latest, with former ND and NFL linebacker Rocky Boiman, provided some great insight (thanks to Rocky) on what to look for as the Irish take on the biggest question of the spring: Who succeeds Drue Tranquill and Te’von Coney at linebacker.

The current ESPN college football analyst and radio host on WLW (700 AM) in Cincinnati also gave us an informative and humorous look into the NFL Combine experience. You can download the podcast here. Or you can download/subscribe at iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher, Spotify and Podbean.

On to the questions ...

Mike from Rochester, N.Y.: I saw the article about all five of the Notre Dame recruits dropping in their rankings. What drives that? Actual falloff in performance or not developing as quickly as expected? Or is it just not going to all the camps the recruiting analysts are at? It seems like a lot of hoopla over nothing this early in the recruiting cycle.

Eric Hansen: This is a fascinating topic to me, and one with a lot of tentacles.

A little background, 247Sports released new player rankings this week of the national 2020 recruiting class that will sign National Letters of Intent in either December of 2019 or February of 2020. All five prospects who have verbally committed to Notre Dame in that class dropped significantly.

Four of the five fell at least 100 spots. One, Alexander Ehrenberger of Germany, nosedived 349 spots, and he was the lowest ranked of the five to begin with.

Here’s my Cliffs Notes take on your question.

The accelerated recruiting calendar — with earlier official visits, earlier commitments, etc. — has created a demand for player rankings to be accurate much earlier. Before, you could kind of dismiss them at this stage as early and incomplete impressions, but readers want some sort of context about prospects their favorite school is recruiting. I’m not sure they’re getting that.

Notre Dame freshman-to-be safety Kyle Hamilton is an interesting case in point. When he received his Notre Dame scholarship offer last winter, the Atlanta Marist product was a three-star prospect per 247Sports (and Rivals), and the No. 66 safety in the class. Less than a year later, he was deemed a five-star and the No. 1 safety by 247Sports.

Hamilton did perform well in his senior season and in national exposure settings in between. But it makes you question the accuracy/integrity of the initial assessment, that he could have the same star rating as a prospect who was fabricated/embellished by a group of Tennessee high school kids whose inside joke went viral.

So is it an integrity issue? Is it a logistics/systemic issue? Is there a bias that prompts higher star ratings for prospects committed to Alabama, Ohio State and Clemson, and a drop if they commit elsewhere? What about prospects who can’t afford the time/expense to do the national exposure events?

Philosophically, I don’t think Rivals, 247Sports, ESPN, Tom Lemming and local evaluators all rate and evaluate using the same prism. 247Sports professes to rate the prospects on the long-term potential, not as a snapshot of where they are now. Others will blend those two concepts.

I hope this is answering your question(s), but in my opinion, technology has made it easier to get a read on a prospect and make more accurate comparisons than was possible 10 years ago. I think the recruiting analyst industry needs an overhaul on several fronts.

But keep in mind, it’s an inexact science and always will be.

Don from Phoenix: Hope spring practice really means spring is on the way in your neck of the woods.

My question is how long does it take a freshman who didn't enroll early to fully acclimate to college life at ND? With that said who are the guys, either freshmen or sophomores, we should be watching to step up and contribute?

Eric Hansen: I think the concept of Groundhog Day needs to be retired. The forecast for the first spring practice, Saturday, is a high of 32 and low of 22 degrees. For practice No. 2, on Tuesday? Try 16/9. Thank you, though, for the good intentions.

As far as the acclimation question, it really varies on the individual. Some literally have to throw climate change into that mix as well. Distance from home is a factor. Curriculum is. One thing that does help is that even later enrollees start in the summer these days. I think that’s a huge advantage for all.

As to which freshmen/sophomores will rise, there better be a lot of them. By June, 59 players on the roster will be either freshman or sophomore eligibility (taking into account redshirts). Picking out one such player on each side of the ball, I’ll go with sophomore wide receiver Kevin Austin Jr. and sophomore rover Shayne Simon.

