Fantasy Camp: The golden rules

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They say a football game isn’t won on Saturday, but in the work put in Monday through Friday. Well, it’s tough to make that translate when game day is Thursday afternoon, but I’ll do my best to try.

The Blue-Gold game was most likely won Tuesday night. That’s when defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, the head coach of the Gold team and an eater that could put Kobayashi on notice, maneuvered to put together a team that offensive coordinator Charley Molnar could not counter. With Friday’s coaching staff lunch on the line, and having personally witnessed Diaco polish off two Filet Mignons and two full plates of pasta at dinner, I’m guessing Diaco’s epic appetite was an imposing figure in the draft room, especially for the Blue head coach that has nine other mouths to feed at home.

At Tuesday night’s dinner in the Monogram Room, Brian Kelly announced the game rosters, alternating between Gold and Blue teams. Here’s one talent evaluator’s breakdown of the rosters:

GOLD TEAM:

Keith Arnold: QB/CB — Schmuck blogger. One of youngest guys in camp, always a plus.
Frank Bagatta: TE/LB — Old school player with great instincts and better hair.
Country Balitsos: RB/FS — Second cousin to waterboy Bobby Boucher. A little crazy.
Tom Britz: WR/FS — Silky smooth athlete who looks 30 years younger than his real age.
Jonathan Brooks: RB/LB — Bulldozer that battled hamstring injuries throughout camp.
Joe Colgan: TE/LB — Locker room leader who has a penchant for hoarding socks.
Patrick Dolphin: WR/DB — Deep threat and shut down corner. Definite RKG.
John Harris: OL/DE — Jersey’s finest brings an attitude to the trenches.
Bob Johnson: OL/DL — Tough interior player anchors offensive line.
Larry Leamy: WR/DB — Elder statesman of the camp just makes big plays in space.
Dave Libs: OL/LB — Veteran presence brings great intangibles to team.
Scott Litwiller: OL/DL — Physical force inside, key to line as shotgun snapper.
Bart McGloin: QB/LB — Veteran QB and Mike backer brings ice-water veins to huddle.
Hubert Oates: RB/LB — Hard-charging ball carrier and great locker room presence.
Dennis Rios: OL/LB — Battled through injuries to contribute with solid defensive play.
Bill Robinson: NT/OL: Undersized battler brings smiles to teammates and frowns to enemies.
Tom Tague: OL/DL — Windy City rookie brings rare blend of youth and power to interior.

BLUE TEAM:

Gene Bicego: WR/DB — Pint-sized receiver with great shake.
Mike Brennen: WR/DB — Another little guy with wheels. Joey Getherall type player.
PT Brent: WR/DB — Former Marine who brings leadership to the huddle.
John Paul Condon: TE/LB — Half of the Canadian contingency for the Blue squad.
Keith Cross: WR/DB — Boston-based starter that battled injuries and criminal charges.
Gene Faut, Jr.: WR/DB — Speedster looked to play the role of #1 wide receiver.
Gene Faut, Sr.: WR/DB — Veteran presence that can make a defense pay.
Rob Gothier: QB/DB — Hotshot new QB with rocket-arm and a balky hamstring.
Michael Haveard: QB/DB — Veteran signal caller that brings presence to the field.
Joe Hession: TE/LB — Veteran player brings old-school attitude to the field.
Tim Kopp: WR/DL: Injuries kept him from contributing on-field, but brings plenty off the field.
Ned Lesnick: RB/LB: Veteran running back dangerous inside the tackles.
Rich Maynhart: OL/DL: Anchor in the middle of line also in charge of shotgun snaps. 
Michael O’Donnell: WR/DB — Veteran from California brings savvy to Blue team attack.
John O’Neill: WR/DB — Lanky Canadian battled foot injuries to make highlight reel catch.
Rick Peltz: OL/DB — Longtime player brings size to the trenches.
Terry Philbin: OL/DL — Monster along the interior, premiere lineman on either roster.
Mark Smith: RB/DL — Fifth-year camper didn’t let balky knees stop him.

