Feb. 1, 2017
University of Notre Dame Football Media Conference
Wednesday, February 1, 2017
COACH KELLY: Good afternoon. Exciting day obviously any time that you’re coming to a culmination of sometimes a year and a half’s work, and that work requires so many moving pieces, this year more so than ever.
I got to say thank God for the dead period. We needed that time, I needed that time, to kind of reboot a little bit, reboot in terms of we were getting our staff back together during that time, hiring. We used that opportunity to get our new staff together and get back out on the road.
We couldn’t be where we are today unless we had 15 student-athletes that were committed to Notre Dame from the start to the finish. Really during a very difficult season, this group of 15 really had to endure the things that would occur out there in recruiting during a very difficult season. Other schools reminding them about a very difficult season that we had. Then there was them sticking together because of why they wanted to come to Notre Dame.
I think this class, I guess is what I’m saying, is about the 15 that really stuck together, giving myself an opportunity to reconstitute our staff, put our staff together, get back out on the road after the dead period, and finish it out really strong.
We feel good about the way we finished really well, putting new coaches out on the road, and in some instances with a real different philosophical look at how we’re playing defense, and looking for a different type of player.
I think by and large, when you look at it from that perspective, you need some really key people. I think the first person I want to talk about is Mike Elston, our recruiting coordinator. During this whole time, he was able to keep it together, relative to we were short on numbers in staff. He was calling a lot of those recruits that weren’t necessarily his geographically or by position. He was really keeping that 15 together so that we could get the staff back and get them back out on the road. He did a tremendous job of keeping that group together.
Dave Peloquin, director of player personnel, did an incredible job of keeping our staff prepared and ready to go when we needed to get back on the road immediately. He provided our coaches with the resources of where to go, who to see immediately. We did not miss a day. That sometimes gets overlooked in this whole process. Notre Dame is going to go recruit. You have to know who to recruit and when to recruit them. We needed to hit the ground running. We were prepared to do that. Dave did a tremendous job.
Then, of course, our recruiting office, led by Aaryn Kearney. He did a great job of masterfully putting this together in a very short period of time, giving us the recruiting weekends that we needed to expose a number of new recruits to Notre Dame in a very short period of time.
Jasmine Johnson and Grant Apgar in that office, we couldn’t have done it without them. Jas handling everything together on campus for us. Her ability to put together an everyday workload allowed us to get to where we are. Grant in our graphic arts telling the story of Notre Dame.
Those people in particular were instrumental.
I don’t think you get here without an investment from everybody. Every weekend, Jack Swarbrick, our athletic director, met with our recruits. That’s unusual. I don’t think that happens everywhere that your athletic director makes himself able to meet with recruits.
In a lot of instances he had to be there to support our football program and talk to recruits about where this program is and where it’s going. There are questions when a family comes on campus. He reminded them about the investment we were making in staff and what we were doing for the present and for the future. So having Jack’s involvement in this was absolutely crucial to get to where we are.
Adam Sargent from academic services is a crucial piece. Our mission is to graduate our players. They need to know that. We’re talking about our graduation rates, GSRs. We can’t do it without our academic support piece. Adam does a great job of showing that to our prospective student-athletes and the parents that are here.
I think Chris Stevens from our faculty is tremendous in painting the picture of what it’s like to be a student here on a day-to-day basis. Having a faculty member each and every weekend, he makes himself available for us. Does a tremendous job on a day-to-day basis.
Don Bishop, Bob Mundy from our admissions office. They meet with all of our recruits. I think that’s quite unusual. Our players have to go through an interview process with our director of admissions and our associate director of admissions each and every weekend here on campus. They don’t leave this campus without a personal meeting with our director and associate director of admissions here at Notre Dame.
All these pieces moving together started with the 15, why they wanted to be part of Notre Dame. Then the people that I’ve pointed out, how crucial they were helping in the transition, allowing our coaches to get back out on the road, recruit the right kind of people here, the right kind of guys to Notre Dame, and then the supported staff and administration that I mentioned allowing us to get to where we are today. I think that kind of puts it in its focus, in itself.
