Spring Practice: Your A to Z guide

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The Brian Kelly era of Notre Dame football hits the practice field today for the very first time. After months of offseason evaluations, recruiting, community commitments and press obligations, it’s time for the former Cincinnati coach to being doing the thing that got him the Notre Dame job in the first place.

The Irish kick off Spring Practice today with their first workout at 3:30 ET. Here’s an A to Z guide to get you up to speed.

A is for Attitude Adjustment. The Irish football team is in desperate need for one, and Kelly has put it at the top of his list of talking points. “I’m tired of hearing about the next NFL player coming out of Notre Dame, quite frankly,” Kelly quipped earlier in the week. The message? Get back to the roots of Irish football, and remember what made this program special.

B is for Bob Diaco. The new defensive coordinator is tasked with the hardest job in the program: to turn around a defense that failed. Diaco has already proven himself a passionate, articulate, energetic coach. But he’s also a wildcard with a fraction of the track record previous defensive coordinators Corwin Brown and Jon Tenuta had. For the Irish to succeed, Diaco will have to transform an underachieving crew into a unit capable of big things. No small task.

C is for Camp Kelly. Every coaching staff has something like this, and Camp Kelly is designed to build team chemistry through the tried and true practice of working people out until they leave their lunch in the garbage can. Some of the best team-building activities have little to do with football, and these workouts will bring the team closer together. (Hopefully not just at the trashcan.)

D is for Dayne Crist. The future is now for Crist, who takes the reins of the Irish football program while still recovering from a torn ACL suffered against Washington State last year. Crist was as highly touted as they come, and he’s wowed people with his unique blend of size, speed, and arm strength. Now its up to the Southern California native to run Kelly’s spread attack, something he’ll be able to do in Spring Practice after being medically cleared by the team doctors.

E is for Edge players. Kelly claimed there are five players competing for two roles on the edge of the defense, and former inside linebacker Brian Smith is one of them. Smith will be joined by Darius Fleming, Kerry Neal, Steve Filer, and Dan Fox, all completely interchangeable in the new system. It was interesting that Kelly made it clear that Smith is strictly an outside backer, moving him inside only in an emergency. Only two guys will emerge as starters, making this one of the most interesting battles on the roster.

F is for Fourth Quarter. The Irish need to become a team of closers, and Notre Dame’s inability to close teams out physically in the fourth quarter was the demise of Weis regime. The strength and conditioning staff has already made that the mission of the offseason, and players have either shed or redistributed weight in the short time since Kelly and his staff arrived in South Bend.  

G is for Ground Game. While the emphasis of Kelly’s spread attack is throwing the ball, he’s also put together a far more prolific running attack at Cincinnati than Weis did at Notre Dame. With Armando Allen, Robert Hughes, Jonas Gray, and Cierre Wood all hoping to get reps in the backfield, there’s no reason that the Irish offense won’t have a capable ground game, something that plagued the Irish the past few years.   

H is for Harrison Smith. There was no player that drew more criticism than Harrison Smith, an athlete that wowed Irish coaches with his raw skills and frustrated fans with his inconsistent play. Moved back to a safety position after spending his sophomore season as a undersized linebacker, Smith struggled to adapt to his new job, and eventually went back down into the box. There’s no contingency plan for Smith. “If he can’t play safety, he can’t play,” Kelly said. 

I is for Inside Linebackers. With the shift of Brian Smith outside, Manti Te’o is set to anchor one of the middle linebacker positions. Who fills the other role on the inside is anyone’s guess, and while the candidates are numerous, their playing time is not. Carlo Calabrese, Anthony McDonald, David Posluszny, and Steve Paskorz are all candidates for the spot next to Te’o.  

J is for Johnson, Ethan. Irish fans are still waiting for the heralded recruit to become the player many expected when stepping onto campus. Johnson has the athleticism and size needed to be a force as a defensive end, but he’s disappeared far too often on the football field for a guy of his stature. Coming into his junior season, Ethan needs to become the force many expected the past two seasons.

K is for Kapron Lewis-Moore. KLM was mentioned specifically by Kelly in his opening comments today as one of the leaders in the offseason workouts. He’ll be leaned on heavily with Ethan Johnson to provide stability at defensive end, where he’s got the size and frame to be a force at the point of attack.  

