Oh, what could have been.
I'm sure that's what a lot of Notre Dame fans were thinking heading into The Opening. It was less than ten days ago that everyone found out officially that top linebacker target Justin Hilliard was going to be recruiting players to Columbus rather than South Bend while in Beaverton for this huge event and just over a month ago that Notre Dame had lost a commitment from one of the top quarterbacks in this class in Blake Barnett.
Having those two would have made things a little bit sunnier heading in to the event, but Irish fans have to be very excited about how their commits and targets performed at the conclusion of it.
The Irish had four commitments going in and a ton of targets with Irish interest took part as well. I had the chance to be in Oregon and see all of the action in person. Here's my thoughts on all the players you need to know about:
Slot Receiver - CJ Sanders
No Irish commitment or target did more to raise his stock in the eyes of evaluators than Sanders did with his performance this week. I don't think everyone realized he was the kind of athlete he is, but they know it now with his showing in the SPARQ national championship. Not only did he compete in the top ten beating out the best of the best athletes in the nation for that honor, but he ran a 3.80 short shuttle. That is kind of big time quickness that Notre Dame has been lacking in a slot receiver since Theo Riddick moved back to running back for his senior year.
That quickness was on display in 7 on 7 play where Sanders kept making big play after big play. He not only got behind defensive backs for long touchdowns, but he made tough catches in traffic consistently. Slot receivers are meant to shine in 7 on 7 play and he did not disappoint.
Next to Christian Kirk, there may not have been a better slot receiver at the event than Sanders.
Cornerback - Shaun Crawford
Crawford plays safety and running back at his high school so it was great to see him lineup at corner, the position he projects to play at Notre Dame.
I thought he looked outstanding the majority of the time. He was extremely smooth in his backpedal and closed on the football in a hurry with any underneath passes in the flat. He really did a great job of sticking in man coverage on the first day of 7 on 7 and came up with what should have been a pick six (the refs said he got touched in a questionable call).
On the second day he had a tough time going against Clemson commit Deon Cain, but everybody struggled going against Cain all week. Even when Crawford had good coverage, Cain was able to go up and get the football.
All in all I was very impressed with Crawford and he lived up to my expectations with how he played.
Offensive Tackle - Jerry Tillery
Tillery was suffering from a case of turf toe going in and missed most of the on-field stuff for the week, but did get the chance to get on the field for the final day with the offensive linemen. Unfortunately he was one of the few players who was not allowed to wear pads due to the state of Louisiana's off-season rules so there wasn't much to evaluate him on.
I will say that Tillery looks downright slim for a kid who weighs over 300 pounds. He's going to be a monster after a couple of years at Notre Dame.
Center/Guard - Tristen Hoge
Hoge isn't put together really well for an interior offensive lineman. Looking at his Dad, it's pretty obvious that it's a point of emphasis with the family to be in great shape. He also has a ginormous head. The value of this is debatable at best, but hey, it can't hurt?
Some of the best players at the entire event were defensive tackles and that means Hoge was in tough with pretty much any matchup. He really struggled on the first day in pads in a half-line drill and was stopping his feet on contact, something that you did not see from him at all on film. It's a huge step up in competition for Hoge from what he sees in southeast Idaho. Sometimes after a few bad reps, it's tough to get out from that downward spiral.
He improved on the second day in pads, but again had some trouble against Texas A&M commit Daylon Mack. Some of the guys he was facing are already grown man strong. You can tell Hoge is a big, strong kid, but just not at the level those guys are yet.
There is nothing negative that can be taken from him participating at an event like this though. This experience will help him during his senior season and for all of his years he is in South Bend.
Irish Recruiting Targets
Bryant was probably the top defensive lineman that attended Notre Dame's recent Irish Invasion camp in June and could come back for an official visit in the fall. He has the perfect frame for a defensive end and has incredibly long arms. He definitely looked the part of an edge rusher and showed he has good speed and can bend, but is missing the technique to finish right now against some of the top tackles that were at the event.
I liked how did in run drills though and he was very good on one particular rep against Clemson offensive tackle commit Noah Green where he controlled his outside shoulder and got upfield to prevent Green from reach blocking him.
I would say he is someone who is going to likely need some time to develop before becoming a contributor at the next level, but Bryant was one of the few defensive lineman who was always stepping up to take extra reps. He wants to compete and get better and that's a very good thing.
Defensive End - Byron Cowart
I don't know if there was a more impressive player at the camp than Cowart. He's the number one player according to Rivals.com and it's not hard to see why in person. He consistently challenged himself by going against the top players again and again in an effort to get better and was displaying technique that was ridiculously advanced for a player his age.
