And in that corner… the Michigan State Spartans

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It hasn’t exactly been a love affair between the Spartans of Michigan State and the Fighting Irish, yet a unique rivalry has been crafted between the two teams.

(Who else plays for a half blue/half white megaphone?)

As Michigan State prepares to come to Notre Dame Stadium this Saturday, we caught up with renowned Michigan State blogger LVS of the new Spartans website TheOnlyColors.com. He swears he has nothing to do with the flag planting incident.

Inside the Irish: Let’s get right to it: Why does Michigan State hate Notre Dame?

LVS: On a base level, the hate arises for the same reasons why many other college football fans
hate Notre Dame: perceived arrogance, disproportionate and unwarranted
national attention and influence, etc.  But it’s really the familiarity
that matters: our campuses are only two and a half hours apart, and we
play each other yearly, so contempt is only natural.  Furthermore, I
think some MSU fans sort of resent how Notre Dame-types give this game
relatively short shrift, even though we beat ND with greater regularity
than anyone not named Southern Cal.  Finally, you can’t underestimate
just how traumatic the 2006 game was for our collective psyche; winning
the last two years has barely started to heal that awful, awful night. 
Firing John L. Smith helped more.

It should be said that while there’s hate on a year-to-year basis,
any serious MSU fan also greatly appreciates the role ND played in the
development of our program.  When most big midwestern schools wouldn’t
play MSU (at that time, MAC/MSC), Notre Dame did, every year.  Those
games greatly legitimized our program and directly led toward MSU
joining the Big Ten.

ITI: This is an interesting rivalry from both team’s perspectives. Where would you slot this rivalry in for the Spartans? Is it a different kind than the rivalry with the Wolverines?

LVS: It’s definitely different than the Michigan game, and quite frankly not
as important to us.  Take the familiarity I just discussed, crank it up
by a factor of, oh, 15 or so, and that’s the Michigan rivalry.  We play
Notre Dame every year; not only do we play Michigan yearly, but many
our friends, family, neighbors, co-workers, etc. are Wolverines or
Wolverine fans.  Add in conference implications and state bragging
rights (at least when we don’t let Central into the picture . . . bleh)
and you end up with a big, big deal.

For most MSU fans, this is the second (or, if Ohio State’s on the schedule, sometimes the third) biggest game of the year.

ITI: What do you think the biggest key to MSU’s dominance at Notre Dame Stadium has been?

LVS: First, it isn’t a coincidence that all but one of the wins in the
streak have come against mediocre-to-bad Notre Dame teams (’07, 03,
’01, ’99, ’97).  Really, only the 2005 win was against an above-average
Irish squad.  (Of course, many of our teams during that time period
weren’t the greatest, either.)  Also, it doesn’t hurt that we’re
usually coming off of a relatively easy win the week before the ND game (usually!), while ND always plays an emotionally and physically draining game against Michigan right before facing us.

More directly, I think that at this point, our guys aren’t awestruck or intimidated by Notre Dame Stadium
as many other visiting players are.  Each of our players will play
there twice during their careers; the first time around, they’re
surrounded by upperclassmen who know nothing but winning in South Bend,
and the second time, they are those upperclassmen.

ITI: Obviously, we’re coming off pretty difficult losses. How much wind came out of the Spartan’s sails after losing to the Chippewas?

LVS: Oh, loooooots.  We simply played a terrible game: we couldn’t establish a consistent running attack, our defense couldn’t stop anything,
our pass rush was nonexistent, we took a bunch of inexcusable
penalties, and we lost in the epically inept manner of MSU teams past. 
We had all hoped that, after last season, we had left those sorts of
performances behind.  Simply: we anticipated being at least in the
discussion for the Big Ten title.  Championship contenders don’t lose
to MAC teams at home.  It’s a cold reality.

ITI: Can your defense stop the ND offense?

LVS: I doubt that we can stop ND’s offense, but I do think we’re
capable of slowing it down enough to win.  Remember, ND’s offense is
comprised of substantially the same players who could only score seven
points against us last season; those players are obviously more
experienced and better now, but even if you quadruple that output, I
still think we can score 31 points and win the game.

I wouldn’t read too much into last week; CMU runs the type of spread offense
we’ve historically been awful against.  ND has incredible receivers,
but I think our secondary is much better suited to defend against the
type of pro-style offense ND uses.  One thing which may be interesting:
MSU hasn’t faced a real running back yet this year.  Montana State more
or less abandoned the run after 10 minutes or so, and CMU’s screen
passing game essentially is their running game.  I expect our
rush defense to be better than average, but there’s no evidence to back
that up yet.  If there is a weakness there, Armando Allen is clearly
talented enough to exploit it.

ITI: Who should the Irish be scared of for the Spartans?