L is for Longo Beach. There’s no more highly-anticipated torture chamber than the ballyhooed Longo Beach, strength coach Paul Longo’s summer creation devised to whip his football players into shape. Longo trucks in sand pits that maximize core strength while lowering the impact of the high intensity workouts. 

M is for Michael Floyd. While he’s dazzled many of us with his play, Kelly was very candid when he said Floyd had a lot of work to do. Off the field, Floyd’s embarrassing citation for underage drinking and a fight got him into the news. But Kelly praised Michael’s offseason training, and his ability to transform his body. “He’s lost a lot of weight, he’s down to 216 to 217, down from about the
230 range he was at when we got here.” Floyd lost the weight to better fit the fast-paced tempo of the new Irish offense. 

N is for Now. As Kelly said in his opening remarks, “We don’t have five years to put this thing together. We’ve got to do it right away.” That is music to the ears of Irish fans, who have endured a 15-21 stretch over the past three seasons after consecutive BCS appearances. 

O is for Offensive tackle. With the move of Lane Clelland to defensive end, that leaves three scholarship tackles left on the roster. But Kelly didn’t seem overly concerned, citing the spread as reason to believe that he’ll be able to cross-train guards and tackles more freely. Expect guys like Trevor Robinson and Matt Romine to be beneficiaries of the change, as they’re a more athletic breed of tackle that could flourish in the new system. 
 
P is for Position Changes. While Lane Clelland, Theo Riddick, and Steve Paskorz are the three players switching positions for Spring Practice, Kelly made it clear that player evaluation happens every day. There’s no reason to think that there couldn’t be a few more shifts before the spring session is over.

Q is for Quarterbacks. While Dayne Crist is certainly getting the first chance to win the job, Kelly is relying on Nate Montana to provide competition, while Tommy Rees learns the role. One thing Kelly made certain. “This is a quarterback driven offense. I’ve got a library, I just need to know what they can handle first.” Kelly will install as much as Crist and Montana are able to absorb. 

R is for Return to Roots. When asked what he’d like to accomplish this spring, Kelly remarked that he’d like to “Get the fight back in the Fighting Irish.” That means going outside in the snow at 5 a.m. for a surprise workout, and not necessarily taking advantage of all the amenities that the Irish have at their disposal with the first-rate facilities at The Gug.  

S is for Stopping the Run. No defense can succeed without stopping the run, and Kelly has made it known that it’s the first order of business for Bob Diaco’s troops. The 3-4 alignment should help, and Ian Williams will be the guy at the point of attack. Last year’s defense struggled because they had no way to stop a running game. 

T is for Tackling. The Irish stunk up the joint when it came to tackling. Whether it was a lack of practice time, a lack of will, or a combination of both, the defense missed way too many tackles last year, and it’ll likely be a big point of emphasis for Spring Practice. Going back to the basics and Football 101 should be a big part of Spring Practice.

U is for Up Tempo. Kelly equated the difference in the Irish offense from the previous one to the difference between a half court set in basketball to a run-and-gun attack. Everything will be up-tempo this spring, from the two hour practices to the 24 five-minute segments that each session breaks down into. 

V is for Volume. Work Volume is one of the most important facets of Spring for Kelly. What can this team handle? Volume is also for sheer volume, as Kelly’s emphasized the need for players to trim down. “Change in cargo load. Too much cargo, it needed to be lowered. It’s absolutely crucial to what we do. We’ve got to have guys that can run.”

W is for Wide Receiver. The battle on the perimeter is the Spring’s best. No longer will the Irish be playing a majority of two-wide sets, they’ll be an opportunity for three, four, and five receivers on the field, who they’ll be is anyone’s guess.

X is for X receiver. Golden Tate is gone from the X spot, and the job will likely be filled by senior Duval Kamara, who at one time was considered the next big thing among Irish wide receivers. But expect John Goodman, Shaq Evans, and Deion Walker to get a shot at winning this wide open battle to play opposite Michael Floyd, and Theo Riddick, Roby Toma, and Tai-ler Jones to fight for time in the slot. 

