Weekend Leftovers: Ragone, Kelly, Recruiting

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This afternoon, Mike Ragone will make his initial court appearance for his misdemeanor marijuana charge in LaGrange County court. The proceedings might take less than 10 minutes, but they’ll likely carry a weightier consequence for the tight end, especially if he plans to play football this fall for the Irish.

This will be Brian Kelly’s first true disciplinary test, and for the most part, Kelly is playing his cards close to his vest.

“”It’s one thing to have reports about him. I’ve worked with him over
the past three of four months.” Kelly said last Wednesday. “He’s a hard-working kid who
obviously wants to get his degree at Notre Dame and play college football.

“It’s one of those matters that I look at very seriously. We’re
responsible for our student-athletes, whether some people like to shy
away from that responsibility. We want to make sure they represent the
university in a positive way.”

Ragone will likely meet with the Office of Residence Life over the summer semester, where he’ll find out if he’s going to spend next season with the football team, or suspended from school. Not to underscore the seriousness of the charges, but at any other school, Ragone’s looking at a one-game suspension. We’ll find out what Notre Dame thinks about Ragone’s mistake soon enough.

* The Detroit News’ Lynn Henning had a fawning column on Irish coach Brian Kelly last week, pointing out that both Michigan and Michigan State had chances at hiring Kelly, who drew the eyes of many with his impressive work at Grand Valley State and Central Michigan.

Kelly always had the coaching know-how, the savvy, the voltage, to be
a remarkable Big Ten coach. Do you think his years at Grand Valley
State, winning Division II national championships, were the product of a
man leading a small-school team in ways that wouldn’t transfer to the
larger stage?

It was foolishness even a decade ago to believe
Kelly wasn’t on his way to becoming a major national coach. What he did
at Grand Valley was no illusion. He got the recruiting discards from
Division I schools, for the most part, and by way of a head coach’s
engineering, discipline and inspiration turned the Lakers, pound for
pound, into one of the slickest football powers in the country. (Grand
Valley was 41-2 in Kelly’s final three seasons there.)

In the
autumn of 1999, after Nick Saban had departed MSU for LSU, it was easy
to mention Kelly as a potential candidate, even if he was 38 years old
and had coached only in the NCAA’s second tier. That’s because all the
national gurus who understood coaching pedigrees knew Kelly was special.

Michigan State never interviewed him. He was an hour drive away.

He climbed the ladder, of course, taking over Central Michigan when
the Chippewas were lagging, and transforming them quickly into a power.
But the Spartans looked past him again in 2002 when they fired Bobby
Williams and hired John L. Smith.

Kelly got an even better handle
on the Midwest recruiting turf at CMU, which he polished as quickly as
he took the Cincinnati job when Mark Dantonio moved to MSU in 2006.

A
year later, after Kelly had spent a year further toughening a Bearcats
program Dantonio had nicely constructed, Michigan needed a football
coach. Lloyd Carr was retiring.

Kelly was now 46. He had won at
three different Michigan-Ohio stops. He had a sturdy resume, as well as
the snap, crackle and pop of a man with intellect and personality — the
kind of coach who can talk substantively with a university president
and turn around at that night’s banquet and fire-stoke the alumni.

But,
again, he wasn’t quite tall enough timber for Michigan, which instead
hired Rich Rodriguez — a hire, by the way, that in this view was at the
time as smart as Dantonio’s was in East Lansing a year earlier. And the
belief here is that Rodriguez will yet win at Michigan, as Dantonio has
been precisely what MSU needed.

The point is, Kelly never could
quite get two Big Ten schools, in his backyard, to take him seriously at
a point he was already emerging as a dynamic national coach.

It’s scary to think that both Kelly and defensive backs coach Chuck Martin spent most of their coaching careers in the back yards of Spartan and Wolverine fans, and now will be working tirelessly to defeat both teams in the first month of their Notre Dame career. After the start Rich Rodriguez has gotten off to, you’ve got to think there are quite a few Michigan administrators kicking themselves, especially with Kelly and Rodriguez running similar offenses, with Kelly spending his entire career in-state.