We think this class gives us great balance. When we look back, last year we signed 24 student-athletes. I’ll get a lot of questions on who do you think will play, who won’t play. Last year we had 24 that represented 11 states. Currently we have 19 representing another 11 states. Again, we’re going coast-to-coast in terms of representation in this class.
Last year 13 of the 24 players that we recruited in this class got on the field. Nearly 60% of last year’s class played for us. I hope it’s not that high this year, that number. There’s a lot of really good football players in this class, but we’re hopeful that it’s not at 60%.
We had six early enrollees last year. This year we have five that are already in our class. So in terms of the numbers, a little bit more last year with 24. We’re currently at 19 at this point.
In terms of the class itself, I talked about the 15, then surrounding it. Every year you’re looking at balancing your needs with some of the best players that are out there. I think that this class, again, goes to that. Needs within a position group, but also when you have some of the finest players, you’re not going to pass up that opportunity.
The tight end position is a great example. Brock Wright, arguably one of the best, if not the best tight end in the country. But you’re not going to pass up an opportunity at a young man like Cole Kmet who thoroughly impressed us when we got a chance to see him in Irish Invasion. We don’t think there can be a better tandem at the tight end position in a signing day today. We think we’ve got two tight ends coming in to obviously a very good situation already with Durham Smythe, Alize Jones, Nic Weishar. We have great depth at that tight end position. These two guys only add to it.
I think you start and you look at the depth at that position, it really jumps out at you.
We return four out of five starters on the offensive line. Really five guys that have starting experience. If you take a look at the recruiting on the offensive line, Josh Lugg, Aaron Banks, Dillan Gibbons, Robert Hainsey, these are guys that are rated as high as any offensive linemen in the country.
We have very, very good offensive linemen coming in, but we’ve got talented players at that position with experience across the board. We feel great about the depth that we’ve developed at that position.
As you know, we played a lot of young players on the offensive side of the ball, in particular at the wide receiver position. But Jafar Armstrong is somebody that now adds some size and speed to that position that makes it very intriguing for us. We think Jafar is somebody that could possibly be that X receiver that gives you that deep threat, a guy that can really push the field vertically for us. He was a nice addition to this class.
As a slot receiver, somebody that can really do a number of things for us inside and out, Michael Young, great football at his high school in particular. We think he has the skills necessary to come in and push and compete at that position. We’re really pleased with the receivers, and those two in particular, how they’ll be able to come in and push the group that we have right now.
Many people talk about the quarterback position. We don’t have a lot of playing experience at the quarterback position. Brandon Wimbush’s reps are very limited as we know. Ian Book that we brought in last year, we’re excited about him. We have Avery Davis out of Cedar Hill, Texas. What we love about Avery is that he’s played for championships. That’s what Cedar Hill does at the highest level in Texas. So he has that pedigree, that he’s used to playing in big games. He doesn’t shy away from the competition. He plays his best in the biggest of games. This year against DeSoto he was outstanding in a shootout against the eventual state champ. Love his pedigree. Love the fact he played in big games, that he was always at his best when his best was needed.
He’ll come in and obviously be counted on in our rotation immediately. But an extremely athletic quarterback that can come in and do some things right away for us.
We always talk about how are you going to get to the quarterback. Again, I think in coach Elko’s scheme, I’m not going to tell you I’m an expert at it all, he’s going to have to sit down with me and spend a lot of time with me teaching it as well. I’ve tried to go against it. It’s hard enough to go against it.
I will say this: We’ve certainly upgraded from a defensive line position with a guy like Darnell Ewel, 6’4″, over 300 pounds. If he wants to be on the swim team, we’ll let him swim, too. He’s taken up swimming this year. I wouldn’t tell him he couldn’t do it either. He’s in great shape physically. His mental preparation. I love the way he prepares in everything.
He has a single-minded purpose in everything that he does. He takes care of himself. He’s very committed. He visited Ohio State and Notre Dame, and knew exactly where he wanted to go to school. There wasn’t much question. I love the way he handles himself on a day-to-day basis.
He’s a guy that is prepared and wants to play immediately. We’re not going to tell him anything different. Come over here and compete right away. He’s got the physical traits and he’s got the mindset. That’s what we really like about Darnell.
