Weekend leftovers

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We’ll know much more about the Irish offense in the next day or so, and I’ll share some thoughts on that later today. But until then, here are some observations, thoughts and leftovers from the weekend that was. Overall, it’s never disappointing to win a game by almost 4 touchdowns, but if I’m the Irish coaching staff, I’d still let everyone know there’s plenty of room for improvement.

Here are some thoughts and observations from the weekend:

* Reading the Spokane Spokesman-Review, I found some interesting quotes from the game, most of them with a Wazzu flavor. The theme of the evening was the “incredible bulk” of the Notre Dame offensive line.

“It was all up front, we were just out-physical-ed,” WSU coach Paul Wulff said. “That was probably the first time this year where we got that ‘physical-ed.'”

Yet the highlight of the story was a quote from quarterback Jeff Tuel, who was asked about the play Golden Tate made at the end of the first half.

“We feel confident, we’re two scores out of the game – we feel like
we’re going into the half and they throw the Hail Mary and then it’s
just kind of like, ‘Holy cow,'” Tuel said. “We were just kind of
in shock. It definitely took a little bit of momentum away from us.”

As incredible as that moment must have been for Notre Dame going into halftime, that had to be far more devastating for the Cougars.

* I noticed pretty early that the Irish looked really quick on the artificial surface of the Alamodome, and apparently Charlie Weis did as well. He specifically thought the loss of Armando Allen could be absorbed by adding the electric speed of Theo Riddick into the rushing attack, and for the most part he was correct.

“This is a fast track here, this is a low surface astroturf, so it’s a very fast track and I thought Theo would thrive,” Weis said.

While the speed of the field played into Riddick’s success, I’d argue that it was even more important for the defensive front seven, where Notre Dame very clearly out-athleted Wazzu with players like Darius Fleming, Kerry Neal, and Steve Filer. Manti Te’o looked even more explosive out there, as well as Ethan Johnson.

I think it’s only a matter of time before the football program realizes that it might make sense to try and do something about their home field, especially if they’re going to be recruiting the type of athletes that they now have a plethora of.

* In his comments last night, Weis was happy with the performance of the first defensive unit. As a whole, they only gave up 109 yards of total offense, and zero explosive plays in the passing game.

Before we discount the performance and point to the woeful Cougar offense, it should be mentioned that Tuel threw for 354 yards against Cal last weekend, so maybe it’s a sign that the Irish defense might be putting things together.

* Once again, Charlie Weis claimed that touted freshman wide receiver Shaq Evans isn’t in the doghouse. While Evans played some Saturday, he’s still is far from a regular spot in the rotation, and doesn’t seem to be getting any closer to the field.

“He’s not in the doghouse. I’ve heard this several times in the last few weeks about him being in the doghouse,” Weis said. “As a matter of face, the last week and a half, he’s actually practiced better and better and put himself in a position to get significant time.

“He’s in a position to go ahead and play in the multiple wide receivers sets and the guys that are playing ahead of him are playing too good really to take out. I’m not looking to take out guys just to take them out. When it came time for substituting, when his group was in, we were in more two-wide sets than three-wide sets.”

“I promise you, may God strike me dead, there’s no doghouse for number 11. I never lie to you guys, I try to be evasive as I possibly can, but I’m not lying to you. There’s no doghouse.”

This is a great reminder for all the recruitniks out there, that you really don’t know what you’re getting until the freshman actually strap up the pads. Especially with kids from football hotbeds like Southern California. Shaq Evans and Cierre Wood were two of the highest touted skill recruits in the class, and guys like Theo Riddick and Robby Toma were after thoughts to those that follow that kind of stuff. (I even remember reading a messageboard where someone openly questioned why a guy like Riddick would want to even play running back, when he’ll most likely transition to cornerback.)

Also, the play of Duval Kamara has done more to keep Shaq off the field than any misstep he could’ve taken off the field. Duval may never become the explosive jump-ball, deep-threat many hoped he’d become, but he’s certainly becoming a dependable third option, that will continue to make plays when you-know-who comes back.