LVS: I think MSU can move the ball on Notre Dame, primarily through the air.  We
have two excellent receivers in Blair White – who is a walk-on, as you
may have heard – and B.J. Cunningham. White is one of the best
receivers in the Big Ten, and will work both from the slot and split
wide; coming into this season, many MSU fans were concerned about
Cunningham’s reliability, but he has been sure-handed and excellent
through the first two games.  Each has two touchdowns already this season.  The wide receiver corps will additionally given a boost if Mark Dell plays.  (He’s missed the first two games with a leg injury.)  Last
season, Dell was a bit inconsistent, but he’s tremendously athletic,
and the closest thing we have to a genuine gamebreaker.  We
also have three tight ends who are big threats in the passing game:
Charlie Gantt is the starter, Brian Linthicum is a Clemson transfer who
looked great in our first game and then was woefully underused
last week, and Dion Sims is a freshman, and an athletic freak in the
mold of recent MSU tight end Kellen Davis.

 

I’m confident in both of our sophomore quarterbacks, Kirk Cousins and Keith Nichol.  Briefly, Cousins is the pure passer of the two, while Nichol can pass, but is also a threat to scramble.  The
two have been rotating throughout the first two games (to our great
detriment in the CMU game, in my opinion), but Cousins is the team
captain and has been slightly more impressive in the first two games.  I’d expect the rotation to end and for Cousins to play the entire game unless something goes terribly wrong.

 

Conversely, Notre Dame shouldn’t be particularly worried about our running game.  Javon Ringer obviously killed the Irish last year, but he’s gone, and we’ve struggled so far to replace his output.  Two running backs – redshirt freshman Caulton Ray and true freshman Larry Caper – have separated themselves a bit from the pack; expect to see them both on Saturday.  But
the real problem has been our offensive line, which has two new
starters on the right side and has struggled mightily to create holes
for the backs.  Their play needs to improve, and soon, for MSU to be successful.

 

On
defense, ND should be worried about Greg Jones, our team’s best player
and the Big Ten preseason defensive player of the year.  He’s the best linebacker we’ve had in
East Lansing
in many, many years; he flies to the ball faster than almost anyone
else in college football, and is also a big threat on the blitz.

ITI: Did you have anything to do with the flag planting?

LVS: Ha.  My tuition helped pay John L. Smith’s salary, so I suppose I’m complicit in some way.  Honestly,
I think the entire episode was waaaaaay overblown, but I think I speak
for all MSU fans when I say that I’m very, very glad that unfortunate
era of Spartan football is dead and gone.

ITI: If you had to guess, what do you see happening this weekend?

LVS: Eesh.  Like I said, I think we can move the ball and score points on the Irish.  Tenuta
is an excellent defensive coordinator, but his default setting is
blitz, blitz, blitz, and stacking the box and bringing pressure really
isn’t the way to defend against us.  You really want to
clamp down in the secondary, and force us to beat you on the ground,
because we haven’t yet proven that we’re capable of doing that.

 

For me, this game will turn on how game-ready Michael Floyd is.  If
he’s healthy, we’re probably not going to be able to stop both he and
Golden Tate, and ND will get a couple long touchdown passes that will
make the difference.  If he’s still hurt, I think we can somewhat contain Tate, and slow down ND’s passing game just enough to win.  Ultimately,
though, I think our biggest problem is that our pass rush isn’t going
to bother Clausen at all, and with time in the pocket, he’s going to
pick us apart.  Another thing to watch is whether Clausen
and Allen are able to gouge our defense with screen passes; we looked
absolutely hopeless last week in defending screens.

 

Gun
to my head prediction: ND jumps out to an early lead, MSU fights back
to take the lead, but ND gets a late touchdown to win 31-27.  But I’ve picked ND to win this game at home many times now, and somehow we keep on escaping back to
East Lansing with the Megaphone, so you never know . . .

 

This is obviously an enormous game for both teams.  I’m really looking forward to being in South Bend for it.

ITI: If Dantonio doesn’t work out, do you think you guys have any interest in hiring proud MSU alumnus Ty Willingham?

LVS: Why would we need to hire him?  By doing more than anyone to run Notre Dame’s program into the ground, he’s already served his alma mater well.

Check out LVS and the rest of the crew at TheOnlyColors.com.


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.

Five things we learned: Signing Day 2016

FILE - In this Jan. 1, 2016, file photo, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly makes a call during the first half of the Fiesta Bowl NCAA College football game against Ohio State in Glendale, Ariz. Kelly has agreed to a six-year contract to stay on as coach at Notre Dame through 2021, the school announced Friday, Jan. 29,2 016.  (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)
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There were no last minute defections. No roller coaster recruits or down-to-the-wire decisions. Heck, there were no fax machines—with Notre Dame ditching the office dinosaur for a wireless, smart phone option.

