Spring Solutions: Running Backs

7 Comments

(The first in a series of updates on the positional battles that took place during spring practice.)

It doesn’t seem like too long ago that rumors were swirling about a possible position switch for Cierre Wood. With Wood buried on the depth chart behind Armando Allen, Robert Hughes, Jonas Gray, and Theo Riddick, there were whispers that Wood was moving to the secondary — or even worse — considering a transfer.

Fifteen short practices later, and the eyebrow-raising decision to move Theo Riddick to slot receiver is coming into focus after Wood dazzled at the Blue-Gold Game. With the Irish running game stuck in neutral for much of the Weis era, Brian Kelly’s Irish offense should lean heavily on a running attack that now realistically could be called four-headed.

Here’s a look at the current eligibility of the Notre Dame running backs and what we can realistically expect from them:

2010: Armando Allen, Robert Hughes
2011: Jonas Gray
2012: (Vacant with Theo Riddick’s move to WR)
2013: Cierre Wood
2014: Cameron Roberson

Armando Allen is still the class of the running backs. While he didn’t steal the headlines that Wood and Gray did during the Blue-Gold Game, he’s still the best all-around back that the Irish have, and he’s the high-water mark of a talented position grouping. The knock on Allen is his inability to make the big play, puzzling because he’s got the skill-set you’d expect from a big play running back. His career long carry of 26 yards is shorter than Hughes 37-yard scamper against Washington last year, not to mention two long runs Hughes broke off during his freshman season. Still, Allen displays good hands out of the backfield, surprisingly tough inside running, and the speed needed to get out in the open field. A chance to run in Kelly’s fast-paced offense, and new offensive line coach Ed Warriner likely means we’ll see Armando break a long run this year.

Many expect Hughes to be the odd-man out in the new offense, but the powerful senior running back is far from conceding a diminished role in the offense. Hughes has always impressed with his light feet and great size, and in an offense as varied as Kelly’s, you’ve got to think that the new staff will find a formation or scheme to feature Hughes in the backfield. Having added the slash to his resume by taking on fullback duties, Hughes might find himself lead-blocking in goal line situations, or perhaps as a playaction weapon out of the backfield. Hughes averaged over 10 yards a catch last season, a nice perk for a 245-pound running back.

Beside Wood, Jonas Gray has to be considered one of the better stories of the spring session, especially considering that there were rumors that Jonas might not be participating in practice at all. Not only did Gray practice, but he made an argument for serious playing time during the Blue-Gold Game, breaking off dazzling runs and getting tough inside yards as well. Gray has to be a pleasant surprise for new running backs coach Tim Hinton, who will look to find carries for the junior out of Detroit.

Cierre Wood is a perfect example of the proper use of a redshirt year. While many worried that Wood was going to get lost in the shuffle, the reluctance of playing Wood on special teams last year let’s him enter the season with four full years of eligibility remaining, perfect when you consider that both Allen and Hughes graduate after this season. Wood apparently struggled at times last year with his fitness levels, but if his performance last weekend was any indication, strength coach Paul Longo has whipped him into proper shape, and the Irish have another versatile weapon in the backfield.

Incoming freshman Cameron Roberson wasn’t originally recruited by the new coaching staff, but Kelly has been effusive with his praise, and he’s reportedly a good fit for the Irish’s one-back attack. With the depth chart in front of him, the decision on what to do with Robertson will be a good indication on how Kelly values freshman eligibility. Unless Roberson dazzles this summer and during fall camp, there’s no reason to think he’ll get any playing time this year, keeping him off of special teams and allowing him to develop on the scout team taking most of the snaps at running back.  

Restocking the roster: Wide Receivers

Notre Dame v Florida State
Getty
3 Comments

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

BVG
23 Comments

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

os-notre-dame-ad-pleased-acc-move-20140513-001
Getty
11 Comments

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.