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. 

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Rover

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Before spring practice, the rover position was lumped in with the linebackers in positional previews. Nearly two months later, that seems to have been the right placement—the rover will likely spend most of its time at the defense’s second level.

But since curiosity about the rover and its unknown place in Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme ran rampant—especially when compared to the rather solid understanding of the 2017 Irish linebackers—let’s take a look specifically at the rover.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:

“Who will start at [Elko’s] rover position,” this space asked. “What will his role entail?”

RELATED READING: Two days until spring practice: A look at the linebackers

Senior safety Drue Tranquill was expected to see the most time at rover, perhaps with cameos from junior linebacker Asmar Bilal and sophomore safeties D.J. Morgan and Spencer Perry (since transferred).

More than anything, though, learning how Elko intended to deploy his defensive utility knife would answer the most questions about his defense.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:

Tranquill will indeed lead the position, but not without much effort from Bilal.

“We’ve tried quite a few bodies out there,” Elko said Friday. “I think as spring has gone on, we’ve gotten a feel of what each of them can do, what parts of the package we can run with each of them. I think we’ve got a pretty good pulse now on how we want that thing to play out, who will be there doing what.”

Elko is excessively reluctant to discuss individual players, so asking him to expound on who will be at rover in particular situations was largely a fruitless exercise. Earlier this spring, Irish head coach Brian Kelly indicated Bilal would be featured against run-heavy offenses. That may well prove to be the case, but it is far more likely Tranquill sees the majority of the repetitions at the position.

RELATED READING: Bilal the first in at ‘versatile’ rover positon, others likely to follow

“It’s been a good fit all spring [for Tranquill],” Kelly said following Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. “He’s a plus player there for us. He really can impact what’s happening from snap to snap. He’s a physical player and playing low to the ball is really where he can do a lot of really good things for us.”

For his part, Tranquill enjoys the position and the unique number of duties innate to it. In theory, the rover aligns mostly with the linebackers but can be relied on to provide coverage when necessary. At other times, the rover will be asked to rush the passer. That flexibility allows Elko to keep the offense guessing.

“I love the rover position,” Tranquill said. “It’s a versatile position that allows you to come off the edge, allows you to play the run, play the pass, and do a lot of different things.”

Sometimes it allows you to pretend like you’re coming off the edge and then actually embarrass a potential first-round draft pick.

In senior left guard Quenton Nelson’s defense, Tranquill did add Nelson probably won more of their battles in spring practices than the defender did.

WHERE NOTRE DAME COULD BE:

Elko indicated there could be a third primary option in his tool kit. Notre Dame has a plethora of talented cornerbacks. Last week, Kelly indicated he might ask one of them to chip in at safety in obvious passing situations. Similarly, Elko predicted junior Shaun Crawford could play at rover against particular passing attacks, a la Bilal against certain rushing offenses.

“A lot of this is dictated by who that guy is lined up and what we’re trying to do,” Elko said. “We’re going to see a lot of really talented slot receivers. We’re going to have to match up and cover them well. There’s other names other than the big linebacker/safety bodies to put at that position. [Junior safety] Nick Coleman has done that some this spring. [Junior safety] Ashton White has done that some this spring. When Shaun gets healthy, I think he’ll do that some. That is all encompassing in that position.”

The 5-foot-9, 175-pound Crawford has since announced his return to full health, which should allow him plenty of time to readjust to contact before the start of fall practice.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive Line

Work in weight & film rooms has Hayes ready to meet five-star potential

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Common thinking might give four- and five-star recruits too much credit. They do not all arrive ready to play at the collegiate level on day one. It takes time, conditioning, learning. Perhaps it was that awareness that kept Daelin Hayes from letting his five-star ranking on rivals.com change his expectations. He knew he would have much work ahead of him when he arrived at Notre Dame as the only five-star prospect in the class of 2016.

Now finishing his freshman year, the defensive end notices the effects of his work as he puts in more.

