Five things we'll learn: Keys to the Irish season

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In the nine months that have passed since the Notre Dame Fighting Irish last played a meaningful football game, Irish fans have done a lot of heavy thinking.

They just watched one of their own fail. A coach that dazzled the Irish faithful with his Super Bowl wins and unprecedented offensive fireworks. He found early success with recruits from a regime long thought mediocre at procuring high-level talent, but then failed when he brought in his own players, blue-chippers that competed annually for mythical national recruiting titles.

This one stung. Notre Dame Nation had just done all it could to get the last guy run out of town after three years. Even he started with a bang, riding an opportunistic defense and a recharged fanbase to a top-five ranking and eight consecutive wins to start his tenure, the Coach of the Year trophies and Sports Illustrated covers now sit covered in dust next to an old set of golf clubs.

(Let’s not even get into the guy before him. He never made it to his first practice, learning first-hand that while Student Affairs may be tough on students who are caught turning in a paper that’s less than truthful, the administration has even less leeway for coaches that may play a little loose with their CV.)

And so Irish fans sit, 13 years since Lou Holtz roamed the sidelines, having played in only eight bowl games and three BCS bowls, walking away with a lone victory against Hawaii on Christmas Eve, 2008. It’s been 17 years since Irish fans could even complain about getting truly worked over, when the Irish beat the eventual national champs head-to-head in November. (But even then they had themselves to blame after giving away the title to Boston College a week after ascending to No. 1.)

Fast forward to today. The New Guy. Brian Kelly. Named head coach of the Irish on Dec. 10, he’s gone undefeated since then, navigating effortlessly through the media obligations, his first recruiting class, some 180 speaking engagements, fifteen spring practices, and his first fall camp. He’s everything the last few guys haven’t been. Unfortunately, on Saturday against Purdue, there’s a good chance he could turn into the rest of them.

He’ll actually have to coach a game.

Heading into Saturday’s season opener against the visiting Boilermakers on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET on NBC, here’s five things we’ll learn about the Irish, Kelly, and the state of Notre Dame football:

1. Brian Kelly has the experience needed to succeed at Notre Dame.

As we’ve learned from the Charlie Weis and Tryone Willingham, starting fast doesn’t necessarily mean you’re on the road to greatness. Nor does starting slow — Lou Holtz was only 13-10 after two seasons, including a 5-6 season that matched the final year of Gerry Faust. But Holtz had the experience needed to succeed at Notre Dame, he had already made stops at major college programs like Arkansas and Minnesota. In the last 50 years, the only Notre Dame head coaches to have had multiple D-I jobs are Ara Parseghian, Dan Devine, and Lou Holtz. All three won national championships.

Kelly himself conceded he wouldn’t be ready if Notre Dame was his first stop.

“I could not do it. I could not do it. I learn something every day,” Kelly said last week. “I learn about press conferences and what I should say and what I shouldn’t say. It’s a learning experience. To have 20 years just to be able to function, I could not have done the job without that experience.”

One final tidbit that should have Irish fans feeling confident: Kelly’s 23-3 mark in the last two seasons at Cincinnati is the best two-year run by an incoming head coach since Frank Leahy came from Boston College in 1941.

None of this guarantees he’ll wake up the echoes, but at the very least he’ll know what to do if he finds them.

2. The defense will determine whether the Irish make a BCS run.

Charlie Weis likely sealed his own fate when he replaced Corwin Brown’s 3-4 system with the blitzing attack of Jon Tenuta. While Brown’s troops only played average football, under Tenuta the defense fell apart, giving up back-breaking big plays and blowing critical assignments.

Now defensive coordinator Bob Diaco is tasked with turning a defense returning most of the same players into an outfit worthy of its rallying cry: B.I.A. Best in America.  The talent is there to back up the seemingly preposterous statement. Notre Dame’s two-deep depth chart is littered with top-notch talent, every bit as strong as the units at Alabama, TCU or Texas.

Nearly every player in the depth chart was a four-star recruit, and as the Wall Street Journal pointed out last week, Notre Dame’s projected starters have the third-highest recruiting rankings in the country, trailing only USC and Florida. Better yet, most were recruited to play in the same 3-4 scheme that Diaco employs. Part of the offseason was spent rebuilding the psyches of some players that were left gun-shy after a terrible season. If Diaco can turn this group of talented players around, expect him to be running his own program soon.

3. The Notre Dame offense depends on the health of Dayne Crist.

While the “Next Man In” philosophy is a key tenet of Brian Kelly’s belief system, the head coach is tweaking his rules when it comes to starting quarterback Dayne Crist. While Crist has only thrown 20 passes in his college career, behind him the Irish are looking at true freshman Tommy Rees and former walk-on quarterback Nate Montana. With Crist only 10 months removed from a torn ACL, Kelly is playing a delicate balancing act with his junior quarterback.