* Speaking of glowing columns about Kelly, the Chicago Tribune’s Brian Hamilton spent 24-hours with the man in charge of Notre Dame nation, as he barnstormed the country.  Hamilton goes into great detail about Kelly’s ability to meet-and-greet the masses. It’s not a skill that wins you football games, but it certainly is a skill that wins you the hearts and minds of a fanbase pretty hard-up for a winner.

“It’s not just about change,” Kelly says from his usual seat on the
Notre Dame jet, third back on the right side of the plane. “I think it
has to be met with an energy and excitement. You still have to get
people to buy in. Even after having some lean years. They gotta believe
in me.”

So he engages those people. He clutches their palms, absorbs the stories
about family patriarchs who graduated from Notre Dame before the World War II. He meets their expectant eyes with the assurance they long
for: We are part of this, you and I.

“This is really about, I think, making sure people know the head
football coach at Notre Dame — you can reach out and touch that person,”
Kelly says. “It doesn’t sit up on a tower and is separate from what
Notre Dame represents. It’s not this position that is guarded.”

Maybe he means to strike the note, maybe he doesn’t, but on this the
contrast with his predecessor is impossible to ignore. Charlie Weis was
not lovable, and the Guglielmino Athletics Complex was as welcoming as a
Supermax penitentiary under his watch.

“No one loved Notre Dame more than Charlie Weis,” Kelly says of his
predecessor, an alumnus. “He loved Notre Dame. He knew more about Notre
Dame than I do.

“But I also know that a head football coach, regardless of whether it’s
at Notre Dame or Central Michigan or Grand Valley is also an ambassador
and a very influential person when it comes to shaping sentiments about
how people feel about their program.”

I’m really impressed with the way Kelly handles the media’s questions about the previous coaching staff and Charlie Weis. There’s no way for Kelly to play the Notre Dame card the way Weis could, and to Kelly’s credit he doesn’t try to do that. He’s a head football coach, and Kelly plays that part of his resume up as well as anyone, which is something he should do, because he’s had as much success as any coach the Irish have had in years.

Kraemer, Eichenberg compete for RT spot, moving Bars inside, and Bivin to…

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Forty percent of the offensive line is essentially set in stone: fifth-year senior Mike McGlinchey at left tackle and senior Quenton Nelson at right guard.

The center position seems to be senior Sam Mustipher’s to lose.

That leaves the two starting spots on the right side of the line for a number of players—both young and experienced—to fight over.

Sophomores Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg have emerged as the frontrunners for the right tackle spot, moving senior Alex Bars inside to right guard. Bars started all 12 games last season at right tackle.

“Those two [Kraemer and Eichenberg] are the guys we have mapped out at right tackle, and they’re going to battle,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “Today Kraemer was there. Last two practices Eichenberg got a lot of the work. Eichenberg will go back there on Friday. They’re going to keep battling and splitting the action out there.”

Part of the reasoning in giving the two sophomores extended looks this spring is Notre Dame knows what it has in Bars when at right tackle.

“We would prefer to get him in at the guard position, but we know he can play the [tackle] position,” Kelly said.

A starting five of McGlinchey, the three seniors and either sophomore may seem to leave fifth-year lineman Hunter Bivin out in the cold. Not often is a player asked to return for a fifth year only to spend it on the bench. That is even more rare when considering the current Irish scholarship crunch.

Kelly compared Bivin’s role to that of Mark Harrell’s last year. Harrell appeared in all 12 games, starting two, and provided much needed depth and flexibility along the offensive line. Rather than have five backup offensive linemen, position coach Harry Hiestand relied on Harrell to provide support at multiple spots.

“It’s reasonable to assume that Hunter Bivin’s going to be involved in this as well,” Kelly said. “We’ve just asked Hunter to take a seat right now. He’s done that for the team.