Stanley Watkins from Beautiful Downtown Chester, Va.: Firstly, there will be Stancakes served at our church in Midlothian on Sunday, March 31, and you are most welcome to come and participate. (These are the best, lightest, fluffiest pancakes you will ever eat. And if you get there early enough, I will make sure you get them right off the griddle, when they are the best.) Also let Newt in Midlothian know that he is invited. I don’t have an email address for him.

Now to the meat of the day: Have you had an opportunity to analyze the early enrollees enough to have a feel for which are ready to hit the field right away? And do you think Phil Jurkovec will push Ian Book to higher level, or will he replace him later in the fall season? Thanks by the way for the great writing. I’ve read a number of sports writers and I will have to say, I have never read any article that is better than your copy. Some have equaled, but none better.

Eric Hansen: I love pancakes. Even dense, semi-burnt ones. If they had the same metabolic effect of kale, I would be first in line at your church on March 31. And thanks for the compliments.

To your questions, the early enrollee equation is always a blend of talent, opportunity, adaptability and health. In this class, the early enrollees with the greatest opportunity are defensive tackle Jacob Lacey and, especially, punter Jay Bramblett.

Two of the 10 won’t participate for health reasons — linebacker Jack Kiser and defensive tackle Hunter Spears.

Of the remaining six, Kyren Williams’ different skill set at running back gives him a chance to get a long look. Of the players who don’t have an obvious opportunity and would have to force the issue, I would say offensive lineman Zeke Correll has a chance to do that this spring at the center position.

Tom from Kennesaw, Ga.: Thanks for keeping us informed about ND football as we head into spring ball. The offseason is always talked about in terms of getting the players stronger, faster, bigger and ready to perform at their best.

When will we see the numbers on the players who have improved the most this offseason? Who are you anxious to see what their new heights and weights are?

Eric Hansen: Tom, we should get the new heights and weights either Friday or Saturday of this week. Those I’m eager to see how their numbers have changed are players who needed strength gains to get in the mix on the field. Players like wide receivers Braden Lenzy and Lawrence Keys III; cornerbacks TaRiq Bracy, Noah Boykin and DJ Brown; all the young linebackers, and especially Jack Lamb; and running back Avery Davis. And one more, Derrik Allen, whose winter workouts were going to determine whether his future is at safety or linebacker/rover.

Sean from Greensboro, N.C.: Eric, with respect, I do not care for the new format at all. I miss the free-flowing discussion of the live chat. It is much shorter, and just not as interesting. No live chats with you or Tom Noie. Is the Tribune cutting back on coverage of Irish sports? I hope the live chat will return in the fall.

Eric Hansen: Sean, the issue was an exponential price increase by the company that hosted the chats. As we look for something more reasonable, I didn’t want to lose the connection that had been built with this fan base over many years.

There are many who prefer this mailbag format better, and I can see the merits of both. So there’s no cutting back as much as it is a search. As I mentioned, I’ll try to incorporate some sort of live element this spring. I just need to figure out what might work best.

Bob from Texas City, Texas: Do any of the running backs in this offseason show the dedication, the work ethic, the look in the eye that it takes to be great?

Eric Hansen: Bob, I would say none of those qualities are lacking in most of the six who will compete this spring and into next fall. The bigger question is elite speed. Another question is continuing to adapt to a new position (Jafar Armstrong and Avery Davis).

That’s what spring football is for, to get to the bottom of those kinds of issues.

ND Harvey from South Philly, Pa.: E, Love your work. BIG Fans and friends of Mike McGlinchey. Will Braden Lenzy see the field this year? I hope so. See you Blue-Gold weekend. Go Irish!!!

Eric Hansen: A sincere thank you. Braden Lenzy is trying to put himself in position to see the field in 2019. A significant step the sophomore wide receiver took in that regard is putting track and field on the back burner this spring. So intent was Lenzy as a recruit to do both sports that eliminating track from the equation was a deal breaker. So will his narrowed focus and a winter in the weight room with Matt Balis be enough for him to play his way into the rotation? I think it at least gets him a long look this spring.

