Blue and Gold Illustrated

Preseason 2020

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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Page 20 of 67 PRESEASON 2020 21 BY LOU SOMOGYI B ecoming part of Notre Dame's 2017 football recruiting class was not necessarily perceived at the time a popular move. Seventh-year head coach Brian Kelly was in the midst of a tumultu- ous 4-8 nightmare in 2016, and inqui- ries about his job security and desire to remain — at least outside the walls of the football office — were a regu- lar occurrence. After the dust settled, a new strength and conditioning staff was hired at the end of the campaign, and so were six new on-field assistant coaches. It was virtually a brand new staff with which the Fighting Irish recruits had little to no previous ties. Meanwhile, recruiting efforts had to held together somewhat by duct tape. During the 2016 meltdown, six prospects who had originally com- mitted to Notre Dame opted to sign elsewhere while the S.S. Fighting Irish was sinking: defensive linemen Robert Beal (Georgia) and Donovan Jeter (Michigan), linebacker Pete Werner (Ohio State), cornerback Paulson Adebo (Stanford), safety Elijah Hicks (California) and wide receiver Jordan Pouncey (Texas). Yet amidst the upheaval, Notre Dame finished with a 21-man class that both Rivals and 247Sports ranked a respectable No. 13 nationally. The group included two Rivals top- 100 signees, tight ends Brock Wright (No. 44) and Cole Kmet (No. 95). The class had been ranked as high as No. 6 before the six defections occurred. It didn't reach that again with six new additions by National Signing Day (NSD) Feb. 1, but over- all it was seen as an effort that was salvaged and could have ended up much worse. "With the kind of season we had, the first question out of everybody — 'How long is Coach Kelly here?'" Kelly stated frankly at his 2017 NSD press conference. "Is this his last year? What kind of year does he have to have." Kelly gave huge props to Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick for meeting with recruits on campus to reassure them about the vision he and Kelly had for the future with a revamped coaching staff and how 2016 was more an ab- erration than an absolute. The program that was among the top five throughout November 2015 and played in the national title game in 2012 was still deemed healthy overall. "We're going to return Notre Dame to where it should be," Kelly vowed to the recruits. Three years late, with the 2017 recruiting class entering its senior campaign, Notre Dame is 33-6 — the sixth-best winning percentage among 130 Football Subdivision teams during that span. It is also the best three-year record for the Fighting Irish since the 33-4 mark from 1988-90 that included a school-record 23 consecutive victo- ries and the program's most recent national title (1988). CLASS STRENGTHS The 2017 group can hardly take sole credit for the significant turn- around the past three seasons. It wasn't the kind of harvest upon which championships are built — and one-third of the class is no lon- ger with the program, with most not even there for a few years because of various reasons. Entering their senior year, only three might be considered NFL Draft picks next spring to complement Kmet, who was a second-round se- lection (and the first tight end picked) following his junior campaign: • Rover Jeremiah Owusu-Kora- moah, who saw extensive action for the first time last year and tied fellow classmate and linebacker Drew White for the team lead in tackles with 80. He also led the team with 13.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage and tied for top honors with 5.5 sacks. ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay has already projected Owusu-Koramoah as the No. 13 overall pick in his 2021 NFL mock draft. • Right tackle Robert Hainsey, who was a co-starter as a 2017 freshman on a unit that won the Joe Moore Award as the nation's top offensive line and was selected a team captain as a junior last year. His game is built more on technique and guile than physical dominance. Thus, his stock might not be as high as the four first- round selections along the line Notre Dame has had since 2014. • Left guard Aaron Banks, who provides a massive presence inside but might need to be careful about carrying too much weight, especially coming off foot surgery this winter. He also has a fifth year of eligibil- ity remaining in 2021 if he wishes to exercise it. Among the three defensive linemen signed in 2017, it was massive nose guard Darnell Ewell who received the most fanfare as a unanimous four- star prospect with a No. 139 overall national ranking by Rivals. However, medical setbacks re- sulted in Ewell and linebacker David Adams having to end their football careers while still pursuing their un- dergraduate degrees on a medical hardship scholarship. Meanwhile, three-star prospects Kurt Hinish (a high school teammate of Adams) and Myron Tagovailoa- Amosa saw action as freshman re- serves and will begin their second season of starting together in the de- fensive interior. Neither boasts great size by Foot- ball Bowl Subdivision standards, but there is enough quality depth with the likes of junior Jayson Ademilola and sophomore Jacob Lacey that neither has to take 50 to 60 snaps a game and wear down as the season progresses. Tagovailoa-Amosa's 477 snaps last season in 12 games (about 40 per con- test) were the second most among TURNAROUND TOUR The current senior class has been part of the best three-year record at Notre Dame in 30 years Rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah saw extensive action for the first time in his Irish career in 2019, and tied for the team lead in tackles (80, including a squad-best 13.5 for loss) and sacks (5.5). PHOTO BY MIKE MILLER

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