Michael Floyd is a man on a mission

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It’s hard to call anyone that’s a preseason first-team All-American anonymous. But two weeks into fall camp, Michael Floyd might as well have vanished, getting little mention from head coach Brian Kelly or members of his staff when talking about the team. Since Kelly’s arrival, Floyd’s work within the program has been done under far dimmer lights than the player many of us saw dominate during his six-plus games last season.

Getting off on the right foot might have been part of the problem. Floyd’s offseason wasn’t one to be proud of, his ticket for underage drinking and involvement in a fight back home in Minnesota over the holidays did little to make the coaching staff believe they had a team leader.

Even more intriguing, when I spent time with the coaching staff in June as summer conditioning workouts got underway, I had the sneaking suspicion that the new coaching staff wasn’t all that impressed with the game tape they had reviewed of their inherited star receiver. While no one would say it, I got the feeling that many thought Floyd was just “another guy,” his headlines and kudos a product of the media machine swirling around Notre Dame and head coach Charlie Weis’ explosive downfield passing game.

That perception of Floyd was confirmed today by Kelly when he spoke to the national press during Notre Dame’s media day.

“Michael Floyd,” Kelly said as he measured his words. “I thought Michael Floyd was over-hyped. I thought he was, at times, average.”

Kelly’s commentary mirrored some of the exact things I heard back in June, but also echoed some of the knocks we’ve heard about the great offensive players of the Weis era, players that put up numbers befitting top NFL draft picks but found themselves sliding down to be picked when the signing bonuses lacked the extra zeroes. Brady Quinn, draft slide. Jimmy Clausen, draft slide. Golden Tate, draft slide. Even players like John Carlson and Ryan Harris, guys that have been successful during their brief NFL careers didn’t go anywhere near as high as many thought they were capable of going.

Kelly even provided the details for his subpar critique of Notre Dame’s current offensive star.

“He ran down the field and they threw it up,” Kelly said. “He wasn’t a precision
route-runner. He wasn’t asked to be. He was a match-up guy. You never
saw him in position to run the dig or the drive or one-on-one where he
had to beat press coverage on a slant on 4th-and-1. All those things
that go to winning football games, I didn’t see all that. Maybe it’s
because they had Golden Tate and he did all that for them. So my evaluation of Mike was based upon the film I’ve had.”

There were whispers and worries on message boards that Floyd was unhappy with the coaching change, unwilling to buy in with the commitment demanded by the new coaching regime. During his same comments, Kelly also refuted that notion unequivocally.

“In 20 years, I have not had a player who has worked as hard as Michael Floyd has worked,” Kelly continued. “And I mean that. He has out-worked everybody on the offensive side of the ball to the
point where he has single-handedly set the bar for everybody else needs
to bring their play.

“The last couple of days in situational live, he’s been dominant. He’s been dominant. And believe me, I’m not easily impressed. Again, going back to where I thought he was, watching film last year, wasn’t all that impressed with him. I’ve been very impressed with his work. He’s been outstanding, and he’s
set a bar for the way all our other players need to compete on a
day-to-day basis.

“That’s the Mike Floyd story.”

While the statistics won’t agree, the critique of Floyd’s body of work at Notre Dame is a fair one. Floyd’s first two seasons, both disrupted by injuries, never had him running precision routes or working as a complete receiver. Weis seemed content to take advantage of the match-up problems inherent with a physical receiver like Floyd, choosing to have his star wideout simply beat opponents as opposed to develop into a complete weapon.

While his numbers certainly look the part of an All-American, that reliance on Floyd’s jump ball game, that complacency to simply depend on Michael to beat the defensive back also contributed to Notre Dame’s mediocrity in the red zone, and didn’t help Michael’s development as a player.

(You could argue that injuries played the largest factor when choosing Floyd’s role in the game plan. With a cracked clavicle, both the coaching and medical staff likely wanted to keep him alone in space, away from the big collisions in the middle of the field.)

If what we heard today is any indication, it’s clear that Kelly and wide receivers coach Tony Alford (who saw first-hand what Floyd can do last season) have every intention on turning #3 into a complete wide receiver. More importantly, Michael’s embraced the challenge, pushing both himself and his teammates to new heights.

If you’re looking for a clue on what Kelly expects from Floyd this season, look no further than that wry smile that crept its way onto the head coach’s lips when he was talking about Floyd. That should be all you need to know.

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
Getty
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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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