“I remember my first time watching film, I was like, woah,” Hayes said following Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. “I look quicker, like more twitch than I did. I was definitely—it’s hard to put into words—but to actually be able to go back and look at it and see how it affected the game was huge. [Director of football performance Matt] Balis has worked wonders for us.”

Hayes’ improved quickness showed in his three “sacks” in the intrasquad scrimmage. Going against future NFL prospect Mike McGlinchey at left tackle, Hayes faced a stiff challenge throughout spring’s 15 practices, not that he shied away from that task.

“I don’t think it was ever a point where it was overwhelming,” Hayes said. “I’ve always been a competitor. … But you guys know Mike, he’s huge, obviously a first-round talent and whatnot. I’m just grateful to be able to go against somebody like that each and every day. He makes me better. …

“I love competing with the guy. You go and do that with a guy in practice every day, then the game scenario comes, it’s like second nature. You can do this in practice, you can definitely do this against anybody.”

McGlinchey does not seem to mind the matchup, either.

“Daelin is a man who is blessed with a lot of size and athletic ability,” McGlinchey said Friday. “That presents a lot of problems for people in the game of football. He’s so young, and he has so much still to work on, it’s pretty cool to see what he’s capable of and then what he is going to do down the road.”

When Hayes arrived at Notre Dame, still recovering from a high school shoulder injury, he weighed 250 pounds with 18 percent body fat. Now, he said, he still weighs 250—the Irish roster lists him at 255—but is down to 10 percent body fat. It is that kind of change which has created more twitch and makes McGlinchey envision Hayes after more time spent improving in the weight room and the film room.

“I’m not the same athlete that I was when I first came in, not by any means,” Hayes said. “… Buying into that offseason program is going to be huge for our team.”

Per the Blue-Gold Game’s statistics, Hayes ended the scrimmage with seven tackles. Whether skeptical of the recordkeeping within a practice or not, seven tackles in one abbreviated afternoon compares favorably to Hayes’ total of 11 in 12 games last season. Some of that uptick is playing time, some of it is scheme, some of it is realization of the potential highlighted by a five-star ranking. For now, though, Hayes insists he intends to simply learn from last year’s 4-8 disappointment and embrace the changes brought by new Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko.

“With last year being the year that we had, there definitely was a yearning for change,” Hayes said. “When you have basically a reboot of the program, the guys are hungry and they don’t want to have to experience the same season as last year.

“Just continue to trust in that process. We’re hungry for something to cling on and buy into. When coach Elko, coach Balis, everybody came in as part of that reboot, I think we welcomed with open arms. [We’ll] continue to buy into the system and become more comfortable within the system.”

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line

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Heading into spring practice, a quick look was taken at each position group in order of “expected level of interest or question marks,” from least interesting to most, as dictated by an “Inside the Irish” reader. That series concluded with the defensive line.

Exiting spring practice, let’s reprise that premise and reverse the order. If the defensive line triggered the most questions, then answering them first seems to make some version of sense.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
“Will enough defensive linemen prove themselves deserving of playing time to create a viable threat up front?” this space asked. “If so, who will those linemen be?”

RELATED READING: One day until spring practice: A look at the defensive line

Aside from senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26 tackles last season, 0.5 for loss), senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss amid a season lost largely to concussion) and junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37, 3), the Irish defensive line had little track record to cite or rely upon for confidence. Leading the unknowns and unprovens were sophomore ends Daelin Hayes, who recorded 11 tackles in 2016, and Julian Okwara (4).

The lack of depth and experience was apparent heading into the 15 spring practices.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
Look past the 11 sacks in the Blue-Gold Game. Intrasquad scrimmages featuring red-jerseyed quarterbacks make for inexact and context-less statistics. There is some value, however, in noting the defensive line got within reach of the quarterback at least eight times in an abbreviated game. (Three “sacks” came from the linebacker corps.)

“We showed [pressure] in as far as the quarterback wasn’t getting really comfortable, not having all day to throw back there,” Hayes said. “I think it’s been huge, just buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

RELATED READING: What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

Hayes led the way with three sacks, and he will be expected to continue that in the fall, starting at the weakside/rush defensive end spot. Exiting spring, though, only he and Tillery solidified themselves as starters. Nonetheless, defensive coordinator Mike Elko claimed a successful spring for the front.