When you talk about D-linemen that really are emerging, Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa. Myron jumped off the screen with his first-step quickness. For a big guy, we really think he’s got a huge upside. He think he’s starting to scratch the surface in terms of where he needs to be. He has some length to him, pass-rush ability, inside guy. Not necessarily strictly an edge guy. He’s got some versatility. We like the fact that he’s a young player that’s going to get better and develop.
Both of those guys really strengthen the defensive line for us with one really strong, physical 300 pounder who is athletic, physically strong, and one who is really just starting to scratch the surface of where he can be.
Speaking of a guy that’s developing on the outside, Jonathan MacCollister, who played mostly at the tight end position out of Bishop Moore High School. He’s long, athletic. Call him Big Bird. He’s a very athletic player that we’re going to play on the outside. He’s a guy that we think has the length, the athleticism that can play the defensive end position.
Those three guys, we’re really excited about getting them in our program, giving them a chance to develop, and see where that ends up.
I think when you talk about the back end of our defense, last year, as you know, we played a lot of young players and got some really good experience across the board at corner and safety. We felt pretty good about it. We wanted to add some guys in particular that would fit the scheme. The one guy that jumps off the page for us immediately is Jordan Genmark Heath, who is out of San Diego, California, Cathedral Catholic. This is a product of Mike Elko and his ability to stick with a recruit that he had seen earlier. Clark Lee. Both of them knew about Jordan, and we were able to get him up here in a short period of time on a visit. I think we did a great job, everybody, all the support staff that I talked about, in terms of showing him Notre Dame, and his family, in a very short period of time, and getting him to come to Notre Dame.
Jordan is 6’2″, 200, really athletic. You can make the case he could play on either side of the ball. We were really looking for that safety that had the skills that would really fit in nicely to the defense that we’re going to employ. I just think he was a real nice fit.
I want to back up. Another guy that was part of that 15 group, if you will, that had always been kind of the first defensive lineman that we wanted and hadn’t identified, was Kurt Hinish, because of his toughness. We really wanted that tough-guy mentality on our defensive line. Kurt brought that to us right away. Not only did he make plays, but he had a toughness to him. We wanted to upgrade that toughness across the board.
We thought we had some big, athletic guys. We wanted that physical and mental toughness that Kurt brought to his game. I would have been remiss if I didn’t mention him alongside Darnell and Myron. I just think we did a really great job of upgrading our defensive line position with those guys in particular helping our football team.
Going back to the safety position and Jordan. Again, as I mentioned, extremely athletic. Could play on either side of the ball.
That’s the same thing for Isaiah Robertson. Great length. His reach is really incredible in terms of what we were able to see in our testing. Again, a guy that we think can play the safety position for us at a high level. Comes from a great family. His dad played at Wisconsin. He’s got great genes. In terms of where we play him, he played safety, a lot of wide receiver, but we want to focus on the defensive side of the ball with him.
Linebackers, I think we have two that are instinctive, tough, smart. Those are the three things that stand out with David Adams and Drew White. Drew comes from a winning program. He’s a winner.
I need to take this call (phone ringing).
Jeremiah, how you doing? That’s great news. Great to hear it. Go Irish. Awesome. Congratulations. I’m going to go announce it right now at the press conference. I’ll talk to you in a little bit. Talk to you later.
Well, I got an announcement to make. We can add another one to the list. Announce Jeremiah Owusu is committed. We have his paperwork. Another one of those guys that really fit what we were looking for, especially in Coach Elko’s defense, that safety position that can come down close to the line of scrimmage. Plays physical.
We hosted him with Nyles Morgan. When you host somebody, you want them to see Notre Dame and see the social aspects. These guys didn’t leave the film room. I mean, it was like they were joined at the hip for six hours just talking football. That’s the kind of kid he is. He loves football. He’s going to be a great addition to the Notre Dame football family.
As a kid, we went to Bethel High School, somebody that was really well-respected in the entire high school from the principal down to when I walked in, he had his youth pastor there. It said a lot about his character, who he was on a day-to-day basis. Really pleased to be able to get him with us.
Back to the linebackers. Drew White and David Adams, just captains. Competitive, smart, instinctive linebackers. It just adds to what we’re looking for from a defensive perspective. Really, really excited in having them on our football team.
