Stepping up… The offensive line


We’re starting a feature here that should get everybody ready for Spring Practice. “Stepping Up” (not to be confused with the Channing Tatum/Jenna Dewan tour-de-force dance movie) looks at the holes on the depth chart and who is likely to fill them. I hope everybody enjoys…

If one position’s inconsistency defined the Charlie Weis era, it was the offensive line. While the defense was the unit that ultimately led to Weis’ ouster after five seasons, the offensive line’s volatility and inconsistency — sometimes expected, sometimes mind-boggling — mirrored the struggles of Charlie Weis as a coach and the Irish during his tenure.

While Weis’ 3-9 2007 team is a reflection on the recruiting failures of Tyrone Willingham, the staggering inefficiency of the offensive line also showed how difficult Weis’ pro-style scheme was to pick up for a group of lineman thrown into action after last playing significant minutes at the high school level. 2008’s up-and-down season along the offensive line resulted in the departure of offensive line coach John Latina, and Frank Verducci was brought in to get better results out of a finally veteran group.

While last season’s offensive line saw vast improvements, and Verducci did a impressive job, there was rarely a time where the offensive line dominated an opponent. Whether it was inopportune penalties, inconsistent run-blocking, or ill-timed sacks, it never felt like the offensive line became the veteran force that the Irish needed.

Entering the Brian Kelly era, let’s take a look at who the offensive line loses, who’s returning, and the key lineman that need to step up.


With the departure of Paul Duncan, Eric Olsen, and Sam Young, the Irish arguably lose the three most important starters along the offensive line. While Duncan was hardly considered an elite left tackle, he did a service able job covering Jimmy Clausen’s blindside. As an offensive captain, Olsen supplied leadership and spearheaded the line, successfully shifting to center to open up playing time for sophomore Trevor Robinson. And while Sam Young may never have become the Outland candidate that many thought the Irish signed when he committed to the Irish from St. Thomas Aquinas, he ended up starting every game of his collegiate career, a pretty miraculous feat in this era of college football.


Chris Stewart returns at guard for the Irish as a fifth year player, where he’s expect to thrive in his final year of eligibility. Stewart’s redshirt should pay dividends, and I expect him to be a force on the interior of the Irish line. Trevor Robinson also returns to the starting lineup, though he might not be lining up on the interior of the offensive line if the Irish can’t find proper tackles to fill the open voids. Robinson battled some injuries last season, but played impressive football for a sophomore and hopefully will take the leap from good to great during his third season. Dan Wenger also comes back for his fifth year, likely returning to center and anchoring the inside of the offensive line. Wenger was the odd-man-out after Olsen shifted to center, but was a valuable reserve that picked up the slack when Robinson was hobbled.


The battle for the two tackle positions is the key to next season’s offensive front. Replacing three starters puts the Irish in a none too envious position of having to replace the majority of minutes along the front line. Our friends over at Blue-Gray Sky point to an ominous statistic, comparing the 43 percent of returning playing time to the 42 percent that returned to the dreadful 2007 offensive line. 

Nobody expects the offensive to nose-dive like it did in 2007, and Brian Kelly’s spread attack doesn’t put nearly the same pressure on lineman that Weis’ offense did. But for the Irish to be an elite offense again, they’ll need some of the following guys to step up and win a job.

Matt Romine, Left Tackle: Romine was a highly-touted recruit, and long expected to challenge for a starting tackle position. Yet injuries, bad luck, and the depth chart have combined to get in the way of Romine playing a significant part of the offense. I expect the coaching change to benefit Romine greatly, as a fresh start and a new scheme will finally put Romine in a position to succeed.

Taylor Dever, Right Tackle: Dever found himself stuck behind Sam Young, which relegated him to only special teams duty the last two seasons. Yet all reports say Dever has the size and athleticism to play on the edge of the offensive front, where he’ll likely be given the first opportunity to win a job.

Dark Horses: Don’t count out guys like Andrew Nuss, who don’t necessarily have an open job to compete for, but will be given every chance to win a starting position. I also expect to hear from athletic tackle Lane Clelland, who profiles nicely into this offense. It’ll be interesting to see how freshman Chris Watt acquits himself this spring, fresh off a redshirt year where he reportedly impressed the former coaching staff. If Dan Wenger doesn’t get it done at center, both Braxton Cave and Mike Golic Jr. will look to challenge at the position.  

