Five things we learned: Notre Dame vs. Washington State

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As the Irish ran into the locker room at halftime, still celebrating the incredible Hail Mary grab Golden Tate made over three Washington State defenders, it was clear that tonight’s game wasn’t going to be like the rest of them. The Irish slogged their way through the second half, cruising comfortably to a 40-14 victory over the inexperienced and over-matched Cougars.

Over 53,000 fans came out to the first of the highly publicized (and scrutinized) neutral site home games, and most of the fans in the Alamodome didn’t leave disappointed. While nobody will mistake San Antonio and the fast field turf for South Bend and the slow natural turf, the Irish offense and defense looked at home surrounded by Irish fans, and much quicker and physical superior to their counterparts.

Here’s what we learned on this Halloween night:

1) Golden Tate is a man possessed.

Tate’s catch on the last-second, first-half Hail Mary shows just how confident the junior wide receiver is on the football field. Tate skied over three Cougars, pried the ball away from them, and simply willed the ball away from everyone. We’ve come to expect heroics and excitement from Tate, but the 5-foot-11 receiver leaping over three defenders in a single bound? Apparently #23 dressed up as Superman for Halloween, writing another chapter in this storybook season. If Tate was sixth in the straw poll among Heisman voters, he’s got to have moved up a few more spots after his performance tonight. While he still hasn’t been able to make a big play as a punt returner, Tate was electric will the ball in his hands tonight as a runner from the Wildcat and as a receiver getting constant double coverage. With Michael Floyd most likely returning next week, the Irish offense could reach a new stratosphere.

2) Injuries will stay a part of the story.

Charlie Weis kept Armando Allen out of uniform and Robby Parris off the field as both were one good week of rest away from being fully healthy. Yet the Irish had three significant injuries today. Jimmy Clausen aggravated his turf toe, and while Weis said after the game that Clausen could have come back in if it was needed, he still hobbled off the field before he was quite ready to go. The injury to starting right guard Trevor Robinson looked more serious. Robinson was in street clothes and on crutches in the second half, and while he looked in good spirits, you never like seeing something like that. The worst of the night, was the injury to backup quarterback Dayne Crist. It looked very ugly as the sophomore quarterback was tackled awkwardly and had his leg buckle twice as he went down. Crist fumbled the ball as he fell in obvious agony, and was escorted into the locker room right after he left the field. He’ll have an MRI Monday on his left knee.

3) The defense earned some much deserved confidence.

Nobody should be happier than Jon Tenuta and Corwin Brown. Questioned for the last several weeks for the weak play of the defense and secondary, the Irish turned in an impressive performance shutting down the passing game of Washington State, which actually was coming off a decent performance. Freshman quarterback Jeff Tuel looked very much the part of a deer in headlights, running for his life, getting hit early and often, and throwing for a poor completion percentage, only 4.5 yards per attempt, and two interceptions. Tuel was sacked five times, Ethan Johnson, Darius Fleming, and Steve Filer all contributed big plays in the Cougars back field, and the coverage was much better. Obviously, Washington State is one of the worst offenses in Division I football, but it’s a step in the right direction.

4) Eric Maust should be punting next week.

Ben Turk seems like a good kid, but he can’t be the punter for Notre Dame next week. Even after booming a 49-yard punt that rolled out of bounds at the 2 yard-line, Turk still averaged 33 yards a kick, shanking an 11-yarder and moon-shotting a 19-yarder in his five attempts. Regardless of what happens during the midweek competition, Weis needs to go to Maust, because Turk is clearly battling the demons of punting with the stadium lights on. With Maust you’ve got a two-sport athlete that has been in big games before as a punter and a pitcher, and on his 14 kicks this season he’s averaging a shade under 40 yards, a significant improvement on the 35.7 that Turk is averaging on his 13 punts.

5) The Irish need to win out.

If Notre Dame has any illusions of a big-time bowl game, they need to win out. Notre Dame’s two losses this season just got significantly uglier, with Michigan getting stomped by a down-trodden Illinois team, and USC losing by 27 points and getting embarrassed by Oregon in Autzen Stadium. Yet all the statistical regressions run won’t matter at all if the Irish take care of business and win the month of November. Notre Dame’s four games — against Navy, at Pitt, UConn, and at Stanford — will give the Irish the opportunity to be one of the hottest teams going into bowl season. Tonight’s victory should give the Irish confidence going into the stretch run, and with teams like Virginia Tech, Oklahoma State, Ole Miss, and South Carolina losing, should bump Notre Dame into a spot where a five game winning streak will have them looking very attractive to a BCS selection committee, especially with the return of Notre Dame’s other All-American wide receiver Michael Floyd.   

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)

 

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.