Again, I mentioned the offensive line that are all going to be really good players for us. Aaron Banks, Dillan Gibbons, Robert Hainsey, certainly Josh Lugg who is obviously a guy that did an extremely good job at all the camps he was at as well.
Finally, Jonathan Doerer, the kicker out of Charlotte, North Carolina. We weren’t necessarily looking for one, but he just jumped out at us. Somebody with his numbers, his ability, his length, 6’3″, extremely gifted athlete. We were looking for somebody that could take over the kickoff duties for us right away.
The strength that he has averaging 78 plus kicking the football with four plus hang time, just crazy numbers. It was just too good to pass up for us. He was a great fit for us. We went into that with really no expectations to go after a kicker until we saw him and fell in love with his ability. Then just the person and the family, they were made to come to Notre Dame.
Obviously that brings our list up to 20. Certainly excited about getting all 20 of them onboard.
With that, I think I’ve covered everybody. Anybody I miss? Great. So we’ll open it up to Q&A.
Q. You mentioned that Jack Swarbrick met with the recruits. What did he bring to the table? What was his message? What was he able to help with in the recruiting process?
COACH KELLY: There’s always going to be questions. With the kind of season we had, the first question out of everybody, How long is Coach Kelly here? Is this his last year? What kind of year does he have to have?
He 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.
We’re certainly not going to come in here and invest in all the 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.
Q. In the stretch run, where you might get up to six players added to that 15, you not only had to go get them, you had to pull some of them out of other classes. Talk about that process a little bit.
COACH KELLY: Yeah, it was a little different for us, right? We’re used to having some of these guys recruited and committed for a year and a half. Coming at it late where you’re presenting Notre Dame for the first time from a fresh perspective, and they’ve been committed somewhere else, it’s kind of exciting in a sense.
I mean, you hate to pull somebody from another school. You know what, it works pretty good. I don’t mean it to slight the other schools, but when you can show Notre Dame unvarnished without the negative criticism of Notre Dame, you can show it for who we truly are. It’s a pretty easy decision to come to Notre Dame instead of having to carry all that baggage of negative recruiting for such a long period of time.
It was a bit of a change for us. I’m not saying we’re going to wait till the last week and try to cherry pick everybody’s commits, but it was a bit of a different perspective for us. I don’t necessarily want to make a habit of pulling our commits. We’d like to do our own work. But these were the right fits for us, as well. We went after guys that we felt fit at Notre Dame, and it worked out pretty good for us.
Q. You mentioned the core of 15, them sticking together. Was there somebody in that class that took a leadership role, I’m going to be the recruiter, get on social media, get after people?
COACH KELLY: I think there were a number of guys. It wasn’t just one. I think there was more than just one.
Pittsburgh kind of came together under David Adams and Josh Lugg, and I think Kurt. All those guys were kind of together at one. They kind of ran in a pack. That helped.
Then you had Avery Davis, who is extremely active. Of course, we had five coming in early. Nobody could be more active on Twitter than C.J. Holmes, so…
We had a lot of guys that were up and running in terms of social media.
I think more than anything else it was a group that weathered a season that is one that nobody was proud of and excited about. But they knew why they wanted to come to Notre Dame. That was the most important thing. That happened in the recruiting process.
I would say our staff did a great job of presenting why they should come to Notre Dame. That to me was why they were able to stay together.
Q. You talk about the negativity, the outside perception of your class. When you look at the guys you added, because they were offered late, maybe they’re not as good as the players you’ve added. Talk about the quality that you feel you’ve added to your class over the last couple weeks.
COACH KELLY: I’ll go over each one. I’ll start with Jafar Armstrong.
Jafar, when we were looking at the receiver position, he was on our radar from day one. We just weren’t going to take two. When we had somebody decommit, he was the first guy we went after. We could have gone either way on that. Jafar was somebody that we wanted from the very beginning. We just from a numbers game weren’t going to be able to take two. That was an easy one for us to get back into that one.
When you talk about the safety position with Jordan, we were playing two five-foot safeties. He was kind of a different fit for us. With Mike’s system and scheme, he fit together. So the defensive players, they were a better fit into the scheme, so it was much more about being a better fit with a new defensive coordinator.
From an offensive standpoint, there was not much of a change there. It was more about getting the right guy for that position and still recruiting.