It would be so easy for a great athlete like him to just rely on his physical attributes to succeed, but one of the defensive line coaches at the camp kept saying that Cowart kept asking for ways to get better and was absorbing information like a sponge all week. Not only was he taking in the information, but he was implementing it into his game and beat offensive tackles with a variety of moves.
The chances of landing him may be slim, but signing him would be on the same level as gaining commitments from Manti Te'o and Jaylon Smith. He would be a day one starter and is as close to "can't miss" as you can get. He is set to come back to Notre Dame on an official visit for the Stanford game.
Defensive End - Keiseian Lucier-South
KLS does not look like a defensive linemen. He looks downright tiny standing next to just about every other player he was competing with. He also doesn't look like he has the frame to add a ton of weight either so he may max out at around 240 pounds.
He does have big time quicks though and great length that make him someone who should develop into a very good pass rusher at the next level. Right now though he doesn't use that length because he's used to beating players with his speed and didn't make as big of an impact as a pass rusher against some of the tackles with the feet to hang with him.
In run drills, he really struggled taking on the double team, but if anyone thinks he is player that can line up as a 7 technique inside a tight end and hold the point of attack versus the run probably doesn't know a lot about football. He's got be a player who is lined up wide in order to best use his talents.
He is another player that is planning on taking an official to Notre Dame in the fall.
Quarterback - Deondre Francois
It became news at the beginning of the week when Francois mentioned Notre Dame was back in his top four schools and still an option he's thinking about. How much he is seriously considering Notre Dame in reality is up for debate though.
I didn't get to see a ton of Francois after what he did at the Elite 11, but I can say that his arm is as advertised. He probably threw the tightest ball out of any of the quarterbacks in attendance. He didn't have the greatest camp overall, but certainly didn't show anything that suggested that he wouldn't be worth taking at Notre Dame if he wants to come.
Running Back - Soso Jamabo
I loved Jamabo as a player after watching his film and like him even more after seeing him up close. He showed the ability to explode when he planted his foot in the ground and had incredible burst in one on one tackling drills versus linebackers.
He looked even more impressive as a receiver in 7 on 7. He showed great hands, the ability to make tough catches, and made some defenders look silly in the open field. It's incredibly difficult for a running back to shine in that type of setting and Jamabo was the rare player that did just that.
He would likely develop into the same kind of weapon Theo Riddick was for Notre Dame during their run to the national championship game in 2012 if he ultimately ended in South Bend. He is heading back to Notre Dame for an official visit for the Michigan game.
Defensive Tackle - Neville Gallimore
The kid from Canada looked a little unsure of himself on the first day, but kept getting better and better throughout The Opening. He got better every rep when taking on the double team and started to develop a nice little dip and rip when in pass rush drills.
The sky is the limit for Gallimore. By the end of the event he showed he belonged and could end up right up there with the other top defensive tackles in this class by the time his college career is finished.
I know Notre Dame has already taken three defensive tackles in this class, but it would be worth it to take Gallimore if he wants to come. He still has not visited yet and we won't get a realistic idea of how interested he is until he does.
Wide Receiver - Equaninmeous St. Brown
I didn't get to see enough of him as I would have liked, but his performance in the 7 on 7 championship game was more than enough to show that he can be a big time target in any offense. He took a slant to the house that essentially sealed the victory for his team. I repeat, he took a slant to the house in a touch football game! I think that takes away any notion that he is merely a big possession receiver.
He also went up high and grabbed a ball over top of a huge corner in Oklahoma commit PJ Mbanasor on a fade route for a huge first down.
Notre Dame appears to be heavily in the mix for him and he looks like he could develop into a number one receiver for the Irish.
LInebacker - Tevon Coney
I really liked what I saw from Coney at linebacker in a camp that is not meant to showcase linebackers. He has the speed and hips to cover running backs out the backfield and has a good feel for zone coverage. He did a great job attacking and cutting running backs in half in a (kind of) tackling drill. Overall he just showed he has the athleticism that is comparable with another player Notre Dame was recruiting at linebacker in Ohio State commit Justin Hilliard.
He is VERY interested in Notre Dame and he looks like he could be a great fit at Will linebacker if he ends up as Irish.
*Bonus* 2016 Defensive Tackle - Rashan Gary
Oh my, this kid is only going to be a junior next season. He was one of only three 2016 kids who were invited to the camp and the New Jersey product proved more than worthy of his selection. He was one of "Final 5" defensive linemen and was the best one on the final day of practice in my opinion.
His pad level, his technique, his ability to pick up things and learn combined with his size and explosiveness...if there is a better defensive recruit in the nation next year then that it would be a shock based on what I saw from Gary.
I have no indication that he has any interest in Notre Dame at all, but he is going to develop into an impact player at the college level that will likely have his choice of any school he wants.