What made game day so special was just how close to script we played things compared to the actual Irish football team. Both teams met for a training table meal at The Gug, where breakfast options were waiting as well as an omelet chef to prepare one of your choice. After that, we broke into team meetings, where Diaco, Chuck Martin, Ed Warinner, Tim Hinton, Jon Carpenter and Scott Booker gave quick pregame talks, as well as going over our keys to success. We knew our offensive line gave us a great chance to get our running game going, and our two corners let us roll a safety down into the box and challenge the Blue team to try and beat us through the air, because they weren’t going to be able to run on us.

After meetings, it was off to the Basilica, where Father Doyle, the team Chaplin for the football team, said mass for us before leaving every team member with a small pendant, just like he does with the football team. From there, we took the same walk from the chapel to the stadium, minus a few thousand screaming fans and a marching band. Even preparing for a game played in front of maybe only a hundred fans, it was pretty hard not to get fired up for the game we were about to play.

Strapped up in the new Irish uniforms and heading down the stairs out of the locker room, we slapped the same Play Like A Champion Today sign that Irish football players have been slapping for years. Introduced on the public address system, running out of that tunnel to your waiting teammates, this was the closest thing to playing for the Irish I’ll ever experience.

As for the game, many of the Gold team’s suspicions came true. With an offensive line that helped game MVP Country Balitsos break two long touchdown runs, and a suffocating pass-rush that kept the Gold Team from getting any type of rhythm going, our offense and defense had dominating performances. Trading off series with Bart at quarterback, I only had the chance to throw the ball once, a quick bubble screen that was a missed tackle away from going the distance, but I ran the option a couple times and moved the team for a touchdown drive capped by a run by tugboat Jonathan Brooks.

On defense, we pitched a shutout, and I nearly took an interception to the house but chose the far sideline instead of the near one, before I was tracked down inside the red zone. Coach Carp’s defense, where we rolled safety Larry Leamy into the flat, worked perfectly with fellow freshman Patrick Dolphin playing a perfect shutdown corner opposite me with our linebackers stuffing the run nearly every carry.

While the lopsided scoreboard made for an anticlimactic finish, the game was a success because nobody got hurt and everybody had fun. Touchdowns by Country, Brooks, and Leamy, plus a couple extra points made by Joe Colgan, put an exclamation point on a perfect draft and game plan by Diaco and company. The defense also held strong after a long catch and throw between Rob Gothier and Jon O’Neill that brought the Blue down to inside the ten, only to be held scoreless.

The scoreboard didn’t matter (26-0! 26-0!), the experience did. That experience was punctuated by an incredible dinner with family and friends at the top of the press box, where Brian Kelly handed out the postgame awards to every player. As a first year camper, I was given a game worn helmet that’ll go next to the rest of the Notre Dame memorabilia on my bookshelf. Sophomores received a monogram jacket with a special Fantasy Camp logo in place of the interlocking ND. Juniors received class rings, which seemed to be the talk of the camp. Seniors, fifth-year players and graduates all received watches and framed photos, an impressive keep sake, especially when you consider that the photos were all taken in the three previous days.

While I’ll continue to call it as I see it, it’s hard for me to do anything but drink the Kool-Aid after spending four days with the coaching staff. To a man, every single guy on staff was great, and they honestly enjoyed every mome
nt they spent with us, just
as we loved spending it with them. While I never had an experience like this with the previous coaching staff, it’s clear that this group has a great working relationship, is completely on the same page, and that Brian Kelly is a dynamic leader. Whether it was the offensive coaches, the defensive guys, or the dynamic strength and conditioning staff that will be a twelfth man on the field come this fall, I heard from people high and low that this was the group that was going to return Notre Dame to prominence.

We’ll ultimately find out come this September, but for four days in June, Brian Kelly and his staff certainly were perfect. 

