Pushing the chips into the middle

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Welcome to “Inside the Irish,” the new NBCSports.com blog that will bring you daily news, rumors, analysis, commentary, and just about everything you’d ever want to know about the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame. As your fearless leader and the guy behind this bold new experiment, I thought it’d be as good a time as any to make an introduction and get started talking about one of the “highest leverage” seasons in recent Notre Dame history.

Much has been made about the past two seasons. Head coach Charlie Weis has seen a variety of labels put on him, and as his tenure in South Bend continues, those labels have gotten significantly less flattering. The 3-9 season of 2007 was one of the darkest in the storied history of Notre Dame football. Yet last season’s 7-6 campaign was the year that truly brought despair to the core of ND Nation.

The Irish saw a promising season begin to chip away in a bizarre loss at North Carolina. While the squad rallied to bury a dismal Washington, the rest of the regular season found Notre Dame failing in all of the games they played. The overtime loss to Pitt was a game that ND found a way to lose. The Boston College domination pulled the series between the two schools even, and the six consecutive BC wins pointed decisively to the opposing directions the two programs were trending. Even the chaotic finish of the Navy game couldn’t be categorized as a win, but simply a respite for a game that wouldn’t have created a new chapter in heart-stomping losses, it would’ve created an almanac. And the Syracuse loss… Rock bottom.

Notre Dame came into the Coliseum dead men walking. There wasn’t a shred of hope that day among Irish fans, as I witnessed first hand. In the days that followed the embarrassing defeat, many wondered if the fate of Weis had already been decided. New athletic director Jack Swarbrick had given Weis a (dreaded) vote of confidence just weeks before, but the humiliating loss brought radio silence from the administration. Recruits hung in the balance. A rebuilding job that Weis believed was nearly complete was close to being detonated again.

In the end, Swarbrick stuck with Charlie Weis as the man in charge of the Irish. The team, with nearly a month to heal, came out rejuvenated and showed the promise of a squad loaded with young talent, throttling an overmatched Hawaii team in what was essentially a home game. The positive vibe rolled into the recruiting season, as Weis and ace recruiter Brian Polian struck another victory with the successful recruitment of Manti Te’o.

Last season’s hopeful finishing uptick instantly reminded me of one of the quintessential lines of The Dark Knight:

“The night is darkest just before the dawn.”

Will last season’s terror and frustration be the darkness that Notre Dame pulls out of, or merely a sign of what’s to come? What made last season so unbearable wasn’t going 7-6, it was watching the variance in how the record was achieved. All of this leads me back to leverage.

While we can postulate and hypothesize all we want about the effects of the Hawaii Bowl win and a productive offseason, what remains to be seen is how Charlie Weis’ Fighting Irish perform when the chips have been pushed to the middle of the table.  Last season, the results were decisive. When push came to shove, the Irish folded. While eight long months have passed since the Irish last played a game, you’ve got to wonder if the offseason brought the confidence needed to a team that has to learn how to win close games.

In nine days, the preseason static is tuned out. The talking heads will forget that Jimmy Clausen flew his wide receivers to California and that Manti Te’o gave Notre Dame its first big win against Pete Carroll since 2001. In nine days, the Irish will be punched in the mouth, and we’ll finally know what kind of jaw the team has. In the high stakes game of college football, nobody has more to prove than Notre Dame this season.

I, for one, can’t wait.

Restocking the roster: Wide Receivers

Notre Dame v Florida State
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Some believe that the best way to look at recruiting is in two-year increments. As programs rebuild and rosters turn over, covering the needs of a football team over two recruiting cycles  allows a coaching staff to balance its roster.

That balance is critical to the health of a program. And it’s not just the work of a rebuilding coach. As we saw in Brian Kelly’s sixth season, injuries, attrition and scheme change impacted the defense, especially in the secondary.

Another position set to deal with major change is wide receiver. Gone is All-American Will Fuller, departing South Bend after three years, scoring 29 touchdowns over the past two seasons. He’ll look to run his way into the first round of the NFL Draft. Also gone are veterans Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle, putting the Irish in an unenviable position, needing to replace the team’s three leading receivers.

Reinforcements aren’t just on the way, they’re already on campus. While there’s not a ton of production to see, the recruiting stockpile has created a chance to reload for Mike Denbrock’s troop. So let’s take a look at the additions and subtractions on the roster, analyzing the two-year recruiting run as we restock the receiving corps.