Brian Kelly inked another Top 10 recruiting class on Wednesday. And he did so in decidedly uneventful fashion.

“It’s awesome. I think that everybody should try it once in their career,” Kelly said.

So while Kelly and the Irish staff hold out hope that 5-star talents Caleb Kelly and Demetris Robertson still decide to spend their college careers in South Bend, the 23-man class announced Wednesday was another Top 10 effort and a step in the right direction for a program on very stable ground.

Let’s find out what we learned.

 

Notre Dame’s staff continued to focus on rebuilding the secondary and rushing the passer. 

Yes, Brian Kelly saw what you saw—a group that struggled getting to the passer or to field a nickel or dime personnel grouping. So they countered that in the best way they knew how: By continuing to stockpile talent.

Notre Dame added seven defensive backs and four edge defenders in the cycle. They include safeties Jalen Elliott, D.J. Morgan, Spencer Perry and Devin Studstill and cornerbacks Julian Love, Troy Pride and Donte Vaughn. Perhaps just as important is the impression some of these defenders made in their time on campus, with Kelly pointing to Elliott and Studstill’s work during summer camp really making them must-have recruits.

“Jalen Elliott competed like no player that I have seen since I’ve been coaching in a camp setting,” Kelly said. “Same thing with Devin Studstill. His skill level was of corner-like ability but had the size of the safety, and so our guys went right to them early on, and that was a focal point because we got a chance to see them up close and personal.”

At defensive end, the Irish welcome 5-star recruit Daelin Hayes, getting him on campus as he recovers from shoulder surgery. He’s joined by former Alabama commit Khalid Kareem, the strongside counterpart that is an early candidate to see the field, especially as the staff looks for someone to spell Isaac Rochell for a few snaps. Longer-term prospects include a few speed rushers—Julian Okwara (younger brother of Romeo) and Ade Ogundeji, a long-limbed, below-the-radar edge rusher.

“We’re pretty excited about the potential for some guys in this class that can answer some four-man pass rush needs that we do have,” Kelly said.

 

It may not be the biggest group, but Brian Kelly is excited about his offensive line—especially the guys he pulled from Ohio State’s backyard. 

Three recruits in the offensive line class point to a big 2017 at the position. But the three the Irish did sign—guard Parker Boudreaux and tackles Liam Eichenberg and Tommy Kraemer—have Kelly very happy.

“Parker Boudreaux has that physical presence inside like, and I’m not comparing him, but he’s a Quinton Nelson in terms of size and physicality,” Kelly said. “And then two edge guys with Liam and Tommy on the outside. Those two kids are as good as you’re going to find in the country, and couldn’t be more excited to have two kids from the state of Ohio, from two great Catholic schools in St. Ignatius and Cincinnati Elder from the state of Ohio.”

Both Eichenberg and Kraemer were priority targets for Urban Meyer and company, with neither wavering after committing to Notre Dame. Kraemer was Ohio’s Gatorade Player of the Year and an Army All-American. He’ll be able to step into the two-deep immediately, capable of playing up front if the Irish need him. Eichenberg more than held his own at the Under Armour All-American game and has a high ceiling, especially as he learns the game under Hiestand.

It doesn’t take away the sting of the Fiesta Bowl. But it’s a nice consolation prize.

 

Irish legacies Jamir Jones and Julian Okwara may have big brothers who played for Brian Kelly, but they earned scholarships on their own. 

Classmates Jarron Jones and Romeo Okwara will turn over the reins to their younger brothers, linebacker Jamir Jones and defensive end Julian Okwara. The younger duo’s commitments felt all but inevitable throughout this recruiting cycle—even if that wasn’t always the case.

Jones had to come to camp to earn a scholarship. Having played quarterback and tight end as a high school standout in Rochester, the defensive staff had to see how he moved before they could find a position for him to play.

Similarly, Okwara’s journey to Notre Dame shouldn’t be taken for granted. While his older brother leaves Notre Dame the team’s leading quarterback sacker, Julian has a better natural pass rush skill-set than the 2015 team-leader.

“Julian can separate himself in a way because he has an elite initial movement and speed that Romeo has had to try and develop,” Mike Elston said in Okwara’s Signing Day video. “Romeo has the size and the power and the aggressiveness, but Julian can really add value for us right away.”

Kelly talked about how important it was to not just land this duo, but to have them already understand what the journey is that lies ahead.

“We didn’t recruit them because their brothers were here. We recruited them because we thought they were players that fit here at Notre Dame that would be very successful,” Kelly said. “Obviously it helps when their brothers have a great experience here and really enjoy their Notre Dame experience as a student and as an athlete, so that helps you in the recruiting… those kids really fit and can stand on their own two feet.”

 

Even without Demetris Robertson in the fold, Notre Dame’s receiving class is a group to watch. 

