Friday notes: Spring takes shape

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It was a great week to be an Irish football fan, as we finally got our first look at Brian Kelly’s football team. The early returns, as they always are, were promising.

Here are a few notes from the week of practice:

* It looks like one of the more interesting battles in the depth chart will be at center, where Braxston Cave looks to usurp Dan Wenger as the starting center. Most assumed Wenger would slide back into the spot after losing the job to Eric Olsen last year, who moved from guard to center in the offseason. Before that, Wenger had started all 13 games for the Irish at center in 2008.

When asked by the media about running with the first team during practice this week, Cave sounded confident.

“I can’t sit back and wait around any more,” Cave said after practice this week. “You only get four years of this. I sat back in the offseason and really thought about it and its my time to get out there and shine.”

Offensive line coach Ed Warinner talked about the ability of multiple players to cross-train at multiple positions, and while Cave and Wenger are both natural centers, expect one of them to log some playing time at guard opposite Chris Stewart, if Trevor Robinson gets kicked outside to tackle.

* It seems as if the Washington Redskins have zeroed in on Jimmy Clausen. Multiple reports over the last few days have hinted that Mike Shanahan is considering Clausen with the fourth pick in the draft, which would be a great spot for Clausen to go.

Jimmy will workout privately for the ‘Skins tomorrow, and they will also be in attendance at his Pro Day on April 9th. Earlier in the week, former Notre Dame assistant Vinny Cerrato, who just stepped down as the executive vice president of football operations for the Redskins spoke highly of Clausen when talking to the Washington Post‘s Jason Reid..

“As a junior, he received every vote of all the members of the team to be a captain. And everybody told me, he was a totally different kid from sophomore year to junior year. Really grew up, matured, became the leader of the team, took charge of everything… He’s a totally mature guy. I mean, you know what he is? He’s a gym rat.
He’s a football junkie. He loves to talk about football. He loves to
watch film. He’s very smart about football coverages, all those things.
And you know what? He plays with a passion. That’s the thing.”

Cerrato tabbed ESPN’s Todd McShay as the source for any negative media buzz, but I’ve used my allotment of words about the draft “expert” for the week, so I’ll just leave it at that.

* I stumbled upon a few interesting write-ups about the inside linebacker positions this week. The guys over at One Foot Down did a little chalk talk breaking down the intricacies of the 3-4 inside backers. Here’s a sample:

The inside linebackers generally line up at about 5 yards deep so that
they can fill gaps inside and out as quickly as possible depending on
their read and the point of attack. You want the inside linebacker to be
the point of the spear when attacking an offensive running play. His
initial read is the offensive guard. His initial gap responsibility on a
running play coming straight ahead is the B gap or guard/ tackle gap
with the nose tackle responsible for the A gap. 

Meanwhile, Lou Somogyi at BlueandGold.com made an interesting observation when writing about a variety of defensive players returning to their home positions, after listening to Bob Diaco talk about his prototype Mike and Will linebackers.

“It’s anywhere from six-foot to six-three or four, not much taller than that,” Diaco said. “You’d like them to be about 220 as a developmental player and up to maybe even 260-265 if they can be and still move.”

While the Irish look to find another inside backer to pair with Manti Te’o, Somogyi looked at the linebackers that Diaco played last season at Cincinnati.

At the University of Cincinnati, the options might
have been more limited for Diaco. His starting middle linebacker last
year was 6-0, 222-pound Andre Revels, who led the team in stops with
109. The No. 2 tackler with 100 stops was 6-1, 223-pound outside
linebacker J. K. Schaffer.


The Irish certainly have better fitted options for the system than Diaco was afforded last year. While David Posluszny has been given the first shot to fill the Will role, Anthony McDonald has drawn the praise of Kelly as well. 

Restocking the roster: Offensive Line

Notre Dame offensive line
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When Notre Dame takes the field this spring, there’ll be two very large holes in the offensive line that need filling. All-American left tackle Ronnie Stanley is gone. As is captain Nick Martin at center. Both three-year starters leave Harry Hiestand with some big decisions to make in the coming months as the Irish look to fill those key positions and still field a unit with the ability to dominate in the trenches.

