Conference conversation, continued…

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As you’d expect, the conference affiliation talk got everybody riled up, even though the South Bend Tribune’s Eric Hansen accurately points out that it was an “over-reactive rehash of ND’s position on ND’s position.”

A few additional thoughts worth mentioning again:

* I’ve reached out to a few of the more educated Notre Dame fans that I know asking for some context on why people seem to run away and hide when even discussing the fact that Notre Dame might — eventually, depending on the actions of other schools — consider joining a conference in football. I’ve yet to have any one make the definitive argument against joining a conference. (At least one that I thought was definitive.) If you think you can make it, please shoot me an email and I’ll post the best one that I get.

* People talk about the inflexibility that comes with playing in a conference, but I’d argue that the 7-4-1 schedule that Notre Dame is trying to employ is much more rigid than just about any conference affiliation. People also mention the academic fit between the Irish and the Big Ten. Since when has Notre Dame allowed its affiliations on the athletic field dictate its agenda in the classroom? News yesterday that the Irish would have to “court” the Big Ten to join the conference made me chuckle, if only because there’s a zero percent chance that the Irish would come groveling to the powers-that-be in the Big Ten asking for acceptance. The Big Ten needs Notre Dame far more than Notre Dame needs the Big Ten.

* Last week, Brian Fremeau of BCFToys and FootballOutsiders.com did an interesting piece on the connectivity of Top 25 teams in college football. Taking data from 1989, Fremeau calculated that 52 games took place between teams ranked in the AP’s final poll, checking in at 8.9 percent, or roughly 1 in 11 games. During the 2009 season, even with the NCAA expanding from 106 to 120 teams, only 39 games were played between teams ranked at the end of the season, dropping to 5.5 percent, or roughly 1 in 19 games. In twenty years, the frequency of high-caliber matchups has dropped nearly 40 percent.

While Brian didn’t base this study as a case for conference affiliation, the perception of conference games being difficult and non-conference games being cakewalks certainly hurts the Irish. Just last summer, talking heads everywhere were criticizing Notre Dame’s schedule, when in reality it turned out to be a respectable 37th in the country, better than Texas, and every single team in the Big Ten except Minnesota.

* John Heisler, Notre Dame’s senior associate athletics director made an interesting observation on the media storm that came from Swarbrick’s comments. Here’s a piece of his Daily Dish.

If you are wondering how sports headlines come about, understand that sometimes it’s almost by accident. Take Tuesday, for example. Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly, in New York for a day of events with Notre Dame-connected groups, was visiting with a small group of New York-based sportswriters over coffee that morning at the Barking Dog café on 34th Street. The event was designed as more of a “meet and greet” session for media who don’t make it to South Bend every day. Most of the conversation wasn’t headline news, but Kelly at one point was asked about his thoughts on conference affiliation. Meanwhile, Irish athletics director Jack Swarbrick just happened to stop by the session to listen – and he, too, was hit with the question about conferences. What Swarbrick said wasn’t necessarily new or groundbreaking – but it maybe involved more of a national assessment of the conference landscape than had been voiced. In any event, the nature and context of Swarbrick’s remarks immediately prompted the Associated Press to run a short item, followed by a more in-depth feature later in the day – and the New York Times wrote a full-blown piece that ended up the lead sports story at the top of the page in Wednesday’s print edition.

Can you imagine what the interest will be in Notre Dame football if they finally start playing consistent, winning football?

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.

***

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.