Y is for Youth Movement. With the exception of Manti Te’o, the bottom of this roster has yet to step up and provide a difference maker. At times of transition, the Irish football program hasn’t struggled with its veteran players, but its been the underclassmen below them that failed to keep things going. Weis was doomed by his inability to get the youngest members of his roster ready to play, something that Brian Kelly and his staff pride themselves on.

Z is for Zibby. The Notre Dame defense is in desperate need of a tough guy leader like Tommy Zbikowski, the last blue-collar leader who seemed to leave it all out there on the football field. Zibby may have had some limitations as a football player, but toughness was never one of them. For the Irish defense to get back their swagger, they’ll need to channel their inner-Zibby. 

Spring positions to watch for revelations: DL & WR

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 05: Jerry Tillery #99 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish tackles Jerrod Heard #13 of the Texas Longhorns for a loss of yards during the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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If quarterback, rover and the early enrollees could be Notre Dame fans’ springtime Christmas thrills, what positions present as potential spots of coal?

Three former Irish players were invited to next week’s NFL Combine in Indianapolis: quarterback DeShone Kizer, defensive tackle Jarron Jones and defensive end Isaac Rochell. Losing two consistent defensive linemen leaves this year’s unit with some questions. Jones and Rochell combined for 100 tackles, 18 for loss and three sacks last season. Notre Dame’s returning defensive linemen combined to total 111 tackles and only 5.5 tackles for loss. To be clear, sacks are not included in that latter list because no returning defensive linemen recorded one. Among the returnees, junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37 tackles, three for loss) and senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26, 0.5) contributed solidly alongside the two NFL prospects.

This dearth of known and reliable linemen is a large part of why the potential transfer of Clemson graduate defensive tackle Scott Pagano is so intriguing. Pagano would immediately be a favorite to start, and if not that, at least rotate in heavily.

For now, though, Pagano remains a theoretical

By the end of spring practice, who already on campus will emerge alongside Tillery and Trumbetti in the Irish front? Senior ends Jay Hayes (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) and Jonathon Bonner (nine tackles) seem the most-likely candidates … aside from former four-star recruit and now rising sophomore Daelin Hayes. In his debut season, D. Hayes finished with 11 tackles.

Look for senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) to establish himself as Tillery’s immediate backup this spring, but that spot in the rotation will be up for competition all over again once four-star tackle Darnell Ewell (Lake Taylor High School; Norfolk, Va.) arrives on campus in the fall. His size and quickness should play right into new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s system.

Equanimeous and Who?
Not only did Notre Dame bring in a graduate transfer at receiver in former Michigan wideout Freddy Canteen, but it has also already received the commitments of two four-star receivers in the 2018 recruiting class. The continued emphasis on the position reflects the lack of bona fide game-breakers currently on the roster.

Junior Equanimeous St. Brown established himself as the top Irish threat in 2016, and he should shine only further with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush targeting him. Classmates often amplify each other’s success, simply due to the added shared reps innate to joining practice at the same time. With Torii Hunter, Jr., now pursuing a professional baseball career, who will prevent the secondary from focusing all its energies on St. Brown?

Canteen will not be with Notre Dame in the spring, as he does not graduate from Michigan until April. That will give a clear shot for the likes of juniors Chris Finke, C.J. Sanders and Miles Boykin, and sophomores Kevin Stepherson, Javon McKinley and Chase Claypool to establish themselves. Did that say “clear” shot? It should probably read, “a chance to separate from the crowd.”

If a genuine threat does not line up opposite St. Brown, his explosiveness will likely be greatly reduced by focused defensive scheming. Wimbush will need another target before 2018.

Of course, here is where one should acknowledge the millennia-tested fact: Coal under pressure becomes diamonds.

2016 Notre Dame’s win expectancy was 7.2
Sports Illustrated’s Chris Johnson named the Irish as his team most likely to dramatically improve its record in 2017. Johnson’s thinking is based, at least in part, on Notre Dame’s second-order win total having been 7.2 in 2016, compared to the four wins the Irish actually walked away with. That discrepancy was the largest in the country.

Second-order win totals reflect how many points a team should have scored and allowed based on offensive and defensive stats. In theory, this shines a light on how luck and chance factored into results. Naturally, losing seven games by one possession will often be reflected by a higher second-order win total.