Matt from Augusta, N.J.: This is my first time with the new format. I kinda liked shooting off questions on the live version, but I really appreciate any of your time. So my question is on Phil Jurkovec. Is it true he might have a new throwing motion? I know he threw with a low arm angle, but I remember hearing at first he was going to keep it? Really not sure what I remember at this point. That’s a big change for a quarterback. What are your thoughts, and if true, ask Brian Kelly about the progress and why the change? Thanks, love the chats. Go Irish!

Eric Hansen: Matt, refining throwing motion and footwork are not uncommon when a quarterback moves from high school to college. DeShone Kizer, for instance, had an elongated motion that had to be tightened up. It was so elongated at the high school level, in fact, that there wasn’t unanimity among the Irish coaching staff as to whether he should even be extended a scholarship offer. Phil’s refinements, which he has reportedly embraced, were in the interest of accuracy. Remember in college, the throwing windows are much tighter, so precise ball placement becomes a premium. I do plan to ask Kelly about Phil’s progress and the expectations for him this spring — unless someone else beats me to it.

Jeff from Cleveland, Ohio: Any way Phil Jurkovec beats out Ian Book for the starting QB job come the start of the season. How does he compare (hype-wise and star rating) to other highly touted QB's that have enrolled at ND in the past 5-10 years?

Jeff, history tells us there is always a chance, but it’s definitely not the expectation of the coaching staff or for me personally.

As far as comparative ratings, here are the QBs recruited during the Weis and Kelly eras, how they were ranked positionally and nationally regardless of position by NR means they were not in the national top 250.

Charlie Weis Era

2005: Evan Sharpley, 12, Pro Style (NR)

2006: Demetrius Jones, 2, Dual Threat (54); Zach Frazer, 9, Pro Style (105)

2007: Jimmy Clausen, 1, Pro Style (1)

2008: Dayne Crist, 2, Pro Style (25)

2009: None recruited

Brian Kelly Era

2010: Andrew Hendrix, 13, Pro Style (235); Luke Massa, 28, Pro Style (NR); Tommy Rees, 31, Pro Style (NR)

2011: Everett Golson, 16, Dual Threat (NR)

2012: Gunner Kiel, 1, Pro Style (20)

2013: Malik Zaire, 3, Dual Threat (122)

2014: DeShone Kizer, 9, Dual Threat (NR)

2015: Brandon Wimbush, 4, Dual Threat (60)

2016: Ian Book, 15, Pro Style (NR)

2017: Avery Davis, 19, Dual Threat (NR)

2018: Phil Jurkovec, 5, Dual Threat (87)

2019: Brendon Clark, 20, Pro Style (NR)

Patrick from Fort Wayne, Ind.: Thank you for continuing the Q-&-A format. Do you have a comparison for C’Bo Flemister? He was a late recruit signing, a somewhat desperate attempt to pad the depth chart. Is he a bona fide Power 5 running back capable of starting before he graduates or roster fill?

Eric Hansen: I asked Tyler James to help me with a comparison, because he has studied C’Bo’s film and I have not. I have seen him live, but for very few practice reps last August. With the media allowed to watch eight of the 15 practices this spring in full, I’ll have a much better answer for you at the end of spring.

For the record, Tyler compared him to Deon McIntosh as a runner and noted he had a kind of unorthodox style. I think there’s enough talent and speed there that the "roster fill" label is inaccurate. With a clean slate of a new position coach and fluidity on the depth chart, this is a critical spring for Flemister to make an impression.

Adam from Riverdale, N.Y.: Eric, What are some of the things that Ian Book will or should be doing during spring practice to advance his game?

Eric Hansen: One strength I think Ian Book can and will build upon is his ability to find the soft spot in a defense and alter the play at the line of scrimmage to reflect that. I still think there’s another level for him in that regard, and that’s a great asset to have.