“Dayne Crist is a guy who is going to have to use all of his tools,” Kelly said. “He’s a pretty good athlete. He can run as well and he can extend plays. He’s going to get hit out there. But we’re not going to put him in a position where we get running hits on our quarterback. That’s just not smart.”

The physical ability of Crist has never been questioned, and nobody inside the program would be surprised if he leaves Notre Dame drafted higher than Jimmy Clausen. But for Notre Dame to win now, they’ll need to keep the quarterback healthy.

4. If the offensive line can hold up, Notre Dame will dominate with its running game.

Many assumed the implementation of the spread offense meant throwing the ball a majority of the time. But if you look back at the history of Brian Kelly’s offense, you’ll see that he’s kept a run-pass balance that purists would find refreshing. At Central Michigan, Kelly ran the ball nearly 53-percent of the time. At Cincinnati, that number was 48-percent.  

“It’s a misnomer that with the spread you’re going to throw the ball every down,” offensive coordinator Charley Molnar said. “If we can get the defense in the looks where we like to run the football, where they’re really trying to play coverage, we’ll create running lanes for our running backs that would be no different than what you would get in a conventional offense.”

More importantly, the Irish will depend on the run to keep its relatively youthful offensive line protected, leaning on the zone running system that Kelly and Molnar have utilized as well as the expertise of line coach Ed Warinner to protect Zack Martin and Taylor Dever, two tackles starting their first games on Saturday.

Armando Allen, Cierre Wood, Robert Hughes and Jonas Gray are the most talented backfield the Irish have had since the Holtz era. The Notre Dame rushing attack took a backseat during the Charlie Weis era, as the team’s finesse style struggled to create an even average ground attack. Expect that to change under Kelly, where explosive running plays from the spread could bring back memories of Reggie Brooks and Tony Rice breaking free in the second
ary.

5. The i
dentity of Notre Dame football has changed for the better.

Even if the 2010 season doesn’t go as well as many Irish fans hope, there’s still plenty of reason to believe that the Irish football program has changed for the better. New strength and conditioning coach Paul Longo has implemented a program that made incredible gains to a roster that consistently faltered in November. Athletic director Jack Swarbrick worked with Kelly to institute a training table, catching the Irish up in a dietary arms race that Notre Dame has been lagging behind in for years. And Kelly re-energized the Notre Dame community, meeting with professors, deans, and students in ways that Charlie Weis never made time to do. Kelly didn’t need to make 180 stops in 180 days this offseason, but he understands better than any coach that’s been at Notre Dame since Lou Holtz that being an ambassador at award dinners, fund-raisers and golf outings is part of the job as well.

While Weis touted a schematic advantage, Kelly might also better him on the field immediately by installing a frenetically-paced, no-huddle spread attack that will wear down teams with their conditioning and precision. While Weis reveled in outsmarting his opponents, Kelly plans on out-hustling his opponents with smart players, a change that could pay immediate dividends.

The days of Brian Kelly being perfect end this Saturday. But even if he’ll never be, Notre Dame fans can at least find hope in the new beginning.

Irish A-to-Z: Nyles Morgan

TEMPE, AZ - NOVEMBER 08:  Quarterback Taylor Kelly #10 of the Arizona State Sun Devils throws a pass under pressure from linebacker Nyles Morgan #5 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during the fourth quarter of the college football game at Sun Devil Stadium on November 8, 2014 in Tempe, Arizona. The Sun Devils defeated the Fighting Irish 55-31.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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Joe Schmidt is gone. This is Nyles Morgan‘s defense now.

Some have argued it should’ve been Morgan’s defense last year—especially with nagging injuries robbing Schmidt of his productivity. But this isn’t an article aimed at indicting a former team captain or the braintrust atop the defense, but rather a look at the most important assumed starter on Notre Dame’s 2016 defense.

Praised this spring for his ascent into a leadership role, Morgan will need to show that his  free-styling freshman ways are over. If he can, he’ll immediately insert a difference maker into the center of the Irish defense, a tackling machine who has the potential to make big plays and wreak havoc from day one.

 

NYLES MORGAN
6’1″, 245 lbs.
Junior, No. 5, LB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Morgan was an Army All-American and Top 100 recruit who picked Notre Dame after a long battle with many national programs, including Ole Miss. (Now that we know a little bit more about Hugh Freeze and the Rebels staff, that’s certainly saying something.)