Q. You talked Monday about what the new coaches that you’ve brought in bring to your program from a coaching standpoint. Obviously that’s the number one objective. From a reputation standpoint, look at Chip Long, DelVaughn Alexander has a strong reputation. Brian Polian. Seems like you were looking for guys that could really grind on the recruiting trail.
COACH KELLY: I think I looked at everything. They had to have all of those qualities. We were given the opportunity to go out and find the very best. This was not, Look, we’re limited. You can only get this. You can only spend this much money. I mean, we were given the opportunity to find the very best. The charge was: find the very best coaches.
So why not put together the profile of you have to be able to recruit coast-to-coast. In Del’s situation, he recruited while he was at Wisconsin. He was on the West Coast, the Midwest, and find the best teachers. At Notre Dame you can do that. If I didn’t do that, I think I’m shorting the position. I think we took into account all of those things.
A new guy has come in. Kofi Wardlow, defensive end. We were looking for one more pass-rusher. We think Kofi has some elite skills at the defensive end position where he can grow and develop. We really liked his athleticism and his size. Really impressed with him in person. Out of St. John’s College. Really excellent high school in the D.C. area. He really fit the profile. He reminded us of a young Romeo. Not quite as long, but is actually thicker than he is.
He’s just a really young, raw, extremely athletic guy, a guy that we think can develop into a really nice edge player for us.
With Kofi adding to the defensive end position, with him, Jonathan, then the three defensive tackles, I really think we’ve done a nice job in addressing and adding some more depth to our defensive front.
Q. I think one guy you omitted was C.J. Holmes at running back.
COACH KELLY: I kind of talked about him. I will add to that.
Versatility I think is what comes to mind. I look at him as a guy like a Theo Riddick, C.J. Prosise. He’s going to play both running back and wide receiver for us. We think we have a nice package for him right away. We’re going to ask him to compete right away. He’s going to be one of those guys that we’re going to force feed him a little bit and get him involved.
Q. Picking up the kicker at the end there, was that partially related to Justin needed surgery?
COACH KELLY: He’s not going to need surgery. He just needs some rest. We feel like we overloaded him a little bit. We don’t want to overload him with field goal kicking and kicking off.
We feel like he’s not a big guy. We want to keep him in his comfort zone, which we think is field goals, and keep him with that. So knowing what he went through this past season, trying to do both, kind of breaking down a little bit, we wanted to keep him in his comfort zone.
We think he’s an accurate kicker. He can win games for you. Let’s not mess with that. Given the fact we have a guy that can score points for us, let’s find a specialist that can kick that thing out of the end zone. Jonathan can do that. We don’t have to worry about anything. Wind conditions shouldn’t be an issue. We’re going to get that ball down there. We’ll do anything to make Polian look good, too.
He was banging on the table on this kid. I got to agree with him. When we were able to look at his numbers, the way he kicked the football, he was as good if not the best in the country.
Q. Into the next cycle with recruiting, where are you specifically putting your emphasis? Wasn’t a pure cornerback that you signed.
COACH KELLY: The corner position will be a point of emphasis for us. I think elite speed on offense will be a primary goal for us. Guys that can change the game on one possession. I think we’ll see that. I think we’ve got very good size. I think we’ve got guys that can run.
We want a couple of home run hitters. We don’t care if they’re Darren Sproles’ size. We’re going to come off the board in terms of profile. We want some guys that can change the game on offense with elite speed.
On the defensive side of the ball, we continue to move towards the needs that Mike needs defensively relative to the positions, and continue to develop the back end of the defense, especially at the cornerback position.
Q. As you were putting this class together, ultimately what was the bigger mountain to climb? Was it 4-8 or the relationships that walked out the door when the staff changed over?
COACH KELLY: Hmm. We had really good coaches that left us, but Notre Dame did not change. Notre Dame is still the number one reason why they choose to come here. Those 15 guys chose Notre Dame.
So although we lost some really good coaches, that wasn’t the obstacle. I think the obstacle was coordination. Kind of what I said earlier, getting the staff together, putting a staff together, having a chance to do that with a dead period where nobody could touch our core, and then reenacting, getting back out on the road in a manner that we could hit the ground running and get back to those guys.