Restocking the roster: Offensive Line

Notre Dame offensive line
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When Notre Dame takes the field this spring, there’ll be two very large holes in the offensive line that need filling. All-American left tackle Ronnie Stanley is gone. As is captain Nick Martin at center. Both three-year starters leave Harry Hiestand with some big decisions to make in the coming months as the Irish look to fill those key positions and still field a unit with the ability to dominate in the trenches.

The Irish have had incredible stability at left tackle, with Stanley sliding in seamlessly after four seasons of Zack Martin. Perhaps the best six-year run in the program’s storied history at the position, Stanley will likely join Martin as a first-rounder, back-to-back starters at a key spot that often dictates the play of one of the most important units on the field.

Replacing Nick Martin could prove equally tricky. Rising junior Sam Mustipher served as Martin’s backup in 2015, filing in capably for Martin after an ankle sprain took him off the field briefly against UMass. But Mustipher will face a challenge this spring from rising sophomore Tristen Hoge, the first true center recruited by Hiestand and Brian Kelly since they arrived in South Bend.

Kelly talked about 2017 being a big cycle on the recruiting trail for restocking the offensive line. You can see why when you look at the depth, particularly at tackle. Let’s look at the work that’s been done the previous two classes as Notre Dame continues to be one of the premier programs recruiting in the trenches.

 

DEPARTURES
Ronnie Stanley
, Sr. (39 starts)
Nick Martin, Grad Student (37 starts)
Mark Harrell, Sr* (No Starts, fifth-year available)

*Harrell’s departure is not confirmed, though expected.  

2015-16 ADDITIONS
Tristen Hoge
, C
Trevor Ruhland
, G
Jerry Tillery
, T
Parker Boudreaux
, G
Tommy Kraemer
, T
Liam Eichenberg
, T

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Hunter Bivin, T
Quenton Nelson, LG
Sam Mustipher, C
Steve Elmer, RG
Mike McGlinchey, RT

Alex Bars, T
Colin McGovern,* G/T
Tristen Hoge*, C
John Montelus*, G
Jimmy Byrne*, G
Trevor Ruhland*, G

*Has an additional year of eligibility remaining. 

ANALYSIS:
It’ll be a fascinating spring up front for the offensive line. We’ll get our first look at potential replacements and see if the Irish staff values a veteran presence (as it has done in the past) or puts former blue-chip recruits in position to become multi-year starters.

For now, I’m putting last season’s backups in line to ascend to starting spots. That’s not to say I think that’s what’ll happen. Hunter Bivin may have been Stanley’s backup last season, but as long as Alex Bars is fully recovered from his broken ankle, I think he’s the best bet to step into that job. Sharing reps at guard—not a natural spot for Bars to begin with—was more about getting him some experience, with the aim to move him into the lineup in 2016. That allows Bivin to be a key swing reserve, capable of playing on either the right or left side.

At center, the decision is less clear cut—especially since we’ve yet to see Tristen Hoge play a snap of football. Size and strength is a genuine concern at the point of attack for Hoge, not necessarily the biggest guy hitting campus. But it sounds like he’s had a nice first season from a developmental standpoint, and if he’s a true technician at the position, he could be a rare four-year starter at center if he’s able to pull ahead of Mustipher this spring.

On paper, the other three starting jobs don’t seem to be in question. Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey are ready to step to the forefront. Concerns about Steve Elmer’s buy-in will certainly be answered by spring, there’s little chance he’ll be on the field in March if he’s not going to be around in August. I’m of the mind that Elmer’s too good of a character guy to leave the program, even if his life doesn’t revolve around football 24/7. Now it’s time for him to clean up some of the flaws in his game, the only starter from last season who held back the Irish from being a truly elite group.

Depth isn’t necessarily a concern, but there isn’t a ton of it at tackle. That happens when you move a guy like Jerry Tillery to defensive line and lose a player like Stanley with a year of eligibility remaining. That could force the Irish to cross-train someone like Colin McGovern, a veteran who can swing inside or out if needed. McGovern seems to be a guy who would start in a lot of other programs, but has struggled to crack a two-deep that’s now filled with former blue-chip recruits, all of them essentially handpicked by Hiestand and Kelly.

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

BVG
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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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