The Irish have had incredible stability at left tackle, with Stanley sliding in seamlessly after four seasons of Zack Martin. Perhaps the best six-year run in the program’s storied history at the position, Stanley will likely join Martin as a first-rounder, back-to-back starters at a key spot that often dictates the play of one of the most important units on the field.

Replacing Nick Martin could prove equally tricky. Rising junior Sam Mustipher served as Martin’s backup in 2015, filing in capably for Martin after an ankle sprain took him off the field briefly against UMass. But Mustipher will face a challenge this spring from rising sophomore Tristen Hoge, the first true center recruited by Hiestand and Brian Kelly since they arrived in South Bend.

Kelly talked about 2017 being a big cycle on the recruiting trail for restocking the offensive line. You can see why when you look at the depth, particularly at tackle. Let’s look at the work that’s been done the previous two classes as Notre Dame continues to be one of the premier programs recruiting in the trenches.

 

DEPARTURES
Ronnie Stanley
, Sr. (39 starts)
Nick Martin, Grad Student (37 starts)
Mark Harrell, Sr* (No Starts, fifth-year available)

*Harrell’s departure is not confirmed, though expected.  

2015-16 ADDITIONS
Tristen Hoge
, C
Trevor Ruhland
, G
Jerry Tillery
, T
Parker Boudreaux
, G
Tommy Kraemer
, T
Liam Eichenberg
, T

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Hunter Bivin, T
Quenton Nelson, LG
Sam Mustipher, C
Steve Elmer, RG
Mike McGlinchey, RT

Alex Bars, T
Colin McGovern,* G/T
Tristen Hoge*, C
John Montelus*, G
Jimmy Byrne*, G
Trevor Ruhland*, G

*Has an additional year of eligibility remaining. 

ANALYSIS:
It’ll be a fascinating spring up front for the offensive line. We’ll get our first look at potential replacements and see if the Irish staff values a veteran presence (as it has done in the past) or puts former blue-chip recruits in position to become multi-year starters.

For now, I’m putting last season’s backups in line to ascend to starting spots. That’s not to say I think that’s what’ll happen. Hunter Bivin may have been Stanley’s backup last season, but as long as Alex Bars is fully recovered from his broken ankle, I think he’s the best bet to step into that job. Sharing reps at guard—not a natural spot for Bars to begin with—was more about getting him some experience, with the aim to move him into the lineup in 2016. That allows Bivin to be a key swing reserve, capable of playing on either the right or left side.

At center, the decision is less clear cut—especially since we’ve yet to see Tristen Hoge play a snap of football. Size and strength is a genuine concern at the point of attack for Hoge, not necessarily the biggest guy hitting campus. But it sounds like he’s had a nice first season from a developmental standpoint, and if he’s a true technician at the position, he could be a rare four-year starter at center if he’s able to pull ahead of Mustipher this spring.

On paper, the other three starting jobs don’t seem to be in question. Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey are ready to step to the forefront. Concerns about Steve Elmer’s buy-in will certainly be answered by spring, there’s little chance he’ll be on the field in March if he’s not going to be around in August. I’m of the mind that Elmer’s too good of a character guy to leave the program, even if his life doesn’t revolve around football 24/7. Now it’s time for him to clean up some of the flaws in his game, the only starter from last season who held back the Irish from being a truly elite group.

Depth isn’t necessarily a concern, but there isn’t a ton of it at tackle. That happens when you move a guy like Jerry Tillery to defensive line and lose a player like Stanley with a year of eligibility remaining. That could force the Irish to cross-train someone like Colin McGovern, a veteran who can swing inside or out if needed. McGovern seems to be a guy who would start in a lot of other programs, but has struggled to crack a two-deep that’s now filled with former blue-chip recruits, all of them essentially handpicked by Hiestand and Kelly.

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)

 

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

BVG
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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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