“Notre Dame’s win-loss record belied a solid, if imperfect, squad that just couldn’t pull out close games…” Johnson writes. “The Irish may not get back into College Football Playoff contention in 2017, but they’re bound to post a few more Ws because of reversion to the mean.”

Admittedly, the small sample size of a football season reduces the applicability of metrics such as second- and third-order wins when compared to baseball and basketball.

Jones becomes Mack
A quick piece of housekeeping: Apparently junior tight end Alizé Jones has changed his name to Alizé Mack.

While Notre Dame’s roster may not reflect that change yet, it is reasonable to expect it will after its next update. The football program has consistently respected the intricacies of players’ name preferences. Tai-ler Jones becoming TJ Jones jumps to mind, for example.

Anyways, hopefully noting Mack’s name change here might reduce some confusion down the line. Probably not. How many readers possibly read to the actual bottom of an article? But hey, in good faith.

WR Lenzy makes 11th commitment, brings speed to Irish

lenzy
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At what point does an impressive recruiting roll become something more? When does it become a harbinger of things to come, even if not for a few seasons? How many notable commitments in a row establishes a class as special?

If the answer to any of the above is 11 commitments by the end of February, including five within two weeks, then Notre Dame is there following consensus four-star athlete Braden Lenzy’s announcement Thursday evening.

The Tigard High School (Portland, Ore) receiver/cornerback chose the Irish over offers from USC, Oregon and Michigan State, among a litany of others. In all, nine Pac-12 schools chased Lenzy—and a 10th, Washington, had shown interest—per rivals.com.

Lenzy will fit the leading 2018 need voiced by Irish coach Brian Kelly three weeks ago on National Signing Day 2017.

“Elite speed on offense will be a primary goal for us,” Kelly said Feb. 1. “Guys that can change the game on one possession. I think we’ll see that… We want a couple of home run hitters. We don’t care if they’re Darren Sproles’s size. We’re going to come off the board in terms of profile. We want some guys that can change the game on offense with elite speed.”

At 6-foot, 175 pounds, Lenzy is taller than Sproles’s 5-foot-6, but it is still his speed that drew Notre Dame’s interest.

“They made it clear they want me to do kickoff return and use me as a deep threat across the field,” he told Irish Illustrated. “Just being kind of an athlete, similar to what I’ve been doing already in high school, just on a bigger scale with a quarterback that can throw it a lot farther.”

Presuming Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush is that arm in 2018, throwing great distances should not be an issue. Between Lenzy and fellow 2018 commit Micah Jones, covering those distances should be a reasonable request, as well.

Lenzy brings Notre Dame’s class of 2018 to 11, including eight four-stars according to Rivals’ rating system. Current scholarship projections indicate the class will not be a large one, meaning the Irish coaching staff has already garnered the commitments of more than half the class. Once again, though, Kelly’s sentiment regarding recruiting timing should be remembered.

“We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

SWARBRICK’S TAKE ON RECRUITING
Kelly credited Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick with much assistance in securing the country’s No. 13 recruiting class in 2017. A refresher on those comments:

“In a lot of instances, [Swarbrick] had to be there to support our football program and talk to recruits about where this program is and where it’s going,” Kelly said. “There are questions when a family comes on campus. He reminded them about the investment we were making in staff and what we were doing for the present and for the future.”

Swarbrick did not dispute the factual nature of any of that in an interview with the Indianapolis Star, but he did contest the need for praising what he saw as part of his job, one of the preferred parts of his job, at that.

“I can’t say anything about this year felt all that different,” Swarbrick told Star reporter Laken Litman. “Some asked questions about the future of the program and can we compete for a national championship. And I would talk about the elements of the program we were focused on improving.”

Swarbrick and Litman discussed a number of items in the second-half of the interview released by the Star, including Notre Dame’s facilities, a possible early signing period in football and if the Oct. 8, 2016, game against North Carolina State should have been played. Spoiler: No. Then why was it? Go check it out.

Swarbrick also told Litman he likes to write in his free time.

“I tend to think strategically with a pen in my hand.” Swarbrick added he is currently scribbling away on where he thinks college athletics are headed.

This scribe, for one, would be most interested in skimming those legal pads.

Will Wimbush, Elko and the early enrollees surprise in spring practice?