Irish A-to-Z: Quenton Nelson

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 17: Quenton Nelson #56 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates after a 10-yard touchdown reception by Corey Robinson against the USC Trojans in the fourth quarter of the game at Notre Dame Stadium on October 17, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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It didn’t take long for Quenton Nelson to establish himself as one of the nation’s premier guards. From day one in the starting lineup, Nelson helped the Irish become one of the country’s dominant offensive lines, a bruising run blocker who showed incredible toughness as he battled through an ankle injury and returned quickly to the lineup after Alex Bars went down.

This spring, Nelson got enough more monstrous. Brian Kelly quipped that Nelson had grown to 346 pounds, though Harry Hiestand tried his best to downplay that size, pegging the number closer to 330.

But you’ll see a slimmer, quicker Nelson this season, his spring and summer spent putting in the work. That should lead to an even better season as the junior is joined by Mike McGlinchey on the left side of Sam Mustipher, perhaps the best guard-tackle combo in America.

 

QUENTON NELSON
6’5″, 325 lbs.
Junior, No. 56, LG

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

An elite, national recruit, Nelson was a five-star prospect and Top 30 player. Earned an invite to the U.S. Army All-American game. Chose Notre Dame early in the process, picking the Irish over Alabama, Ohio State, Michigan, Stanford and just about everybody else.

Made waves on the web as he pulled off 26 reps of 225-pounds on the bench press as a high school senior, more than most offensive line prospects at the NFL Scouting Combine.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Did not see action, preserving a year of eligibility.

Sophomore Season (2015): Played in 12 games, starting 11 after suffering an ankle injury against Clemson. Finished as Notre Dame’s third-ranked offensive lineman per PFF College’s grading system, behind only Mike McGlinchey and Nick Martin with a +17.7 ranking.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

He might have outperformed my expectations.

For as good as Nelson can be, he’s still just a redshirt freshman. To that point, I expect a good season, within reason. That means that he’ll likely struggle against elite defenders, with veteran players capable of using Nelson’s aggression against him, and potentially getting the young guard and his body out of position.

Of course, there’s also a good chance that Nelson is as good as advertised. Because he did spend the spring beating out a talented depth chart, and his natural strength and power are absolutely keys to being a great guard in Hiestand’s blocking scheme.

Some guys are born to be offensive linemen. Nelson looks like one of those guys. The chance to be a four-year starter is a rare one. But Nelson seems to be on that trajectory.

No pressure, kid.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

From five-star prospect to first-round draft pick. That’s the trajectory Nelson is on, even if he will be doing it as a guard not as a tackle, as most expected when he was recruited.

For as good as Nelson is expected to be, he’s still just a second-year player. And he’ll be lining up next to another future first-rounder who has just one season under his belt and is already expected to be among the best in the country.

Nelson is big, nasty, and in exceptional shape entering the season. He’s another sky-is-the-limit prospect, an elite talent who matches that with exceptional mental makeup.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Notre Dame could have two All-Americans lined up next to each other. That’s my bold prediction heading into the season, with both Nelson and McGlinchey earning those honors. In season’s past, we saw the Irish become left-handed in the running game, with Chris Watt and Zack Martin the trusted preference of Brian Kelly in critical running situations. It’s hard to think that won’t be the case in 2016.

Nelson’s strength has turned him into an elite run blocker. Expect to see his game round out this season, with his improved fitness helping bring the physical traits of a tackle into play as well. A special season is possible.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin
Justin Brent
Devin Butler
Jimmy Byrne
Daniel Cage
Chase Claypool
Nick Coleman
Te’von Coney
Shaun Crawford
Scott Daly
Micah Dew-Treadway
Liam Eichenberg
Jalen Elliott
Nicco Feritta
Tarean Folston
Mark Harrell
Daelin Hayes
Jay Hayes
Tristen Hoge
Corey Holmes
Torii Hunter Jr.
Alizé Jones
Jamir Jones
Jarron Jones
Jonathan Jones
Tony Jones Jr.
Khalid Kareem
DeShone Kizer
Julian Love
Tyler Luatua
Cole Luke
Greer Martini
Jacob Matuska
Mike McGlinchey
Colin McGovern
Deon McIntosh
Javon McKinley
Pete Mokwuqh
John Montelus
D.J. Morgan
Nyles Morgan
Sam Mustipher

Kelly expects to play two quarterbacks in 2016

Duke Ejiofor, DeShone Kizer
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With Notre Dame opening up camp next week, Brian Kelly seems to be opening up to the idea of playing two quarterbacks.

As DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire get set to begin their battle, Notre Dame’s head coach talked about that high-profile job with Jim Rome, giving us an interesting look at his mindset on the eve of the season, while also adding a new tweak to the old adage of having two quarterbacks.

Namely, you need two.

“I think you need two,” Kelly told Rome. “You’re going to need two quarterbacks in college football. You need two and we’ve got two very good ones. My expectation is that we need both of them to play.”

That attitude makes sense when you look back at Kelly’s time in South Bend. From the moment Dayne Crist’s bell was rung against Michigan in Kelly’s first season, Notre Dame’s offense has seemingly been pushed into Plan B each and every season—giving way to Nate Montana, Tommy Rees, Andrew Hendrix and eventually Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer.

The Irish certainly wouldn’t have won 10 games in 2015 if Kizer wasn’t capable of thriving when he replaced Zaire against Virginia. And Kelly knows that experience has turned the tables on the depth chart as they enter 2016.

“Both of them are capable of winning, we know that. Malik showed that in the way he played against Texas and he’s been in the program for four years,” Kelly said. “But Kizer obviously has got more experience because of the number of games that he played and big games last year.”

While the plan to continue the competition into fall camp hasn’t changed, Kelly seems to have softened on his stance that only one quarterback will be happy. And while you certainly can’t take this as a declaration that a platoon is coming, Kelly acknowledged the need to have both guys ready and involved. And the best way to do that is by getting them on the field.

“It would be great that whoever took the job over played so well that he’s going to be a Heisman contender,” Kelly said. “If that doesn’t happen, I can see both of them eventually playing.”

The balancing act is nothing new for Kelly. He’s managed it in South Bend, as well as in Cincinnati and his two previous stops. While he’s noted the challenges Ohio State had last season trying to make their offense work while utilizing both Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett, t’s worth pointing out that the Irish coaching staff also spent significant time this offseason huddled with the Buckeyes coaching staff, likely a helpful introduction to the quarterback challenges that even Urban Meyer struggled with.

Kelly knows it won’t be easy finding snaps for both quarterbacks. But he also knows it’s likely better to find your balance when you’re the one dictating terms—not a season-ending injury.

“I think it’s so important to have two quarterbacks, be engaged, keep them involved and as much as they can try to get them in the game if you can,” Kelly said. “It’s a lot more difficult if you can do that. But thats the way it is in college football, with the quarterback being so actively involved in the running game.”

Zaire made it only 19 carries last year when his season ended with a broken ankle. Quarterback runs have ended seasons for Dayne Crist and forced Everett Golson to miss multiple games. But Notre Dame’s offense requires a quarterback who can run the football. And Kelly would rather take his chances playing to that identity than recalibrating how they attack opponents.

“You can’t change your identity week to week, you’ve got to be who you are,” Kelly said. “These two quarterbacks are proven winners. The team knows that.

“I’m not going to have a quarterback controversy. I think we can move forward knowing that both of them are going to play in some fashion.”

***

Listen to Kelly’s full interview with Jim Rome from July 29 below. 

Irish A-to-Z: Sam Mustipher

Sam Mustipher 247
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Sam Mustipher established himself as the team’s starting center entering spring practice, the lack of competition probably more striking than the junior winning the job. But Mustipher’s work as Nick Martin’s understudy in 2015 likely allowed him to earn Harry Hiestand’s trust, erasing a position battle many expected to be an open audition.