Notre Dame falls to No. 6 in latest College Football Playoff Poll

Tennessee v Georgia

The College Football Playoff committee was unimpressed with Notre Dame’s 19-16 victory over Boston College. Of the teams that won last Saturday, the Irish were the big loser this week in the polls, sliding from No. 4 to No. 6 this week, even with Ohio State dropping a game.

Notre Dame was jumped by Oklahoma, Iowa and Michigan State in this week’s poll, the new No. 3, 4 and 5 teams. The 10-1 Sooners held on to win 30-29 over TCU while Iowa pulled away from Purdue in the second half to stay undefeated. Michigan State was the big winner of the week, ending Ohio State’s undefeated run in Columbus winning 17-14, with just a game against Penn State left before solidifying their spot in the Big Ten Championship game against the Hawkeyes.

Clemson and Alabama remain in the top two spots, while the Irish are trailed by Baylor, Ohio State, Stanford and Michigan in the Top Ten. Notre Dame’s lone loss is to No. 1 Clemson and they have victories over No. 15 Navy and No. 25 Temple. But the committee looked at the rather unimpressive play of the Irish these past two weeks while also weighing the ranked victories for Oklahoma and Michigan State.

“The Boston College game didn’t add a lot to their resume, but it was more about the performance of Oklahoma and Michigan State that propelled them ahead of Notre Dame,” committee chairman Jeff Long told ESPN. “I think that combination of them not playing well the last couple weeks, combined with those high ranked wins by Michigan State and Oklahoma propelled them up there.”

If you listened closely to Long, it’s far from a done deal, especially among the four teams bouncing between No. 3 and No. 6. Long told ESPN’s Rece Davis that multiple “revotes” were called, with quite a bit of discussion before ending the week on the current rank.

With Stanford at No. 9 and Oklahoma State at No. 11, both the Irish and Sooners will have high-profile opponents before ending their season without a conference championship game. Alabama will play in the Iron Bowl this weekend against Auburn before facing Florida in the SEC title game while Clemson will face North Carolina in the ACC title game.

Earlier on Tuesday, Brian Kelly sounded like a coach who knew his team’s fate wasn’t in its control. But Kelly also said he thought his team was worthy of a playoff spot if they beat Stanford, something that now carries some urgency with the Irish showing a perceived slip these past two weeks.

“All we can do is control the way we perform and the way we prepare,” Kelly said. “Our guys clearly understand what they have to do in their preparation and then their performance on Saturday. And that’s it. The rest is up to a committee, and we knew that coming into the season. So we’ll take care of what we can take care of.

What though the odds: Injury-ravaged Irish still on the brink of playoff

Brian Kelly

The loss of KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise is the latest in an injury-plagued season for Notre Dame. Notre Dame’s best defensive back and their game-breaking runner will leave the Irish looking for answers with unproven players as they head to Stanford for a must-win season finale.

Entering the year, Brian Kelly’s sixth team was praised for its talent pool, a group expected to have tremendous depth, built class-to-class via recruiting during Kelly’s time in South Bend. That stockpile has been tested routinely since training camp—maybe even before—as we saw players expected to be key contributors lost from the moment Everett Golson packed his bags for Tallahassee and Greg Bryant never made it to fall camp.

Yet the Irish are still standing. At 10-1 and on the brink of a potential College Football Playoff berth, it’s not hard to call this Brian Kelly’s best coaching job since he arrived in South Bend. This staff’s best laid plans never even had a chance to be implemented. Instead, we’ve watched players young and old galvanize into a group that may suffer from fits of inconsistency, but still manages to win football games.

Entering every season since Kelly has taken over, we’ve polled a group of beat writers and “experts” to determine the Top 25 players on Notre Dame’s roster. This season’s group had 11 pollsters, each from a website or publication that spends way too much time studying the Irish roster.

Take a look at the roster attrition the Irish have suffered based on preseason expectations.