You want productivity? Throw on a highlight tape of Javon McKinley. You want an intriguing set of physical tools? Look no further than Chase Claypool. You want a sleeper prospect who out-performed every elite prospect who came to the Irish Invasion camp? Then your man is Kevin Stepherson.

Most of the attention on Signing Day was the fate of 5-star receiver Demetris Robertson. But the trio of athletes that’ll reload the receiving corps is a group that deserves recognition even without an additional infusion.

McKinley provided the day’s only scare when his smart phone struggled to send his signature via electronic fax. Claypool sent his national letter of intent in the day after scoring 51 points on the basketball court. And Stepherson is already taking part in team workouts in Paul Longo’s strength facilities, getting a jump start with the spring semester and 15 practices as the Irish try to figure out what life looks like after Will Fuller, Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle.

After Fuller left campus early on the back of two record-setting two seasons, Kelly said his staff has become more and more comfortable with the fact that his skill players need to develop quickly—especially with the allure of the NFL just ahead.

“If you’re really that good, you may not be here very long, and we hope that you’re here for four years and you stay, but you’ve got to be ready to compete,” Kelly said. “So our expectation in the recruiting process is for the wide receiver group to come in and compete to get on the field and be a player for us immediately.”

That’ll happen whether or not Robertson is a part of this group.

 

Amidst significant transition on both the coaching staff and recruiting office, Notre Dame managed a Top 10 class. Expect things to only get better from here. 

Let’s go back to Signing Day 2015. Within 24 hours of Brian Kelly’s press conference, he was dealing with two major changes—recruiting coordinator Tony Alford was out the door to Ohio State and Kerry Cooks was headed to Oklahoma. Two aces on the staff were gone, forcing the Irish to not just replace long-time staffers, but to find new area recruiters for the state of Texas and Alford’s stronghold in Florida.

Kelly brought in first-year college assistant Todd Lyght to work with defensive backs. He tapped the school’s rushing leader Autry Denson to handle the backs and duke it out in Florida. Mike Sanford shook up the offense as Bob Elliott moved into an off-field position. But perhaps just as important as those moves, Kelly turned over the administrative reins to Mike Elston, who moved into a recruiting coordinator position he had filled for his boss back at Cincinnati.

Elston had to reorganize a staff that saw relationships walk out the door and reboot a recruiting effort that saw significant changes behind the scenes. And in short order things got back on track and have progressed to the point that the Irish are ahead of the game, setting junior days and summer camp dates earlier than ever.

For those paying attention, they’ve noticed the improvements. Notre Dame has paid more attention to messaging—staffers more active on Twitter. There have been improvements on Instagram, Facebook and Vine—platforms that might sound like gobbledygook to grownups, but are critical pieces to a year-long recruiting effort. That should help this staff press ahead in 2017, a recruiting class that already has five members.

“With that team that we’ve put together, we’re not going to look back. It’s only going to get better,” Kelly said.

It was Elston that engineered the equipment truck visit to Savannah, a late-game recruiting move that drew a lot of attention to Notre Dame. It was recruiters like Denson who went to Alabama and got a visit out of Ben Davis, a Crimson Tide legacy who gave the Irish a much longer look than anybody could have expected. And it’s no surprise that a former Pro Bowler and first-round draft pick like Lyght was able to reel in a large group of defensive backs eager to learn from a guy who was a clear success story.

“I think each and every year, you hope that this group is the best group you’ve ever recruited,” Kelly said. “I’m hoping for that again.”

 

Faxes in: Liam Eichenberg

Liam Eichenberg
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LIAM EICHENBERG
Cleveland, Ohio

Measurables: 6’6″, 280 lbs.

Accolades: 4-Star, Under Armour All-American, 2015 MaxPreps first-team All-American, 2015 American Family Insurance All-USA Ohio, AP All-Ohio Division I first-team.

Impressive Offers: Florida State, Miami, Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, Tennessee

Projected Position: Offensive tackle.

Quick Take: Another offensive tackle with sky-high potential, Notre Dame snatched Eichenberg out from under Urban Meyer’s nose, bringing in yet another blue-chipper for Harry Hiestand to mold. More of a developmental project than Kraemer, Eichenberg’s upside could be just as lofty, especially after some time in a weight room and on the practice field.

What he means to the Irish: With numbers at tackle on the light side, Eichenberg won’t be asked to get on the field, but he might start his career in the two deep behind Mike McGlinchey. That could take away a redshirt if things go wrong, but the view from behind McGlinchey is a good spot for him, learning behind another talented athlete who came to campus as a developmental prospect but will enter his senior season (McGlinchey has two years of eligibility remaining) as a legit NFL prospect.

Eichenberg has the same kind of ceiling. He’ll just need to keep improving—something that he’s shown after a strong Under Armour All-American week in Orlando.

Obligatory YouTube clip: