NCF On The Trail: Notre Dame Fighting Irish

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April, 6, 2014
Apr 6

HOUSTON -- On-again, off-again rain couldn’t put a damper on the Houston Nike Football Training Camp on Sunday, and three athletes -- safety Deionte Thompson, tight end Jordan Davis and offensive tackle Jerry Tillery -- earned golden tickets to compete at The Opening this summer in Oregon.

Seven players left The Kinkaid School practice facility with MVP honors at their respective positions: Skyler Bonneau (quarterbacks), Remus Bulmer (running backs), Gary Haynes (wide receivers), Erik McCoy (offensive linemen), Nikolas Daniels (defensive linemen), Spencer Choka (linebackers) and Deontay Anderson (defensive backs).

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California has always fed the Pac-12 a majority of its recruits, as Southern California in particular is the recruiting hotbed for the conference. But as the Golden State is arguably the most talent-rich state in the country when it comes to high school football, programs outside the Pac-12 haven't been content to sit back and watch conference teams load up on California recruits.

Television, the internet and social media have all helped out-of-conference programs invade California looking for recruits, but nothing has aided those programs more than good old-fashioned effort, according to Fresno (Calif.) Central East assistant coach Tony Perry.

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video Throughout this recruiting cycle, RecruitingNation will profile a number of ESPN 300 prospects in the 2015 class, including an inside look at the prospect, his recruitment, a scouting report and what college program could benefit when he ultimately makes his decision.

It's now a common occurrence for seventh and eighth graders to collect scholarship offers and even make verbal commitments to schools. Defensive tackle Jacob Daniel didn't take that route to becoming an elite prospect. In fact, when Daniel was that age, he wasn't playing football at all.

[+] EnlargeJacob Daniel
Blair Angulo/ESPN.comJacob Daniel didn't grow up a football player but took to the sport quickly in high school.
"I was a basketball player and I didn't play football until my freshman year," said Daniel, a 6-foot-4, 300-pound lineman who now checks in as the No. 61 overall prospect and No. 10 defensive tackle in the country. "I didn't even really like football."

Daniel began his career as an offensive tackle, but was moved to the middle of the defensive line as a sophomore. It was during that season when his football light went on.

"We were playing Clovis High and we were undefeated," Daniel said of a game his team would eventually lose. "There were about 5,000 people in the stands and there was all that noise. I thought, 'Wow, this is fun.' That sealed the deal for me with football."

Daniel said he now can't live without the sport and is extremely grateful that night put him on a path to where he is now. He gives California two of the top 10 defensive tackle prospects -- along with Rasheem Green -- which should make Pac-12 coaches extremely happy, considering the position has been fairly thin in terms of depth in the state over the past few years.

Thomas Toki and Kahlil McKenzie also give California four of the top 20 defensive tackles in the nation, and Daniel said he's had his eye on the group for a while now, watching their highlight tapes.

Daniel, Green and McKenzie had a chance to meet during a trip to USC for the Trojans' junior day this winter, and while Daniel said he had a good time with the other ESPN 300 prospects and that he could see them working well as teammates, there's no guarantee they'll wind up at the same school, as all three still have plenty of the recruiting process left to explore.

For Daniel, roughly 30 offers have been cut to a final 11 schools, and he'll look to take that group down to five by the summer. And when Daniel ultimately settles on one program and makes his commitment, the coach might want to take a moment to send a thank you to the fans that filled that Fresno football stadium two years ago.

About his recruitment: Daniel made an early commitment to Washington, but pulled away from that when Steve Sarkisian left for USC. Daniel cut his list to 11 schools this spring, as Alabama, Arizona, Arizona State, California, Fresno State, Mississippi, Notre Dame, Oregon, UCLA, USC and Washington remain in the hunt. The big defensive tackle is looking to trim that list even further before summer begins, as he'd like to head into the long break with a top five schools.

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REDONDO BEACH, Calif. -- Thirty athletes from the West region in the ESPN Junior 300 met at Redondo Union (Calif.) High School on Sunday morning for the first Nike Football Training Camp of the spring. With hundreds of recruits in attendance, it wasn't surprising that many of the top prospects coming into the event stood out.

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Notre Dame is one of the most storied programs in college football, with a recruiting reach that spans nationwide. Since the beginning of the ESPN Recruiting Nation era in 2006, the Fighting Irish have experienced their fair share of ups and downs, but they have continued to make their presence known on the recruiting trail and brought some good talent to South Bend, Ind.

Below are Notre Dame’s top five recruits over this eight-year span, based on the prospect’s projection out of high school along with his actual college impact and production. Moving forward, the Fighting Irish could have some of their more recent recruiting targets compete for a spot on this list.

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A wild week for the West's best 

January, 31, 2014
Jan 31
Plenty of attention will be paid to the West on signing day, as four of the region's top eight recruits are set to announce their commitments on Wednesday. That number -- which includes the top-ranked uncommitted prospect in Adoree' Jackson (Gardena, Calif./Serra) -- dwarfs that of the top eight prospects in any of the other regions.

But before each makes a huge statement on signing day, all made some noise this week, as this region and the Pac-12 conference sets up for a very interesting day on Feb. 5.

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The Early Offer is RecruitingNation's regular feature, giving you a daily dose of recruiting in the mornings. Today’s offerings: Nebraska coach Bo Pelini brought his lucky charm with him on the recruiting trail Wednesday; while a lot of fans are focused on Adoree' Jackson and John Smith, schools haven’t forgotten about Damien Mama; and Notre Dame’s upgrades to its facilities will help on the trail.

Hope recruits don’t have allergies

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Three programs remain in the hunt for one of the nation's top senior risers, ESPN 300 wide receiver and returner Isaiah McKenzie (Plantation, Fla./American Heritage).

The nation's No. 286-ranked prospect took an official visit to Florida last weekend, and this weekend visited Oxford, Miss., to take in Ole Miss.

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Notre Dame had long been searching to add another defensive tackle in the 2014 class. With the Irish losing four-star tackle Matt Dickerson (San Mateo, Calif./Junipero Serra) to UCLA in January, adding another lineman to the class became a priority.

After targeting a few prospects -- including Matt Elam (Elizabethtown, Ky./John Hardin) and Daniel Cage (Cincinnati/Winton Woods) -- the Irish got their man on Friday when tackle Peter Mokwuah (Staten Island, N.Y./St. Joseph-By-The-Sea) flipped his commitment from Rutgers to Notre Dame.

The three-star lineman gives the Irish seven defensive linemen in this class.

That number might seem high, but Notre Dame only ended up with one defensive lineman in the 2013 class after ESPN 300 prospect Eddie Vanderdoes transferred to UCLA.

While coach Brian Kelly and his staff gained a commitment from Mokwuah, they also lost a commitment on Friday from linebacker Richard Yeargin III (Ft. Lauderdale, Fla./University School). There are still four linebackers committed in this class, but losing a four-star commit this late in the game is never a good thing.

A big reason for the high numbers is that Notre Dame loses some big names from the roster, including Louis Nix III and Stephon Tuitt. With a new defensive coordinator on board as well, the Irish have some retooling to do heading into next season.

Defense was a main focus for this class as the Irish have 12 of the 22 commitments on the defensive side. Notre Dame now has the No. 11-ranked class with 10 ESPN 300 commits.

Midyear signings: Notre Dame

January, 16, 2014
Jan 16
According to ESPN's Jared Shanker and Tom VanHaaren, the following players have enrolled at Notre Dame:

Andrew Trumbetti DE Demarest, N.J./Demarest
Height: 6-5, Weight: 250
Positional Rank: No. 10 DE
Stars: 4
ESPN 300 (No. 97)
Under Armour All-American

Justin Brent WR Speedway, Ind./Speedway
Height: 6-1 Weight: 197
Positional Rank: No. 41 WR
Stars: 4
ESPN 300 (No. 280)
Hours after top commit Poona Ford decommitted from Louisville, the Cardinals lost another 2014 pledge along the defensive line.

Three-star defensive tackle Chris Nelson (Lakeland, Fla./Victory Christian) is reopening his recruitment, he told in a text message Friday.

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Dickerson stays close to home 

January, 9, 2014
Jan 9
Defensive tackle Matt Dickerson (San Mateo, Calif./Junipero Serra) made a difficult call when he committed to Notre Dame in early August, selecting it over a long list of programs that extended offers. He made an even more difficult one on Thursday, as the four-star defender pulled back from his pledge to the Fighting Irish and instead committed to UCLA.

Usually in the case of a decommitment, either one school has dropped the ball in recruiting the committed player or another has done such a good job in recruiting him that he can no longer say no. But Dickerson's situation was different.

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As an assistant coach and head coach at Long Beach (Calif.) Poly, Raul Lara has seen more than his share of talented football players. Willie McGinest, DeSean Jackson, Marcedes Lewis, Winston Justice, Jurrell Casey, Manuel Wright, Darnell Bing, Samie Parker, Kareem Kelly and Derrick Jones have all passed through the halls as Jackrabbits during Lara's tenure.

It's probably fitting that in Lara's final season as head coach of the Jackrabbits, he was able to go out with a player who has the potential to turn into the best that Poly has ever produced.

John Smith's game is as diverse and electric as his name isn't. Though, that was taken care of rather quickly, as Smith became JuJu at an early age -- a nickname bestowed upon him by his aunt after John John refused to take.

Now, Smith has accomplished enough at the high school level that JuJu has made its way into the lexicon of virtually every football fan in Southern California. And now college football fans are hoping that JuJu finds his way onto their school's roster this fall. The 6-foot-1, 206-pound athlete is the nation's No. 38 prospect overall and its No. 3 prospect in the athlete category, holding offers from Alabama, Michigan, Nebraska, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Oregon, UCLA, USC and just about every school in between.