  1. Jaylon Smith
  2. Ronnie Stanley
  3. Will Fuller
  4. KeiVarae Russell (lost vs. BC)
  5. Sheldon Day
  6. Tarean Folston (lost vs. Texas)
  7. Cole Luke
  8. Nick Martin
  9. C.J. Prosise (injured vs. Pitt, BC)
  10. Malik Zaire (lost for season vs. Virginia
  11. Jarron Jones (lost for season in preseason camp)
  12. Joe Schmidt
  13. Max Redfield
  14. Isaac Rochell
  15. Steve Elmer
  16. Mike McGlinchey
  17. Corey Robinson
  18. Elijah Shumate
  19. Chris Brown
  20. Nyles Morgan
  21. Quenton Nelson
  22. Matthias Farley
  23. Durham Smythe (lost for season vs. Virginia)
  24. Greg Bryant (lost for season before camp)
  25. Jerry Tillery

Unranked but lost players also included:

  1. Shaun Crawford, DB (lost in preseason camp)
  2. Ishaq Williams, DE (lost after eligibility appeal)
  3. Avery Sebastian, DB (lost against Texas)
  4. Drue Tranquil, DB (lost against Georgia Tech)
  5. Alex Bars, OL (lost against USC)
  6. Equanimeous St. Brown (lost before Pitt)
  7. James Onwualu (lost against Wake Forest)

Every football team loses contributors—and this season felt more harsh than most, with some of college football’s biggest names lost to injury. But a quick look at Notre Dame’s projected depth chart and it’s stunning when you consider the Irish will take on Stanford without seven projected starters and seven more players that would’ve likely been in the two-deep.

This isn’t an exercise laid out just to feel sorry or make excuses. Rather it’s just as interesting to look at the ascent of the players asked to step in and contribute.

A season after depth issues sunk Notre Dame’s defense, Kelly’s ability to not just preach, but to practice “Next Man In” proved vital, with 2015 likely to be the reference point for years to come.

DeShone Kizer replaced Malik Zaire, becoming the household name Zaire was set to be after a big game against Texas. Tarean Folston’s season ended after three carries, clearing the way for C.J. Prosise to become a 1,000 yard rusher. The tight end position has been a grab bag, mostly because first-time contributors Chase Hounshell, Nic Weishar and Alizé Jones are learning on the fly.

Jerry Tillery and Daniel Cage stepped in for a senior starter and the defensive line didn’t implode. The secondary lost three contributors who would’ve helped Brian VanGorder be multiple on the back end—limitations that have likely frustrated the coaches as much as fans.

Yet the Irish are still standing, walking into Palo Alto battered and bruised, but also hopeful that they’ll find a way to win a football game. It’s an attitude that the Irish have embraced—what though the odds—finding a way to come out victorious in the end.

“That culture exists. It’s strong. These guys love to battle,” Kelly said this weekend. “That’s why I have no hesitations about what they’re going to do against Stanford. They’re going to fight for four quarters and lay it on the field.”

It’s a one-game season. Notre Dame has a chance on Saturday to push their record to 11-1 and make a convincing argument that they should be a part of the four-team playoff. Even if it’s with a team that hardly resembles the one we thought we were going to see this season.



The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Boston College

DeShone Kizer, Kevin Kavalec, Harold Landry

Notre Dame beat Boston College 19-16. The game was as ugly as the final score indicates.

Some will say there’s no such thing as a bad win. We’ll find out if that’s true Tuesday evening, when the College Football Playoff Committee—the only arbiter of value—makes their weekly rankings announcement.

Will the Irish inch up the board, considering Ohio State lost to a Michigan State team juggling backup quarterbacks? Will they get jumped by an Iowa team who has made a season of winning unimpressive in close games, or Oklahoma, who needed to stop a two-point conversion to beat a TCU team decimated by injury?

You can’t blame Brian Kelly for not caring. Notre Dame’s head football coach understands it won’t do anything to help.

“The committee is out of my hands. It’s out of our players’ hands,” Kelly said postgame. “All we want to do is put ourselves in a position to be considered. We feel like we need to win another game to still be considered. We’re one of the top four teams after last week. We’ll see where we stand this week. We’ve just got to keep winning games. We’ve got another game against a nationally-ranked team which will give us an opportunity.”

With that, let’s get on with it. It’s a good, bad and ugly that only a mother could love, as we do our best to erase this game from the memory bank and move on to Stanford.



Winning. The Boston College football program’s DNA was formed thanks to pulling off upsets like Saturday night’s. This isn’t a team or a school that’s known for sustained excellence or winning championships. Rather it’s the loud-mouth brawler with a big right hand—the loser of many, many fights, but always the winner of a few really big knockouts, the epitome of fearless muscle with a puncher’s chance.

So if there’s something positive to take from the win, it’s that Notre Dame did everything it could to present a knockout shot and the Eagles still couldn’t land it. Five turnovers. Red zone futility. Horrific mistakes and decisions by players who until that point had been largely responsible for leading the charge.