In terms of rounding out his game, he has to be better under pressure/outside the pocket. He has to be better in the deep passing game. I’m sure he has a much longer list for himself, because he’s a strong self-motivator.

Bob Gorman from Columbus, Ohio: Shoes off but socks on. Eric, sorry to see that you are paid too much to do the chat in the future. Big shoes for anyone to fill. Where can you find anyone with your quirky sense of humor? Priceless. Hopefully, you remain a regular on SportsBeat, so Kathleen and I can get our Eric fix!

My question has to do with leadership on next year’s team. When I look at Kelly’s two unbeaten regular seasons, I see some strong leadership that was visible even to someone sitting in Columbus Ohio. Manti Te’o in ’12 and Drue Tranquil in ’18. Who are the strong leaders on both sides of the ball that will demand high performance from their peers and help them play at their best on next year’s team? I hope there are ready answers to that question. Gilman looks like he could be the guy on D if he is vocal.

Eric Hansen: Bob, thanks. I never thought I’d see the phrase “paid too much” and my name in the same sentence ever, but thank you, I think. Thanks for being a part of the chats/mailbags and for listening to SportsBeat.

To your question, Alohi Gilman is a natural. He was one of eight SWAT team captains designated to lead the team through winter workouts. The others were Ian Book, Jalen Elliott, Khalid Kareem, Liam Eichenberg, Chris Finke, Julian Okwara and Robert Hainsey.

The eventual captains likely will come out of that group, though I really like (injured) cornerback Shaun Crawford in that regard as well. I will say I think you find out a lot about your leadership when they encounter the team's first puff of adversity in a given offseason.

With every one of these eight guys, they have overcome some personal adversity to get to where they are, so I like the potential of this group.

Andrew‏ from Austin, Texas: Is a QB's accuracy on the long ball possible to improve (and, if so, how) or does it defy a mechanical fix? In the college coaching arms race, what, besides salary dollars, can keep an assistant around long enough to have the players familiar with his system?

Eric Hansen: It is possible, but the reasons for inaccuracy in the deep passing game aren’t universal. Sometimes, it’s confidence. Sometimes it’s timing. Sometimes it’s an issue with the receivers. Sometimes it’s flat-out arm strength. Sometimes it’s footwork. Sometimes it’s protection. Sometimes it’s all of those things.

It is possible to improve arm strength, but there’s a limit with that. Just because you’re not on the high end of arm strength, relatively speaking, doesn’t mean you can’t be a really good college quarterback, and the reverse is true. I do think there is acquirable room for improvement in that area when it comes to Ian Book.

As far as the second part of your question, Brian Kelly is going to hire people who mesh with his offensive philosophy. That’s not to say there’s not tweaks and nuanced differences. But the basic philosophical building blocks match, so in his case there’s some protection against coaching staff turnover.

Mike in Maine: I know you have addressed the issue of excess scholarships before, but there remain questions about the process. So, for example, if ND has 90 scholarships outstanding for the fall (including incoming freshmen) as of May, they have until the first day of fall classes to get down to 85. Presumably, the primary means to get down to 85 is to convince five upperclassmen that they have no future in the ND program and hope that they quit/transfer. But, what happens if they get to the first day of classes and only three have dropped out, and 87 are still on campus. Aside from engaging in the sort of tactics which we might associate with the SEC, and would not expect ND to consider, what do they do to get to 85?

Eric Hansen: Notre Dame is at 89 currently, 90 if the Irish take on grad transfer Eric Kumah from Virginia Tech. How do you deal with a tight numbers game? I’ll give this coaching staff a lot of credit. They have done so with integrity and transparency. On the recruiting side there are contingencies in place with unconventional approaches to accommodate a couple of the freshman linebackers (academic scholarship and a possible delayed enrollment). The staff was very up front about this during the recruiting process — not springing it on them after they signed. There has been an extensive vetting process to find out which players are considering transferring and which might be on the verge of needing to become a medical exemption. If this was a skipped step, I could see there being a concern about how this might play out. Given the approach and track record, I am confident I won’t be giving you a different answer in August.