"JuJu is a special guy," Lara said. "I've coached a lot of guys who are in the NFL now, but he's unique. He's a true athlete. He could play receiver or defensive back. He could play linebacker; he did play running back for me. He played some tight end for me. And everywhere he plays, he excels."

Lara credits Smith's combination of size, speed and football instincts for his ability to succeed at a number of positions. But that success might also stem from a less obvious place.

[+] EnlargeJuJu Smith
Blair Angulo for ESPNElite athleticism and a background in rugby made the transition to safety a seamless one for ESPN 300 prospect John "JuJu" Smith.
Growing up, Smith took part in Pop Warner football, but he also played rugby thanks to his Polynesian background. In fact, rugby -- as well as a strict adherence to church every Sunday -- kept Smith off the camp circuit and 7-on-7 fields in each offseason until he finally made an appearance this past spring following a junior season that established Smith as one of the top prospects in the country.

It wasn't until the fifth game of the season that Smith began taking reps in the defensive backfield. He was stuck behind three future Pac-12 receivers as a sophomore and was contributing only on offense on team that started his junior year 1-3. That's when Lara stepped in to make significant changes on both sides of the ball, not the least of which was letting Smith give safety a shot.

"He fell in love with it," Lara said of Smith playing defense. "It was kind of like rugby, where he could freelance and roam around a lot. He wasn't locked down like at wide receiver, where if he's asked to run a curl, he has to run a curl. At defensive back, as long as he lined up right, he had a lot of freedom. When we made the change and he played it more and more, he fell in love with it. It just naturally suited him because of all the training with rugby."

Smith grew to the point where, though he was recruited for both sides of the ball by virtually every school that offered him, he felt more comfortable at safety and believed that was what suited him best for the long term. Smith was one of the offensive stars in an early season win over Corona (Calif.) Centennial, a significant upset. Smith shone at tailback and even as a Wildcat quarterback, but it was his safety play that stood out to opposing coach Matt Logan.

"He was just so effective defensively against us," said Logan, who became another coach to marvel at Smith's versatility. "I knew he was a great athlete and knew what a great player he was on defense, but I was a little surprised how effective he was on offense and their utilization of him on offense.

"I think he has great potential to maybe reach the NFL because he can play multiple spots. That's what makes him so attractive."

But it's also what Smith does outside the lines that makes him such a prized recruit.

One of seven children -- he has five younger siblings -- Smith took it upon himself to grow up at an early age, chipping in with chores and babysitting duties as well as anything else that would support the family. Smith's teammate, Iman Marshall -- a similarly prized recruit in the 2015 class -- said the added responsibilities at home or pressure of dealing with the recruiting process never sent Smith off course.

"He can be a goofy guy off the field, always cracking jokes and smiling," Marshall said. "His aura is very positive and he knows how to bring a great attitude. I love him as a person... He really separated his football life from his personal life. He understood the balance and kept that away from the team. We really, as a team, didn't get to see him worry about his personal problems."

Marshall said he hopes to emulate much of what Smith shared with the Poly team this season.

"Playing alongside him, I saw how he took on that leadership -- not through words but through actions," Marshall said. "His high motor, playing with a sense of urgency each and every play. That's what I learned from him. He loves the game. I see it every time I line up with him -- I see how passionate he is."

And for the program that lands Smith, who has taken official visits to Alabama, Notre Dame, Ohio State and Oregon and will visit USC officially on Jan. 17, it will be easy to see where that passion comes from -- provided there are enough tickets to go around at home games.

"His family cheering section runs about 50 people at least -- probably much bigger than that," Lara said of a group that regularly brought #TeamJuJu signs and made themselves heard from opening kick to final snap. "You know they're there because they are loud and cheering a lot. He's got a big family."
The Early Offer is RecruitingNation's regular feature, giving you a daily dose of recruiting in the mornings. Today’s offerings: By staying at Miami and not flirting with Penn State, Al Golden won’t miss a beat on the recruiting trail; the first Elite 11 invitation was handed out over the weekend to a Notre Dame commitment; and Charlie Strong understands he must win the state of Texas to win at Texas.

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Want to ask ESPN RecruitingNation senior analyst Tom Luginbill a question about your team? Tweet it to @TomLuginbill using the hashtag #AskLoogs.

Here’s are a few: WR Isaiah McKenzie is a bolt of lightning. He can really run, and while he may lack ideal measurables, he has some Tavon Austin qualities. RB Jeff Jones has flown way under the radar during the recruiting cycle and has been very impressive with his speed and explosiveness. We are still trying to figure out why no one is recruiting OC Jacob Bragg. We are hoping this week will open up some eyes. He has looked good. Considering four of our six original QBs have gone down to injuries and won’t be playing, we have been pleased with the likes of Rafe Peavey, Morgan Mahalak and Sean White as well. DT Garrald McDowell may be undersized, but he has been overlooked much in the same was as Isaac Gross was a couple years back down here for a lack of size.