That’s what made Kelly happiest postgame. A team that found every way possible to step on the landmine stuck together and managed to win. And did so against a team that would’ve made their season by taking the Irish down.

Here’s Kelly from Sunday’s teleconference when asked about his reaction to the victory. Expecting disappointment? Think again:

“I couldn’t have been more proud of my football team, the way they handled themselves, especially, you know, on the offensive side of the ball and the reaction that our defense had.

“Look, we had five turnovers, plus the one kickoff return, six sudden changes and our defense didn’t give up anything. They gave up three points in those sudden changes. That’s the a great mentality to have defensively.

“And then from an offensive mentality, five turnovers and three in the red zone, I never saw one guy point a finger. I never saw any bickering. Nobody was pointing fingers. All they were doing was we were moving to the next play. They were pulling for each other. It’s just a pleasure to be able to coach this group of guys that just persevere.

“Look, it wasn’t our cleanest game, there’s no question about it. We can’t play this way against Stanford and expect to win the game. But as a coach the satisfying moments are when your team is united, when your team plays together, when there’s no pointing fingers and they just keep playing together. And that’s probably for me the most satisfying thing as a coach when you see that happen and those dynamics come together on the sideline.”

That’s the right kind of attitude to take away from the debacle.


Matthias Farley. I already singled him out in the Five Things, but I might not enjoy a football player on this team more than Matthias Farley. He’s a guy who has gone through the grinder. He’s been thrown into the fire and found his way out—one of the more unlikely captain stories in recent memory, and that’s including the walk-on that joins him at the coin toss.

Farley’s four critical plays on special teams—downing two punts near the goal line, making the tackle on a fake punt and recovering the onside kick—were likely the difference in a game that ended up just a three-point win.

“He was given the game ball,” Kelly said Monday. “He’s been that kind of player for us all year, the onside kick, stopping the fake punt, downing the ball inside at the ten yard line. He plays the game wherever he’s called.

“That’s why he’s a captain. That’s why he’s really the guy on special teams that makes big plays for us, and a valuable member of our football team.”


Chris Brown and Amir CarlisleTwo veteran receivers made big-time plays. Brown’s TD catch was a beauty. Carlisle’s fearlessness across the middle is majorly underrated. Both guys will be missed in 2016.


Fenway Park (the turf, too!): I was very surprised the playing surface was as good as it played on Saturday night. Nightmares from Yankee Stadium lingered in my head, but credit needs to go to the grounds crew at Fenway Park for doing an incredible job.

There were only 36,000+ fans at the game, one of the smallest crowds at a Notre Dame football game in recent history. But from all reports, it was an amazing experience.



Where to begin? (Where to end?)

Do you really want to read this? Because here is a (far from complete) laundry list of guys who made mistakes on Saturday night. (Cobbled mostly from memory, because rewatching any more of the offensive performance will make it difficult for me to sleep at night…)

DeShone Kizer made some bone-headed red zone decisions, was majorly inaccurate with the football, dropped an extra point snap and generally looked like a redshirt freshman for the first-time in his redshirt freshman season. His offensive line wasn’t much better—though Nick Martin jumped on a fumble that prevented another big turnover, the guys in the trenches got whipped in the run game, outside of three nice gainers. You want fumbles? Well we’ve got ’em. C.J. Prosise, come on down! Josh Adams—not by the goal line, young man. Back to CJs, Mr. Sanders did his best Davonte Neal impression, muffing a punt, a kickoff, and technically getting away with a second punt before Kelly put in Will Fuller to catch Boston College’s final kick. The All-American Fuller got in on the act, too. He dropped a crucial third-down conversion that would’ve helped ice the game and then for good measure a deep ball that was a likely touchdown, too. (I’m sure I’m forgetting a few other major mistakes, but let’s keep rolling on.)

Defensively, things were better. (Playing Boston College helped.) But still, the Irish once again took a nice performance and through a gigantic smear across the front of it. It came courtesy of a blown zone-read QB keeper—from a quarterback whose only skill is literally running the zone-read keeper—essentially letting the Eagles run their way back into the game. Both Jaylon Smith and Max Redfield bit hard on the run fake, and if I’m putting the blown assignment on anybody, it’s Redfield. (Again.) Joe Schmidt had another free run at a quarterback on a blitz and ran right through it. His teammates cleaned things up, but the fact that Schmidt has two sacks this season—not six—is a little surprising. Cole Luke got lost in coverage, giving up a big gainer to a team less accomplished than Knute Rockne’s with the forward pass. Elijah Shumate got targeted on the game’s final drive, beaten inside on a slant after it looked like he was playing nickel back. And the Irish turned walk-on quarterback John Fadule into Steve Young—though he dropped his head and tried to run over one too many defenders, with Schmidt knocking him into next week. (Worried about something next week? The Irish are getting bludgeoned by QB scrambles.)