“We think Hunter is going to be a Mark Harrell for us. A guy that’s extremely valuable, can play a number of positions. We trust him, but we want to see these two young players [Kraemer and Eichenberg]. Hunter is a guy that can play right or left tackle for us. He’s going to be a valuable player for us as a swing guy.”

On that note, this space will refer to Bivin as a fifth-year lineman, as was done above, rather than as a guard or as a tackle, until further notice. In his case, the broader description may be the most accurate.

Spring break out west is fine, but Wimbush better be ready to run

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It will undoubtedly become a habit, at least for the next five-plus months. If Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush sneezes in front of a camera, it just might lead to an uptick in webmd.com traffic. His every football move will certainly be analyzed, nitpicked and discussed at length. Thus, Irish coach Brian Kelly being asked about Wimbush’s spring break should surprise no one.

Rather than find a Florida beach, Wimbush spent his spring break working with private quarterbacks coach George Whitfield in San Diego alongside a handful of other college passers. Kelly said there is value to such a spring break but stopped short of setting any lofty expectations of the effects.

“I have no problem with [Wimbush] working out with George Whitfield,” Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice, the first following spring break and the third of 14 leading into the Blue-Gold Game on April 22. “George doesn’t work on the specifics to the offense. George is really working on the quarterback and throwing the football, moving in the pocket. George is really good at keeping those quarterbacks active and moving.”

Whitfield is best-known around Notre Dame and among Irish fans for working with former Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson during Golson’s academic suspension in 2013. Whitfield and Golson spent 10 weeks together, thus granting time for extensive off-field activities such as film study. Far shorter, Wimbush’s time out west appears to have been spent primarily doing drills.

“In those situations, it’s a bullpen session,” Kelly said. “They’re keeping their arms loose, they’re keeping their feet loose. He’s just keeping them active.”

It is hard to construe that activity as a negative, but it obviously lacks certain aspects crucial to Wimbush’s 2017 season. With only five career pass attempts and seven career rushes, Wimbush’s inexperience looms large. Developing the necessary intangibles to account for that may be just as, if not more, important as fitting his throws into tight windows.

“When it comes to the playbook, to his teammates, to his coaches here, Brandon understands that when the rubber hits the road, those are the guys that matter the most,” Kelly said. “He knows when it’s time for Notre Dame football, where the focus is.”

Included in that playbook will be an expectation for Wimbush to carry the ball. To date, Wimbush’s biggest play and possibly only imprint on most Notre Dame fans’ memories is a 58-yard touchdown scamper against Massachusetts in 2015.

Link to 17-second YouTube video which has unfortunately disabled embedding

Note, the play is not exclusively-designed for Wimbush to run. Now a rising junior, then a fellow freshman, running back Josh Adams comes across Wimbush’s front for a possible handoff. Instead, Wimbush makes the correct read and keeps the ball. Why state so clearly it was the proper read? Adams has to evade a Texas defender even though he never had the ball.

Future option plays should present Wimbush with the possibility of throwing the ball, too.

“He’ll be a runner in the offense,” Kelly said. “Do we want him to carry the ball 20 times? No.”

“I don’t think you’ll have a situation where we’re calling quarterback power or singular runs. He’s going to have options: hand it off, throw the ball out on the perimeter. You’ll see more of that than you will prescribed quarterback runs. We had a little bit more of that last year with Kizer, but I think you’ll see that he has an option to get the ball out of his hands more so than just prescribed runs.”

Those option plays, in particular, will require Wimbush to have a thorough familiarity both with the Notre Dame playbook and with his teammates’ tendencies.

RITA LEE OR 52-53?
Staying consistent with his comments over the last two months, Kelly once again reiterated the biggest changes new offensive coordinator Chip Long will bring to the Irish playbook will be in its wording. Perhaps going to an extreme example to illustrate his thinking, Kelly pointed to the future.