“I’m happy with our defensive line progress,” Elko said Friday. “Obviously there was a lot written about that group. I’m happy about the progress they’ve made this spring. I think [defensive line coach] Mike [Elston] has done a good job developing them. I think they are buying into the way we want to play defense. There’s probably four to five guys on the inside that are starting to get into a position where we feel comfortable that they can step in and help us.” (more…)

Brian Kelly & Jack Swarbrick on Notre Dame’s changes moving forward

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Whether 2016’s disappointing 4-8 finish was the impetus to program-wide alterations at Notre Dame this offseason, it certainly underscored the need. For the last few months, Irish coach Brian Kelly has focused those changes on himself and self-assessment, and he reiterated that approach when talking with PFT Live’s Mike Florio early Monday morning.

“This is my 27th year of being a head coach, and prior to last year I had one losing season,” Kelly said. “You have a way of doing things, you have a system in place, you follow that year after year. Certainly you make tweaks along the way, but this is the first time where I’ve really taken a step back and made substantial changes in terms of how I’m doing things on a day-to-day basis…

“From my perspective, after being at it as long as I have, you have to take it on yourself that you’re the one that needs to make the corrections. It’s not the players.”

None of this is new. Kelly has been consistent in his springtime messaging, but others have looked past the effects of the 4-8 record and insist the changes were coming regardless of the win-loss totals. Senior captain Drue Tranquill, for example, acknowledged the severity of the losing record Friday but argued adjustments were needed no matter what the final scores were.

“If you have an average season like 8-4, some things might carry over to the next season,” Tranquill said the day before the spring practice finale. “Whereas when you go 4-8, something has to change.

“But I think even at Notre Dame, 8-4 is never really acceptable or tolerated. Those things that were taking place, just within our culture, would have been noticed whether we were 10-3, 4-8. The criticism gave it a lot more hype and juice. We could kind of feel as guys in the program throughout the past three years that certain things needed to change.

“Those things were finally brought to light and it happened to be during a 4-8 season. I don’t necessarily know that 4-8 was the reason all this change happened.”

New Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko expressed a similar sentiment Friday morning, discussing the pressure moving forward.

“If we were coming off a 12-0 season in which we were competing for the national championship, there would be pressure on us at Notre Dame to be successful this year,” Elko said. “That’s Notre Dame.”

Elko has been a quick study, as his comments were echoed the next day by Irish director of athletics Jack Swarbrick during NBC Sports Network’s broadcast of the Blue-Gold Game.

“We expect to compete for national championships and 4-8 is not acceptable,” Swarbrick said. “On the other hand, when you’re in that situation, you have to decide how you’re going to move forward. We decided to move forward by making a major investment in retooling our program with Brian as the leader of it. That’s not a one-year investment for us. We brought in some talented assistant coaches. We rebuilt elements of the program

“We view it as a multi-year investment going forward.”

KELLY ON RECRUITING PITCH
Using this week’s NFL Draft as a peg, Florio also asked Kelly about balancing players’ NFL aspirations with team success both in the recruiting process and during the actual season.

“We have to talk more in terms of process over production,” Kelly responded. “We talk in terms of you’re coming to Notre Dame for a reason. You’re going to get a degree, which will set you up for the rest of your life, and you’re going to play on the grandest stage at Notre Dame, so everybody will see you.

“As long as there’s the balance there—and there has to be that balance in terms of getting your education and playing for championships—then we’re okay. It’s when that balance is out of whack, we’ll have an issue. We vet that out in the recruiting process and make sure we don’t take any kids that are coming to Notre Dame just because they’re waiting for that [junior] year to complete so they can go to the draft.”

A reminder: The NFL Draft begins with its first round Thursday night. Kelly will be joining former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer at the draft in Philadelphia to await Kizer’s destination and future employer.

MISSED THE BLUE-GOLD GAME?
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