When the shoe drops

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With billows of smoke following Brian Kelly’s every move, it’s very likely he’ll be the man named the next football coach at Notre Dame. While his hiring brings to mind Kevin White’s ill-fated “central casting” comments from the introduction of George O’Leary, the fact that Kelly fits the profile of the man leading the Fighting Irish does nothing to ensure his success at Notre Dame.

If Brian Kelly is named the head coach at Notre Dame, the challenges he’ll need to deal with starting day one will be imperative to his success. When the shoe drops, here are Kelly’s three chief concerns:

BUILDING A COACHING STAFF

If Kelly becomes head coach at Notre Dame, he’ll demand final say on his coaching staff. People have speculated who stays and who goes from the current Notre Dame coaching staff, but there’s no way to know for sure. I suspect Jack Swarbrick will request that Kelly meet with all the current assistants that have remained on staff after Weis was let go on November 30th. By reputation, Kelly would be smart to do so. Coaches like Rob Ianello, Tony Alford, Brian Polian, and Corwin Brown are thought of as elite recruiters. Coaches Randy Hart and Frank Verducci are regarded as master tacticians. Whether those coaches fit with Kelly and his philosophies will be anyone’s guess. Coaches like Brown, with strong loyalties to Weis and plucked from the NFL, might head back to the professional ranks. Whatever the case, Kelly’s decision on a coaching staff, especially at the defensive coordinator position, will be at the forefront.

FINISHING OUT RECRUITING

While any hope to land a whale like Bob Stoops has passed for most Irish fans, what made an elite coach like that so intriguing is his ability to land an equally gigantic recruit. Stoops and Urban Meyer, another coach high atop many Irish wish-lists, have track records of landing blue-chip recruits on both sides of the ball. Brian Kelly doesn’t fit into that grouping.

If Kelly is going to succeed during his tenure in South Bend, his work in the living room will need to be as good as his work on the sidelines. Having the ability to find a diamond in the rough is essential for any coach. But closing the deal on a player that everybody knows about is another animal, and Kelly hasn’t had to do that yet. Notre Dame fans had to feel lucky that Charlie Weis, a man with zero recruiting experience, turned into an elite college recruiter. From all reports, Kelly is a charming man with the zest of a politician, but he’ll also lack the prop of three Super Bowl rings and an NFL ready offense. If Kelly can retain the recruits that Notre Dame has, and figure out a way to swing one or two of the blue-chippers on the board to South Bend, he’ll be well on his way.

PLOTTING OUT SPRING INSTALLATION

Jimmy Clausen and Golden Tate leaving early won’t be Kelly’s largest challenge. It’ll be installing his offense without quarterback Dayne Crist available. The promising sophomore signal caller could be a great fit for Kelly’s offense, but we’ll likely only find out come next fall, when Crist will be taking the first full-speed reps since he tore his ACL. I expect the Irish to schedule spring practice as late as possible, giving Crist as much time to get healthy as possible. 

Offensively, the Irish will need to get a group of fairly green offensive linemen familiar with a completely different scheme. Wide receivers like Duval Kamara and Shaq Evans will need to make the jump to the next level and step up in Tate’s absence, as they try to learn an offense that won’t have a scholarship quarterback in uniform this Spring.

Defensively, a group of promising youngsters will need to get their confidence back and learn how to play (at the very least) average defense. Kelly will also have to deal with the unique situation surrounding Manti Te’o, who has yet to comment on whether or not he’ll be taking his Mormon mission. If Te’o leaves for a mission, there’s no guarantee he’ll ever return to campus.

We’ll likely find out in the next day or two if Brian Kelly ends up being the man who’s picked to lead the Irish. If he is, his first weeks in charge of the program will be critical to his success. 

Restocking the roster: Wide Receivers

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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.