“We’re going to win next year and Chip is going to be the greatest offensive coordinator in the country and he’s going to get a head job, right?” Kelly asked rhetorically. “Then I’m not going to introduce the Chip Long offense to the next offensive coordinator.”

“It has to have my culture in it … The culture of the offense is still the base offense that I have always run because I have to be able to carry that with me from year to year.”

Within that ellipsis, Kelly gave two examples of possible verbiage changes. Without knowing much more behind them, they do not mean too much out here in the cobwebs of the internet, but they do provide a quick glimpse at what Kelly has been referring to when discussing lexicon since hiring Long.

“If he wants to change Ringo Lucky protection to Ram and Lion protection, go right ahead. If he wants to change certain calls, for example, 52-53 protection is now Rita Lee.”

RELATED READING:
4 Days Until Spring Practice: A Look at QBs (Brandon Wimbush)
Pace of Play: More Snaps Equal More Scoring Chances, Right?

Back from break, Irish commence hitting; DT Elijah Taylor out with LisFranc injury

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Notre Dame last wore pads in its 45-27 defeat at USC back on Nov. 26, a full 117 days ago. Suffice it to say, the Irish enjoyed the chance to don their shoulder pads and hit each other in Wednesday’s third spring practice, the first one since returning from spring break.

“What I liked about it more than anything else is there wasn’t a big drop off today,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “Usually you go two days and then you take a week off, and then you come back and put your pads on—it took us only a couple of periods to get back up to form. That was nice to see.”

Contrary to previous years in spring practice, and perhaps practice in general, Kelly emphasized tackling, especially tackling in the open-field, in Wednesday’s drills.

“[I] felt like we needed to make up for a little lost ground,” he said. “We got in tackling today for the first time. That’ll be an emphasis. We’ll tackle a lot this spring to make up for lost ground.”

The early and often physical nature of practice didn’t bother any of the players, per Kelly, but also per presumed common sense. While Notre Dame’s coaching staff changes and public questioning played out in broad view, the players spent 117 days in private waiting to unleash some of the frustrations of 2016’s disappointing season.

“Everybody to a man has been looking forward to this day,” Kelly said. “It was a pretty difficult offseason for them. They were looking forward to putting the pads on and getting out there. I think they exhibited that today.”

TAYLOR OUT FOR SPRING, AT LEAST
Junior defensive tackle Elijah Taylor was not in pads Wednesday. In the final practice before spring break, another player stepped on Taylor’s foot, Kelly said. The resulting LisFranc fracture will keep Taylor out of the remaining dozen spring practices and limit him until at least July. Taylor saw action in four games last season, finishing with three tackles, including one for a loss.

Notre Dame team surgeon Dr. Brian Ratigan already performed Taylor’s surgery.

“Typical LisFranc fractures, we’ve had good success with their repairs,” Kelly said. “…We’ll be able to train around the injury. Full range of motion moving around and doing things in June, probably full clearance sometime in July.”

Without Taylor, the interior of Notre Dame’s defensive line becomes even shallower, though that may have been hard to previously comprehend. Junior Jerry Tillery looks to be ready to start, and senior Jonathan Bonner has moved to the inside, rather than at end as he has been for most of his career. Behind them, the Irish present only question marks.

Kelly said he will look to junior Micah Dew-Treadway to step forward in Taylor’s absence.

“Micah Dew-Treadway has had a really good offseason for us,” Kelly said. “Changed his body, has been doing a really good job in all facets, in the class room and weight room. He’s somebody that had been ascending anyway prior to the injury.

Kelly indicated junior Brandon Tiassum also could be expected to see more work with Taylor sidelined.

Seniors Daniel Cage and Pete Mokwuah are in the mix, as well. Cage struggled with concussion issues last season after a promising 2015.

