Deciphering what Pitt we'll see

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I’ve thought long and hard about this weekend’s game. (A loss like the Navy game will do that to you…) Yet the more I think about Pitt, the more I’m just not sure of what we’ll actually see out there.

I understand that the AP Top 25 has Pitt ranked eighth, the BCS has the Panthers at twelve, and the Coaches’ poll has them at ninth. But honestly, who really knows what kind of team Pitt is?

There are two parts of me thinking about this game, and I figure I’ll just spell them both out:

Part One (aka Pitt doesn’t scare me…):

What’s to respect about Pitt? They’re a poor man’s, Big East equivalent of Iowa, a team that was finally exposed last weekend with a loss to Northwestern. Let’s take a look at the Pitt schedule. A victory over Youngstown State that shouldn’t count. A track meet victory against Buffalo, where this “vaunted” Pitt defense gave up 500 yards to Buffalo, 433 in the air, and capitalized on three lost fumbles. This isn’t last year’s Buffalo either, this is back-down-to-Earth Buffalo.

If you’re looking for a signature victory, could it be Navy? A team that is now such an embarrassing loss that it could cost the Notre Dame coaching staff its job because they turned the ball over twice inside the five-yard line and came away with nothing in four trips to the red zone?

Pitt’s one loss is an eyesore, a 38-31 loss to NC State, that only last week finally won their first ACC conference game with a win over 2-7 Maryland. If we want to talk about an ugly loss, this should qualify as an ugly loss.

While we should all give credit for Pitt winning the games on its schedule, what kind of credit should it be? This part of me is leaning toward the polite golf clap, something akin to sinking a three-footer for par. South Florida is doing it’s annual sink, Pitt needed 21 second half points and a 15 point rally to beat UConn, and they won an “Ehh” Rutgers game, against a team that really hasn’t beaten anyone close to good this season either.

This part of me expects a motivated Notre Dame, playing in front of a national audience, to overwhelm Pitt early and often, coming together in a cathartic experience to avenge last week’s loss and the four-overtime debacle last season at home.

Part Two (aka Oh boy, is ND in trouble…)

When I think about match-ups I like, I don’t think about Pitt.

Front four that can get pressure on a quarterback? That’s Pitt. By the numbers, they’ve got a better pass rush than USC, and I think Paul Duncan kept his game uniform from that week and used it as a turn-style costume for Halloween. If USC provided a long day for the Irish while playing in the sanctity of Notre Dame Stadium, what’s Pitt going to do in front of the largest crowd in school history?

And how about that running game everybody thought would fall apart when Mark May’s favorite, Shady McCoy, left for the NFL. Dion Lewis has rumbled for 1,139 yards already this season and is averaging 5.6 per carry with 12 touchdowns. He’s run for 100+ yards for four straight games and has yet to be held below 79 yards a game, so the Irish’s middle-of-the-pack rush defense doesn’t look like it’ll present many problems.

Think tight ends have hurt the Irish? We haven’t seen anyone like Dorin Dickerson since Anthony McCoy, so Dickerson might as well get his shoes shined and his Sunday best pressed and ready for the postgame media conference. Maybe the uneasy sleep I had this week was because I was seeing Dickerson run wild in the secondary, with Harrison Smith trailing behind him by four or five steps.

And speaking of the Irish’s stout passing defense, Notre Dame has climbed all the way up to 88th, but mostly because they played woeful Washington State and Navy, who only attempted three passes, but still caught the Irish napping for a long touchdown pass. Add in Bill Stull, the fifth-rated passer in college football and deep-threat Jonathan Baldwin, who is averaging 20 yards a catch, and, well — let’s just say I didn’t get a whole lot of confidence in Tenuta’s gang over the past six days.

If this part of me has learned anything, it’s that Notre Dame does it’s very best to play to the level of its competition and hasn’t executed with enough precision to win all the close games, especially in the red zone. Hopped up crowd, fragile team psyche, bad matchup and good opponent… hopefully the jitters won’t effect the team’s live-blogger as well.

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Now what do I think is going to happen? I still see a lot of resolve in this Irish team, but they’ve just made so many mistakes that I am done trying to predict what’s going to happen. If anything, I feel like the Irish are due for some good luck, and nothing creates good luck like playing good football.

Up until the Navy game, I thought things were trending up, yet the loss to the Midshipmen put everybody on red alert. Still, I really feel like this Notre Dame team isn’t the same as the disappointing group from last season, and that they’ll figure out a way to win this game.

We’ll find out a lot about this team tomorrow. If they rally around their embattled head coach and win decisively, it could get the Irish back on a roll and finishing the season strong. And if that happens, it could save the man that leads the program.    

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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