Add to that the fact that the Irish won after losing both his area recruiter (Chuck Martin) and defensive coordinator and position coach (Bob Diaco), and it was a huge land for Brian Kelly and Brian VanGorder.

 

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Freshman All-American. Finished T-8th for tackles by a freshman with 47. Made 11 stops against USC and chipped in a half-sack against LSU. Played in 12 games, starting four after Joe Schmidt was lost for the season.

Sophomore Season (2015): Played in all 13 games, mostly on special teams. Saw back-up snaps against Texas and UMass.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

A swing and a miss.

I’m pegging Morgan for a Top Four tackler on the roster, taking into consideration that finding snaps is going to be the hardest part for him. But Morgan is too athletic to keep off the field, and VanGorder and Kelly are too smart to keep a 240-pound heat-seeking missile off the field, especially when Jaylon Smith could help the Irish off the edge as a pass rusher just as much as a middle of the field linebacker.

No, he won’t be perfect. And if Morgan decides to freelance this season, he’ll do so mostly from the sideline while Grace, Greer Martini or several other linebackers get a chance to play. But all reports have Morgan a student of the game, and after a tough year learning on the fly, expect Morgan to take a huge step forward.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

There’s still nothing but bright days ahead for Morgan, who only has two seasons of eligibility remaining after spending most of last year playing special teams. It’s hard to get too wrapped up in the lost season considering the fact that frontline college players rarely give you four seasons of production—they’re off to the NFL by then.

That said, Morgan’s challenge in 2016 is to go from precocious newcomer to grizzled veteran, all without a transitional season in between. If he’s over last season’s bizarre usage, it doesn’t matter if a certain segment of the fanbase never will be. Morgan’s got more important things to do—like be the most impactful defensive player of the VanGorder era.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Notre Dame’s leading tackler. And it might not even be close. Yes, he’ll need to stay healthy. And yes, he’ll never to cut down on some of the mental mistakes that can turn a three-yard gain into a 30-yarder. But Morgan is the perfect prototype for middle linebacker in VanGorder’s scheme—and that’s what sold him on Notre Dame in the first place.

It won’t be all perfect for Morgan. I wonder if there’s a role for him on third downs, especially in passing situations. But his athleticism, toughness and nose for the football make this a relatively easy forecast.

 

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

 

Irish A-to-Z: D.J. Morgan

DJ Morgan
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Notre Dame looked to add size to the back end of its defense this recruiting cycle. A big piece of that is Southern California freshman D.J. Morgan. A big, tough, versatile defensive back, area recruiter Mike Denbrock said it best when he called Morgan, “the best football player off of the best team in California.”

Thrown into the mix at a safety position that still has some sorting to do, Morgan will be one to watch during fall camp as Todd Lyght and Brian VanGorder look for answers on the back end.

 

D.J. MORGAN
6’2″, 190 lbs.
Freshman, DB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Multi-season starter and team captain of the nationally-ranked St. John Bosco team in Southern California. All-league selection, three-star recruit. Offers from Arizona State, Cal, Colorado and Utah.

Missing some of the elite offers that go to players of this profile, Morgan was an early target and take by the Irish coaching staff after being briefly committed to Arizona State.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

Denbrock’s praise for Morgan certainly does more for me than any modest recruiting ranking. But the lack of high-end Pac-12 offers likely hangs on questions about Morgan’s position, specifically if he has the speed to hang in the secondary.

That’s probably not as important for the Irish as it is for others. Morgan sure looks like a prep version of Drue Tranquill, a guy who might not be at home playing half-field safety but looks like a million bucks coming downhill or running the alleys.

Intangibles will also probably factor into his success at the college level. Leading a prep program like Bosco is no small feat, and that type of high-character, high-Football IQ player could find a quick home in the secondary.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

If the Irish need special teamers, Morgan is an immediate plug-and-play option. If they want to spend a year developing him as an understudy, a redshirt makes sense. If Morgan catches on to the position like Devin Studstill did, he can compete for time behind Drue Tranquill. If he doesn’t, saving the year makes sense.

Expecting a major impact by Morgan is setting the bar too high. But if he can be a part of Scott Booker’s special teams core and help provide depth behind Tranquill and sixth-year safety Avery Sebastian, Morgan will join classmates Spencer Perry and Jalen Elliott as first-year lettermen right away.

 

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

Kelly gives positive updates on injuries and academics

C.J. Sanders CJ Sanders
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One of the major offseason hurdles that have tripped up Irish football teams in recent years seems to be in the rearview mirror: Academics.

Brian Kelly caught up with the South Bend Tribune on Tuesday, and the major revelation coming out of the Irish head coach was that his team didn’t suffer any off-field casualties in the class room.