Notre Dame will need to wait until the freshmen arrive—perhaps also joined by Clemson graduate student transfer Scott Pagano, reportedly still taking official visits as he ponders his 2017 destination—for further reinforcements. Consensus four-star recruit Darnell Ewell would be the most likely candidate of the three expected arrivals to move up the depth chart right away.

In layman’s terms, a Lisfranc fracture occurs when a mid-foot bone connecting to a toe separates from the cluster of bones toward the heel. Note: This is stated here only to provide some context, nothing more. This particular scribe avoided most biology classes.

CLAYPOOL A RECEIVER AND THAT HE WILL STAY
Asked if he considered moving sophomore receiver Chase Claypool to defense, Kelly answered succinctly.

“We feel like we need his play on offense,” Kelly said. “He’ll continue to contribute on the special teams end of things, but we need his play on offense.”

KELLY ON KIZER’S NFL POTENTIAL
“I’ve had a number of conversations with GMs and coaches about [former Notre Dame quarterback] DeShone [Kizer], and my personal feeling is he has the biggest upside of all the quarterbacks. I don’t know that he’s prepared to come in and win a Super Bowl for you [this year]. Some may feel as though maybe one of the other quarterbacks are. I don’t know that firsthand. But I think, in time, he has the biggest upside of all the quarterbacks.

“I get it. It’s the NFL. Everybody’s under the same pressure of performing and needing somebody to come in right away, but I think he’s a guy that just needs some time. If he gets in the right situation, I think he’d be the guy to take.”

Kizer and eight other former Irish players will take part in a pro day tomorrow (Thursday) in front of some of those GMs and coaches.

Te’o to New Orleans; Booker to Nebraska

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Former Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o has signed a two-year contract with the New Orleans Saints, per reports.

Once recovered from a torn Achilles, Te’o will join a crowded Saints linebacker corps. The Saints signed A.J. Klein—formerly of the Carolina Panthers—to a three-year, $15 million contract earlier in March and return Craig Robertson, who finished 2016 with 115 tackles.

All three have experience at the middle linebacker position in a 4-3 defense, though Klein and Robertson are both capable of playing at the strong side position, as well.

Before his week three injury, Te’o had started 34 of 38 games for the San Diego Chargers and notched 221 career tackles. With the Saints, he rejoins linebackers coach Mike Nolan, who held the same position with the Chargers in 2015 when Te’o finished with a career-high 83 tackles.

BOOKER REJOINS DIACO
It appears former Notre Dame tight ends coach and special teams coordinator Scott Booker will join the Nebraska coaching staff. Two former Irish coaches—defensive coordinator Bob Diaco and safeties coach Bob Elliott—already have seats in the Lincoln coaching room, which is quickly becoming something of a Notre Dame West.

Booker will reportedly join the Cornhuskers staff as a special teams analyst. He served as Notre Dame’s special teams coordinator from 2012 to 2016 before this past offseason’s extensive staff changes.

PRO DAY THURSDAY
A reminder: Notre Dame will hold its Pro Day this Thursday. Nine players will partake, obviously highlighted by quarterback DeShone Kizer.

The others: long snapper Scott Daly, running back Tarean Folson, tight end Chase Hounshell, defensive linemen Jarron Jones and Isaac Rochell, cornerback Cole Luke, safety Avery Sebastian and linebacker James Onwualu.

Kizer hopes to prove himself worthy of a first-round draft pick, while Jones and Rochell may be in the mix for a second-day pick, meaning in the second or third rounds.

As it is draft season, this discussion of why mock drafts exist even though most prognosticators cannot stand them is worth the few minutes needed to read.

MARCH MADNESS UPDATE
The majority of the “Inside the Irish” bracket pool’s leaders escaped the weekend’s chaos, though frontrunner andy44teg will not hold onto that top spot for long after his titlist pick, Duke, exited late the tournament late Sunday.

That will leave some character named Dennis and his North Carolina prediction as the presumptive favorite to win, well, to win absolutely nothing.

Five of the top 10 expect North Carolina to win the championship.