And in that corner… the Purdue Boilermakers

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It was a tale of two seasons last year for Purdue. The first half heartbreak and despair, the second half hope for a better day. Maybe that’s overly dramatic, but the Boilermakers went on a nice run in the second half of the season, including an upset victory against Ohio State, finishing the season 4-2 and putting up a respectable 4-4 record during Big Ten play. Even though the season ended 5-7, Purdue fans had to believe that three or four of those games could’ve gone a different direction.

One of those was obviously against the Fighting Irish. Travis Miller was at Ross-Ade stadium that fateful night when Jimmy Clausen scored his “signature win” against the Boilermakers, marching the Irish down the field for a last minute touchdown pass to Kyle Rudolph. Miller runs the very entertaining Purdue website Hammer & Rails, and was kind enough to chat with me earlier this week as the Irish and the Boilermakers prepare to kick off the season.

I also answered some questions for him over at his blog, so check those out when you get a chance. I’m especially proud of his title for the blog: “Inside the Irish: Quality, sane Notre Dame discussion. I like that.” (Might put that on the book jacket…)

Inside the Irish: How bad did the loss last year feel?

H&R: I’ll admit, it stung. I sit in section 128 , so the play
happened right in front of my seats. Just deflating. I felt like we had the game,
but once again our defense failed to get stops on a long drive at the end. That
has been our MO forever. If we take a lead with more than five minutes left and
all we need is one stop we never get it.

ITI: Following up on that, was it the timeout that hurt the most? From Purdue’s
standpoint, did you feel like it was your game to win and you blew it or would
it have been a stolen W?

H&R: I think it was ours to win and I can’t believe we called the
timeout. At the very least you force either a hurried play or a spike to stop
the clock. They then have less time to call the fourth down play. Instead we
gifted the Irish time to script the two plays we wanted. To me, it was an
inexcusable decision, and the worst one Hope made all year.

ITI: You predicted Keith Smith last year. Who’s going to do it this year?

H&R: I am high on three guys: Al-Terek McBurse, O.J. Ross, and
Ricardo Allen. McBurse is the new guy at running back, but a four-star recruit
who has a ton of talent. I think he can have a big game if we commit to the run.
Ross and Allen were high school teammates at Daytona Mainland and the top two
guys in our recruiting class. Allen seems to be taking control of one of the open
cornerback slots immediately and may even be an upgrade over David Pender and
Brandon King. Ross. Is a speedy receiver that will see time in the slot. He is
a lot like Dorien Bryant, only with better hands. He could also be used on
kickoff returns.

ITI: What does an outsider think about the hiring of Brian Kelly? Would you
rather be facing a Charlie Weis team or does BK signify a dangerous precedent:
An above-average coach of the Irish?

H&R:  I’m not sold on him because we have heard the same thing for
a decade in South Bend. A new guy comes in, he’s the greatest coach in the
history of the sport, then loses a few and gets canned. Remember that Ty
Willingham was once fantastic after an 8-0 start. He could do no wrong at that
point, but was fired three years later. Charlie Weis came in, had success immediately,
but then started to struggle. The fans blamed it on “Ty’s players”, which was a
joke of an excuse because Weis was in his third year. He had his own players by
then and went 3-9. In fact, he nearly lost to Washington with “Ty’s Players”
playing for the Huskies last year.

Brian Kelly has won at Division II, Central Michigan, and
Cincinnati. That’s all good and well, but we all know that unless he brings a
national title, and soon, there will be grumbling. Notre Dame fans are far from
patient, and Kelly is the type of coach they need to be patient with. I have no
doubt that he is a good coach and can be successful, but the real question is
can he be successful to Notre Dame’s elevated standards? Weis had success that
would be phenomenal at many schools, but not in South Bend. Shoot, Bob Davie
even took the Irish to a BCS bowl without a quarterback for most of the year,
but was gone after the following season.

ITI: You went on the record saying you didn’t want Robert Marve last year. Are
you drinking the Kool-Aid yet?

H&R: Yes, I have changed my mind. I’ve been most impressed with the
maturity he has shown off the field. I got to meet him at Big Ten media Days
and he was calm, cool, and collected. I think this maturity, as well as the
fact that he is no longer sharing snaps with Jacory Harris, will help him most.
He always needed the maturity to go with his talent. That seems to have come
with the move to West Lafayette.

He also gives us a running element from the quarterback that
we haven’t had since Brandon Kirsch. Part of what made Purdue so good under
Drew Brees was his decision making. He ran for over 800 yards as a senior and
read defenses so well thathe knew exactly when he could take off for 10-15
yards. If Marve can utilize that skill it will make Purdue better fast. 

ITI: How bad do you think ND’s defense will be this year?

H&R: It is hard to say. On paper, there is a ton of talent, but
it hasn’t produced yet. I know you guys are changing schemes yet again, so
there will naturally be a learning curve. Against Purdue I can see them
struggling because we have talent and depth at a lot of skill positions. We can
through six solid receivers out there with Keith Smith, Cortez Smith, Justin
Siller, Ross, Antavian Edison, and Gary Bush. Siller and the Smiths are big
guys, while Bush, Ross, and Edison are speed guys. Siller and Keith smith are
also former QB’s, so we will very likely use trick plays (and have successfully
with Smith). Rob Henry, the backup quarterback, may play in the wildcat. Dan
Dierking, Jared Crank, Reggie Pegram, and Derek Jackson can help McBurse in the
run game. Basically, we have the talent to move the ball in a lot of creative
ways.

ITI: I know you like Michael Floyd. Anybody else on the Irish roster give you
anxiety?

H&R: Kyle Rudolph is a solid tight end that can exploit our
inability to cover the middle of the field. As far as other receivers, it is
hard to say. I am optimistic that we have so many guys emerging as possible
starters in the secondary, but most of them still have yet to play a game at
this level. I think they will be excellent and deep in time, but this is still
game one.

ITI: What’s the recipe for a Purdue victory?

H&R: Hold on to the ball. Turnovers cost us at least three wins
last year. We can’t let that happen again. If we don’t turn the ball over we’re
a very good football team.

ITI: Gut feeling?

H&R: Strangely, I have been feeling like this game could turn out
like 2004 for some reason. I know that is very likely wishful thinking, but it
would be nice all the same. Last year I was in the minority predicting a win at
Oregon. Had we not handed them a pair of defensive touchdowns it would have
happened too. I think we’re going to see a high scoring game where the efficiency
of Notre Dame’s offense is the difference. I think these teams are nearly
equal, but my gut tells me Purdue wins.

*****

If you’d like to stroll back to Memory Lane, here’s what we had to say before the game last year. 

Restocking the roster: Wide Receivers

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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

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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.

***

Kelly and Swarbrick turn attention to science of injury prevention

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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.