DEPARTURES
Will Fuller
, Jr. (62 catches, 1,258 yards, 14 TDs)
Chris Brown, Sr. (48 catches, 597 yards, 4 TDs)
Amir Carlisle, GS (32 catches, 355 yards, 1 TD)
Jalen Guyton, Fr. (transfer)

 

2015-16 ADDITIONS
Equanimeous St. Brown

Miles Boykin*
CJ Sanders
Jalen Guyton
Chase Claypool*
Javon McKinley*
Kevin Stepherson*

 

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Corey Robinson, Sr.
Torii Hunter, Sr.*
Justin Brent, Jr.*
Corey Holmes, Jr.*
CJ Sanders, Soph.
Miles Boykin, Soph.*
Equanimeous St. Brown, Soph.
Kevin Stepherson, Fr.*

 

ANALYSIS
Brian Kelly expects St. Brown to step into Will Fuller’s shoes. If the Irish are able to pluck another sophomore from obscurity to the national spotlight, it’ll say quite a bit about the depth and productivity the Irish staff has built at the position. At 6-foot-5, St. Brown has a more tantalizing skill-set than Fuller—and he was a national recruit out of a Southern California powerhouse. But until we see St. Brown burn past defenders and make big plays, assuming the Irish won’t miss Fuller is a big leap of faith.

The next objective of the spring is getting Corey Robinson back on track. The rising senior had a forgettable junior season, ruined by injuries and some bruised confidence. A player who has shown flashes of brilliance during his three seasons in South Bend, the time is now for Robinson, not just as a performer but as an on-field leader.

Torii Hunter Jr. is also poised for a big season. After finding reps at slot receiver and possessing the versatility to see the field from multiple spots, Hunter needs to prove in 2016 that he’s not just a utility man but an everyday starter. His hands, smooth athleticism and speed should have him primed for a breakout. But Hunter might not want to stay in the slot if CJ Sanders is ready to take over. After a big freshman season on special teams, Sanders looks ready to make his move into the lineup, perhaps the purest slot receiver Brian Kelly has had since he arrived in South Bend.

The rest of the spring depth chart should have modest goals, though all face rather critical offseasons. Justin Brent is three years into his college career and the biggest headlines he’s made have been off the field. Whether he sticks at receiver or continues to work as a reserve running back remains to be seen. Corey Holmes is another upperclassman who we still can’t figure out. Will he ascend into the rotation with the top three veterans gone, or will he give way to some talented youngsters?

Miles Boykin earned praise last August, but it didn’t get him time on the field. He’ll enter spring with four years of eligibility, same as early-enrollee Kevin Stepherson. The Irish staff thinks Stepherson has the type of deep speed that they covet, capable of running past cornerbacks and stretching a defense. Boykin has size and physicality that could present intriguing options for an offense that’ll be less reliant on one man now that Fuller is gone.

Live Video Mailbag: 40-year decision, more BVG, freshmen and more

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We’ve done plenty of mailbags, but this is our first shot at a Live Video Mailbag. This should be a better way to answer more questions and hopefully interact with a few of you as we try to work off some of yesterday’s Super Bowl snacks.

Topics on the list: The 40-year decision, more Brian VanGorder talk, the incoming (and redshirt) freshmen and a whole lot more.

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Kelly and Swarbrick turn attention to science of injury prevention

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Amidst the chaos of their live Signing Day show, UND.com ran had a far-reaching interview with head coach Brian Kelly. It was conducted by his boss, athletic director Jack Swarbrick, and his former team captain, Joe Schmidt.

So while there was a little bit of talk about the 23 recruits who signed their national letters-of-intent, there was also a very illuminating exchange on an issue that’s really plagued the Irish the past few seasons: Injuries.

Football is a dangerous game. And for as long as people play it, there’ll be impactful injuries that take players off the field. But as Notre Dame settles into what looks like their longest run of stability since the Holtz era, the focus of Kelly and Swarbrick has moved past modernizing the team’s medical services, strength program and nutrition and onto the science of injury prevention.

Here’s what Kelly said about the efforts currently taking shape:

“I think the science piece is very important, because no longer is it just about strength and conditioning,  it’s about durability. It’s the ability to continue to play at an optimal level but also with the rigors of a college schedule, and particularly here at Notre Dame, how do we maximize the time but maximizing getting the most out of our student-athletes and not lose them?

“As you know, we’ve had a couple years here in a rough stretch of injuries. And how do we have an injury prevention protocol that brings in the very best science? You’ve done a great job of reaching out in getting us those kind of resources. so I think tapping into that is probably the next piece. As well as providing the resources for our student-athletes. Continuing to look at facilities. Continuing to give our student-athletes maybe that little edge. Because everybody’s got 85 scholarships.”

It’s clear that the issue is one that’s on the radar for not just Kelly, but the athletic administration. So it’ll be interesting to see some of the steps taken as the program begins investing time and additional resources to an issue that’s really hit the Irish hard the past few seasons.

There’s plenty of other good stuff in the 13-minute interview, so give it a watch.