Along that period of time, we needed to stay in touch with those guys and keep them informed of the process. I thought what we did really well is we stayed in constant contact with our players, those 15. They were informed about every move that we were making internally on a day-to-day basis.
We asked them to keep it obviously confidential. We kept them and gave them ownership in what we were doing. There was a sense of ownership of what we were doing on a day-to-day basis. I think they felt really invested in what we were doing. That really helped.
Q. Saturday is going to look different next year with the calendar alteration. Based on how this class came together at the end, does that change your opinion whether that’s good, bad, or indifferent?
COACH KELLY: No, I think it will still break up. Even the 15, I’m not sure that all 15 of them would be early signees. I think some will, some won’t. You have to understand that sometimes it’s about how the school is reacting to this as well. Some get the news, the memos, quicker than others in terms of how they change and react to it with other sports.
I think the factors are going to be different. I think each kid is going to have to react to it based upon also how their school is going to be dealing with it. I think some will come off the board at that time. I think we’re kind of getting our hands around it a little bit. We’re expecting some to sign early. But I think our mindset is we’re going into it business as usual. We’re all going to have to fight till February.
Q. As you evaluate the recruiting operation overall, pushing that forward and maybe trying to improve it a little bit, do you sort of look at what you want to change, or do you say, This season there were a unique set of circumstances, let’s just keep doing what we were doing, and it will improve because we have the relationships for a year, the season will be better, upbeat-type vibe around here?
COACH KELLY: I don’t know what the genesis of the question is. Is that assuming that we didn’t have a good recruiting year?
Q. Everyone wants to sign more five-star players, find the next Jaylon Smith out there. To have all your coaches have a year of relationships rather than just a couple weeks. Do you feel you have to change a lot, or is stuff good and you like the format and the system, you’ll have the relationships in your favor next year?
COACH KELLY: I think we had 15 guys of the 21 that were long-term relationships. We want to continue that. I don’t think we want to go to cherry picking late. There might be a couple of those, again, that would happen because of maybe a kid that changes their mind, and we’ll be prepared for that.
No, I want to build relationships over a long period of time. I don’t want to change that from what our classes look like. Since I’ve been here, if you look at the average rankings, we’re anywhere from 5 to 15. We’re going to fall somewhere in that range because there’s a line there we can’t get over based upon what our distinctions are here. That line is going to keep us between 5 and 15.
We know where we’re going to fall. We’re going to continue to recruit the right kind of kids here. But to answer your question to the detail, we want longer-term relationships. We don’t want to just show up with a two-week, three-week relationship with a kid.
Q. What did you see from the new assistant coaches in the last month or two scrambling to move and learn about Notre Dame, to form relationships, in a frantic period of time?
COACH KELLY: Clark Lee is challenged with directions. Don’t follow him around. He gets us lost (smiling). Where are you, Clark? He was on the West Coast. Everything goes north and south. Once we went into Pittsburgh, he was lost.
No, I mean, we have really hard-working guys. Each staff brings different personalities. These are guys that like each other, enjoy being around them. They work hard. They understand Notre Dame. They understand our distinction. We’re going out with one message. We’re going out looking for the same kind of kid. That’s a real good synergy when you turn over a number of coaches on your staff.
For me, I’m proud that I get a chance to lead the group that I have. They hit the ground running. They didn’t ask for much. They asked for a little bit of direction in terms of, What are our guidelines? What are the general guidelines? Let’s go to work.
And they work. That was great to see.
Q. I’m going to ask you a roster question. It works out through August. I can see 86 or 87.
COACH KELLY: How many are you allowed? What’s the number (smiling)?
Q. Your requisite fifth-year question. It’s never completely up to you, but have you vetted everyone that can come back for a fifth year?
COACH KELLY: Yes, every single one.
Q. Can you answer questions about them?
COACH KELLY: Yes.
Q. Colin McGovern mentioned he would transfer.
COACH KELLY: He’s transferred.
Q. Hunter Bivin.
COACH KELLY: He’s been asked back. He’s coming back.
Q. Jacob Matuska would be the only other one.
COACH KELLY: He’s not coming back. He’s going to finish his degree and no longer play football.
Thank you, everybody.