Speaking at a Kelly Cares charity event in South Bend, the seventh-year head coach said he expects everybody to return to South Bend when camp opens August 6, the type of “all-clear” that we haven’t always seen during the last lull of the offseason.

“Our grades came in. We’re all good,” Kelly told the Tribune. “We feel good about everybody coming back, and now it’s just a matter of getting guys in the right position and going and playing.”

That likely means reserve defensive end Grant Blankenship has worked his way out of the doghouse. It also means that the Irish staff doesn’t expect any surprises from incoming freshmen or outgoing veterans, as we’ve seen in the past with preseason losses like Bo Wallace, Kolin Hill or Jhonny Williams.

The injury front also seems to provide some optimism. Key piece of the puzzle CJ Sanders is ahead of schedule as he recovers from hip surgery, opening up the Irish offense with the sophomore ready to ascend into the slot receiver position. Kelly also gave a positive report on freshman Parker Boudreaux, who had a scary battle with viral meningitis during summer school.

The Irish players are home this week between summer school and fall camp, with Kelly quite okay with his team taking a week to relax before reporting to training camp.

“I told our trainer before they left, ‘Just reiterate: let’s not water ski and pull a hamstring or do something crazy.’ I’d be fine if they laid on the couch for a week and then we’ll get ‘em re-engaged when we get back,” Kelly said.

“They’ve been without any kind of coaching in a sense for the last five, six weeks. We’d like to get back to work. It’s getting to that point.”

 

Irish A-to-Z: John Montelus

John Montelus IICashore
Matt Cashore / Irish Illustrated
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Looking for a way to impact the roster, John Montelus transitioned from the offensive line to the defensive front this spring. It’s a move that will hopefully breath some life into the senior’s time on the Irish roster, stuck behind promising talent in Harry Hiestand’s front and hoping to find his niche on a defense looking for answers.

Thinking that Montelus might be able to provide answers isn’t necessarily fair to the Everett, Massachusetts native. But as the Irish try to maximize every scholarship on their 85-man roster, Montelus—another bruising 300-plus pound interior player—certainly has something to offer.

 

JOHN MONTELUS
6’4″, 310 lbs.
Senior, No. 60, DL

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A Top 100 prospect, Montelus was a consensus 4-star recruit who picked Notre Dame over some elite offers, places like Florida, LSU, Nebraska, Michigan, Ohio State and more. A U.S. Army All-American, Montelus injured his shoulder at the All-Star game, setting back his development in South Bend.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2013): Did not see action.

Sophomore Season (2014): Played in one game, seeing time against Michigan. Served as a guard on Notre Dame’s offensive scout team.

Junior Season (2015): Saw action in three games, taking snaps against Texas, UMass and Pitt as a reserve guard.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

The major weight loss didn’t result in playing time. But it certainly was a major step in the right direction.

The number I find most impressive with Montelus is 310. (Pounds.) That’s down 30 from when Montelus was an out-of-shape freshman, showing his commitment to fitness and reshaping his body after recovering from shoulder surgery.

Going from what we’ve heard is always dangerous, but Montelus has a reputation of being one of the team’s more physical interior offensive linemen. That should serve him well, especially as the Irish try to eliminate the finesse from their game plan. And he’s gotten the attention of his head coach, who talked about the additional reps he was taking this spring and how it’s only helped him improve and show the coaches what he’s capable of doing.

Ultimately, I think Montelus makes his move—but only onto the offensive line on special teams. Unless an injury hits on the interior, I expect regular action for him on the kick units, all while making sure he holds onto his place in the two-deep at guard.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

Being dropped into a defensive line rotation as a player entering your fourth season in the program certainly doesn’t allow for any margin for error. So the ambitions for Montelus’ success at the position should be in line with honest expectations—filling a specific role might be the ceiling.

That was Brian Kelly’s hope this spring when he talked briefly about his plans for Montelus. As one of the strongest bodies the Irish have in the trenches, you can see where that could work out.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

While I’m struggling to see where Montelus gets more than a handful of snaps, I’m also thinking about Kelly’s track record with position switches. Montelus could’ve just as easily been a reserve guard and moved on after graduating, playing a fifth year somewhere else if that’s what he wanted to do.

But the fact that the Irish staff wants him along the defensive line has to say something, and Montelus will be competing with guys like Pete Mokwuah for snaps, hopefully a piece of the puzzle as the Irish try to get tougher against the run. He’s big, strong and rugged, something that hasn’t necessarily been a part of Notre Dame’s defensive DNA since they said goodbye to Bob Diaco, Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt.

Is Montelus the next Nix? No. But if he can help shore up some short yardage deficiencies, we can call this another position switch success story.

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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 Mokwuah