Did we talk about the red zone? Do we have to?

After looking like world-beaters against Pitt, the Irish found new ways to mess things up. Kizer’s first-down throw to Alizé Jones was a brain-bender. Can’t do it. The screen pass? Oh boy. It looked great in the Music City Bowl when it beat LSU, but Kizer just can’t throw that ball, not into a wall of guys wearing the wrong jersey. After implementing some slick play-action passing against Pitt near the goal line, the Irish somehow thought it was a good idea to go toe-to-toe in the trenches with B.C. Not sure if that was character building or what, but let’s just say that this team has plenty of character, but not a ton of ability to push around a run-defense like the Eagles—and that was before Adams fumbled.

This might feel like piling on. And it very well could be. But it’s much better to be tough on players in victory than it is after a loss. (For those who say a late season performance like this is unacceptable—go check out how some SEC teams played during their pre-Thanksgiving FCS “Cupcakes.” Then go relax. It’s over and the Irish won.)




Losing C.J. Prosise & KeiVarae Russell. Keeping the focus on next Saturday, not having Prosise is a crippling blow to the offense. While he didn’t look like the same guy we saw through the first two-thirds of the season even before he rolled his ankle, Prosise’s game-breaking speed and dual-threat ability would’ve been huge against a Stanford defense that’s a shadow of the units we’ve seen over the past few years.

Russell’s loss also forces the Irish to do some serious shuffling. While Kevin Hogan doesn’t have the game-breaking receivers he’s had in the past, finding a cornerback who can play in Brian VanGorder’s man-scheme hasn’t proven easy. Now he’ll have to make things work with a trio of guys he hasn’t trusted outside of garbage time.

For Russell, if this is the end—and he sure seems to point to it being the end—it’s a sad finish for him. But we need to tip a cap to the cornerback who showed a lot of fortitude, handling his business back home in Washington before returning to Notre Dame to earn his degree and play a key role for a very good football team.

Was he perfect this year? No. But his confidence was the type of leadership and self-belief that had to infect this team, considering the amount of man-hours lost to injury and the ability to step in and continue winning. He didn’t have a ‘C’ on his jersey, but there might not have been a better leader on this team, especially considering the big, game-defining plays Russell made against USC and Temple.


Here’s what Russell posted along with this photo:

“All I ever wanted to do when coming to Notre Dame was WIN.. As a starter I was apart of 31 games WON out of the 37 I started, so I can say I’m a winner. Sucks to end for me when we are so close! But gotta keep a high head and be the best teammate possible from the sideline. During war some individuals must go down. And still, the motto of the soldiers must remain the same. To my ND bros, #AccomplishTheMission!
#CollegePlayoffs #Top4 #OneMore #TheReturnPT2 #Adversity #NEEDaRing #Thejourney”



KeiVarae Russell breaks tibia, likely lost for year

BOSTON, MA - NOVEMBER 21:  KeiVarae Russell #6 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks on during the first half against the Boston College Eagles at Fenway Park on November 21, 2015 in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Notre Dame will head into the season finale without cornerback KeiVarae Russell. The senior was hurt late in the victory over Boston College, with the postgame diagnosis from Brian Kelly calling the injury a stress fracture.

Upon further inspection, the injury is more severe. Russell had a cast put on his foot last night before traveling back from Boston and will undergo surgery today for a broken tibia, with a rod inserted to help with stability.

The tentative timeline for recovery is six to eight weeks, meaning quite a lot would have to go perfectly for Russell to even have a chance at returning for a playoff or postseason game. In all likelihood, this is a season-ending injury to Russell, who finishes the year tied for second on the defense with 60 tackles, tied for the lead with two interceptions and the team-leader with two forced fumbles.

Russell was expected to declare for the NFL Draft, a senior who’ll graduate this spring. But he’s got another year of eligibility remaining and rehabbing a foot injury won’t be the best way to go into Combine season. Add to that some game tape that’s below the standard set for him, and there are some very persuasive reasons why Russell could be back in South Bend in 2016.