Another top-line recruit and development project, Mustipher’s a third-year player who’ll help form a nucleus for an offensive line that’s expected to be one of the finest in the nation. But that won’t be possible without a big season from the Maryland native.

 

SAM MUSTIPHER
6’2.5″, 305 lbs.
Junior, No. 53, C

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Mustipher was an Under Armour All-American who picked Notre Dame over a field of elite offers. Alabama, Florida, Florida State, Michigan, Ohio State, Oklahoma and Stanford all wanted him. Hiestand had him locked up by April.

Notre Dame projected him as an interior player from the start, though his transition to center didn’t begin immediately.

 

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Did not see action.

Sophomore Season (2015): Made appearances in nine games, earning mop-up snaps against Texas and UMass at center.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

He never had to play any high-leverage snaps, but he certainly proved himself Monday through Friday.

Mustipher might be the most unproven part of Notre Dame’s two-deep, a good sign for the work the Irish have done stocking the depth chart. But if something happens to Martin, we’ll see how ready he is to play, a first-year contributor in the middle of an offensive line that’ll already be starting a first-year player at left guard.

Martin has already battled health issues, a major difference between him and his ironman brother. But Mustipher is likely ready to contribute if he’s the guy tapped to serve as a backup. If not? Expect to see some other bodies shuffle through this fall camp, with candidates including Colin McGovern, Hunter Bivin and John Montelus.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

Mustipher’s physical attributes won’t bowl you over, but he very quickly earned respect from Brian Kelly last spring, being treated like an established veteran, not a first-year player being asked to replace a high NFL draft pick. Again, that confidence must come from what the staff sees, not what we’ve seen on the playing field.

What they likely see is a student-athlete making it work at Notre Dame as an engineering major, a testament to his smarts. They also see a center cut from the traditional mold, capable of utilizing leverage, moving his feet and aggressively attacking opponents across from him.

Former Bears Pro Bowler Olin Kreutz has spent some time around the Irish, thanks to his relationship with Hiestand. It’s hard not to note the physical similarities, something that I’m sure has helped ease the transition into the starting lineup.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I don’t think Mustipher will be as solid as Martin was last season (a deep-dig into game tape had Martin surging up draft boards before the Texans took him), but expect a strong season. Perhaps the best version of Mustipher is the one you don’t notice. First-year centers who spend a lot of time in the shotgun need to make sure that every play gets started correctly, and from there he can make sure the Irish win the battle at the point of attack. (It sounds remedial, but let’s not take the snap for granted.)

Mustipher’s strength let him win more than his fair share of battles last spring with Daniel Cage, a physical force on the interior. If Mustipher can anchor, play with solid technique and get to the second level, Notre Dame’s running game should continue to surge.

When Tristen Hoge signed with Notre Dame, most thought the high school center had the inside track to multiple seasons starting. That still could happen, but Mustipher might end up the one with three seasons at center, while Hoge battles to be one of the two linemen playing next to him.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin
Justin Brent
Devin Butler
Jimmy Byrne
Daniel Cage
Chase Claypool
Nick Coleman
Te’von Coney
Shaun Crawford
Scott Daly
Micah Dew-Treadway
Liam Eichenberg
Jalen Elliott
Nicco Feritta
Tarean Folston
Mark Harrell
Daelin Hayes
Jay Hayes
Tristen Hoge
Corey Holmes
Torii Hunter Jr.
Alizé Jones
Jamir Jones
Jarron Jones
Jonathan Jones
Tony Jones Jr.
Khalid Kareem
DeShone Kizer
Julian Love
Tyler Luatua
Cole Luke
Greer Martini
Jacob Matuska
Mike McGlinchey
Colin McGovern
Deon McIntosh
Javon McKinley
Pete Mokwuqh
John Montelus
D.J. Morgan
Nyles Morgan

 

Mailbag Open: Questions before camp

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Football is almost here. Before the Irish arrive at Culver Academies next week, drop your questions below or on Twitter @KeithArnold.