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 26: Fans congratulate Brandon Wimbush #12 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish after he ran for a 58 yard touchdown against the Massachusetts Minutemen at Notre Dame Stadium on September 26, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Umass 62-27.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Exactly 59 days from today, the Irish will take the field at Notre Dame Stadium. Sure, they will be playing against themselves, but nonetheless, it will be somewhat-competitive football played in gold helmets.

For timing context, exactly 59 days ago, you looked beneath the Christmas tree to learn if Santa Claus left you season tickets, socks or coal. I got socks. They had some of that extra cushioning, so I considered them a suitable treat.

Whether you care about my argyles or not (you don’t), for many the Blue-Gold Game and Christmas morning hold similar excitement. That fact is apparently why Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick does not concern himself when groups of alumni publicly lament his decisions, or lack thereof.

“I never worry about that,” Swarbirck told the Indianapolis Star in an exclusive interview you really should read. Go on, click the link, it will open in a new tab. You can come right back here when you are done.

“The hardest job in athletics is trying to generate passion in your program. If that sort of stuff bothers you, you can’t be the athletic director, head coach or the quarterback at Notre Dame.”

That very passion will undoubtedly lead to frame-by-frame discussions of video snippets from spring practice, parsing of each and every word Irish coach Brian Kelly says in quick interviews after those practices, and extreme pessimism and optimism about the 2017 season.

In the Christmas spirit, what toys could bring the must excitement during the spring unwrapping? Personally, the gift I was unsure of always brought the most joy. I would rather open an unexpected book than know about a charcoal-gray suit. In other words, at least for today, let’s look past the offensive line, the running backs and the inside linebackers. Instead, let’s look forward to learning about… (more…)

How did Mike Elko fare against past Irish opponents?

TALLAHASSEE, FL - OCTOBER 18:  Karlos Williams #9 of the Florida State Seminoles scores the touchdown that would win the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during their game at Doak Campbell Stadium on October 18, 2014 in Tallahassee, Florida.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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Former Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder took over at that position before the 2014 season. Former Wake Forest defensive coordinator, and now VanGorder’s successor at Notre Dame, Mike Elko took over in Winston-Salem at the same time. Since then, the two programs faced common opponents nine times.

With the lone exception of Army, all these games featured ACC opponents. When it comes to talent, Wake Forest tends to be outmatched in the ACC. Recruits from 2011 to 2016 suited up for the Deacons in the 2014-16 seasons. During those six recruiting cycles, Wake Forest never finished higher than No. 10 in the conference according to rivals.com’s rankings. In 2012 and 2014, the Deacons finished at the bottom of the conference in recruiting.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, finished behind an ACC team a total of 10 times over those six years. Florida State outpaced the Irish five times, the exception being Notre Dame’s No. 3-ranked class in 2013 following its national championship game appearance. Clemson finished ahead of the Irish four times (2014 joining 2013 as the outliers), and Miami rounds the listing off with its No. 9-finish in 2012, compared to Notre Dame’s No. 20.

The point being, VanGorder and the Irish could anticipate having a stronger and deeper roster in at least six of the games discussed below. Elko and Wake Forest may have been able to make that argument—and it would be a debatable one—just once, when they faced Duke this past September.

Before comparing the two units’ successes and failures in those nine—actually, 18—contests, let’s establish two points of clarification. Notre Dame and North Carolina State played in a literal hurricane this past October. Comparing that game to any other will accomplish nothing. Furthermore, before anyone starts griping about that afternoon’s play-calling, this is an exercise discussing defensive performances, not offensive. The run:pass distribution of Oct. 1, 2016, bears no significance here.

Secondly, the other two games the Irish played fitting this criteria but after VanGorder’s dismissal—Syracuse and Army—are included below. Only so much of the scheme changed mid-season, and the personnel did not.

If you are busy catching up from a long weekend and do not have the time to look at the numbers below, a quick summary for you: In five of the eight instances, Elko’s unit fared distinctly better than VanGorder’s in multiple notable statistical categories. However, the Deacons struggled with Army’s triple-option attack, and both 2014 Florida State and 2015 Clemson blew right through the aggressive defense far easier than they did against Notre Dame.

Presented in something resembling reverse chronological order: (more…)