Steve from Fort Wayne: Eric, is there any news regarding Phase II of the Guglielmino renovation? Also, does it make sense to add a new weight room? There is no need for the area between the current weight room and Loftus, with the new indoor practice facility. Why not expand the current weight room to that area and make it big enough for all sports to use, then use the area to the south of the complex for a bigger football entrance/trophy room, locker room, etc.

Eric: Steve, there will be more news about Phase II once the funding has been secured. A new football-only weight room is only a small part of that phase, but a necessary one.

The current football weight room will be turned over to the other sports to share. Since those sports will also be sharing the Loftus Center, it makes sense of the football team’s weight room to be adjacent to the new indoor facility that will be used primarily for football.

Jeff K. from Cleveland, Ohio: What are your thoughts on the new running backs coach, Lance Taylor? Hopefully, he's able to attract some consistent four- and five-star running backs, unlike Autry Denson. We desperately need to land some game-changers, not only at running back, but at wide receiver as well. Your thoughts?

Eric Hansen: We haven’t had a chance to meet him and won’t get that chance during the run of spring football. So the best way to answer that is to talk to those people around Lance.

Carter Karels, our recruiting writer, did just that for a piece that was recently posted — and that included talking to Chris Tyree, the nation’s No. 1 all-purpose back per, from Chester, Va.

Since you asked for my opinions, here are some things I like on his résumé:

As a recruiter, he has held his own in very competitive geographical areas while at Stanford (California, Florida, the Carolinas, Alabama and Tennessee). I like that he has a blend of pro and college coaching experience.

He seems like a big-picture guy on offense, capable of contributing meaningful suggestions in offensive meetings, beyond his own position group.

I’m curious to see how he develops players. He doesn’t have a long track record as a running backs coach, per se. And developing three-star talent is a lot different than polishing someone like Christian McCaffrey. Spring is going to be fun to watch.

Jim Kearns from Champaign, Ill.: Eric, why do the Irish (and lots of other teams, to be fair) not play the second-stringers more? Seems as if they wait until there is one series left, if then.

The new redshirt rule seems made for just this thing. Seems to me there is absolutely no downside to getting the reserves — especially those with a perceived future — in as soon as it is obvious that the game is in hand. What do you think?

Eric Hansen: Jim, I don’t think there’s a boilerplate answer to this, from program to program or even game to game. Let’s take the ND-Clemson game. In that instance, you’re trying to mitigate the perceptual damage a lopsided loss on a big stage can bring. As far as regular-season games, I think while the CFP selection committee might not admit it overtly, I do think margin of victory matters.

Notre Dame had six games that were decided by 10 points or fewer in 2018. I think the game that legitimized the Irish as a legit playoff contender, beyond the season-opening win over Michigan, was the 36-3 rout of Syracuse on a neutral field (and Irish reserves did play in that game). A 29-17 victory looks much different in the committee’s eyes, I would think.

Finally, depth is not universal, at least not at ND. That’s an area where Brian Kelly is trying to coax the program — reliable depth throughout. The defensive line reserves, for instance, played early, often and in high-leverage situations. The coaching staff trusted them.

At linebacker and safety, for instance, not so much. And you saw in the Clemson game just how big the gap was between All-America cornerback Julian Love and the next man in.

When it comes to quarterback, Ian Book needed game reps, too. When ND met Clemson, freshman Trevor Lawrence had as many career starts as the Irish junior. Ideally, though, 10 snaps seems way too few for then-freshman Phil Jurkovec.

That's it for this week. Thanks for the questions, and keep them — and the invites for free pancakes — coming.

Notre Dame quarterback Phil Jurkovec answers questions during the Cotton Bowl media day, Dec. 27 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.