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: Dexter Williams

Notre Dame’s Dexter Williams (34) breaks away from Josh Barajas, left, and Max Redfield on a touchdown run during the Blue-Gold spring NCAA college football game, Saturday, April 16, 2016, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Ind. (Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
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A third-string running back with home run potential, Dexter Williammade waves for the wrong reasons last week when he was one of five players in the infamous Ford Focus. The sophomore—thrown into the fire last season and ready to emerge in 2016—had been dazzling in camp, capable of breaking long runs, returning kickoffs and stepping into a small-but-important role in the offense.

With university discipline to be determined, Williams’ availability is still in question. So are his opportunities, running behind Tarean Folston and Josh Adams. But there’s no question the staff believes they have a big-time player in Williams, who’ll need to run his way out of the dog house and through the depth chart to carve out anything more than a supporting role this season.

 

Dexter Williams
5’11”, 210 lbs.
Sophomore, No. 2, RB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A Top 100 prospect, Notre Dame beat out Miami on Signing Day and held off Florida, Ohio State and USC as well. He came to South Bend in mid-January, the last recruiting win for Tony Alford before he left for Columbus.

 

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2015): Played in seven games in a reserve role, getting 21 carries for 81 yards, scoring one touchdown.  Biggest afternoon came in a reserve role against UMass.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

Was right that he was running behind Adams. And also right that he’s going to be a good one.

One freshman running back looks like he’s going to play this season. And while a single day of practice reps hardly tells a story, Williams is running behind Josh Adams so far in training camp. And while Josh Anderson earning a scholarship doesn’t necessarily mean he’s going to get onto the field, Anderson was also taking major practice reps, a veteran who could show young guys (Brent included) how things are supposed to look.

At this point, you can make a valuable argument for saving a year of eligibility or getting some part-time experience. Notre Dame’s redshirt running backs haven’t utilized that fifth year, with neither George Atkinson or Cierre Wood sticking around for it. (Of course, Atkinson and Wood made moves that weren’t necessarily based on what was best for their future from an on-field perspective.)

Life has to be quite a whirlwind for Williams right now. New places, classes starting soon and a playbook that looks quite different than high school. But working with new position coach Autry Denson, he’ll be able to make what he wants from his freshman season. Right now, I’d be surprised if that’s a role that’s on field, though Williams will dictate that by his work on the practice field.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

There’s a frontline back here, though he’ll need to find opportunities to show that. The last time we watched Notre Dame juggle three (healthy) runners, they carved out specific roles for Cam McDaniel, Tarean Folston and George Atkinson. Only Folston remains of that trio, and Adams and Williams are better backs than the other two already.

Williams has good long speed, and while it might not be quite as good as Atkinson’s, he might be used in a similar role in 2016. But he’s capable of doing more. And with two more seasons in South Bend, he’s capable of becoming the rare “feature back” in a Brian Kelly offense, though he’ll likely be the part of a future 1-2 punch with Adams in 2017 and beyond.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

The prediction here is still hazy thanks to Williams’ part in the preseason escapades. But Williams can play—and if he’s not marooned by the university’s disciplinary arm, it appears Kelly is willing to handle this internally while the four young players stay in the mix. I expect Williams to make some big plays this season, and with those plays will come more opportunities.

Josh Adams has been plagued by some training camp issues, namely a balky hamstring that’s limited Williams’ classmate all fall. Normally I’d view that as an open window for Williams, though if he’s sitting out more than a game or two, Adams will have his chance to get healthy and rolling first.

All of this is a long way towards getting to a prediction. I’ll go with this one: Williams will be third on the team in attempts, but lead the Irish in yards per carry. I think he gets around 50 carries and will turn those into a half-dozen touchdowns.

 

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
John Montelus
D.J. Morgan
Nyles Morgan
Sam Mustipher
Quenton Nelson
Tyler Newsome
Adetokunbo Ogundeji
Julian Okwara
James Onwualu
Spencer Perry
Troy Pride Jr.
Max Redfield
Isaac Rochell
Trevor Ruhland
CJ Sanders
Avery Sebastian
John Shannon
Durham Smythe
Equanimeous St. Brown
Kevin Stepherson
Devin Studstill
Elijah Taylor
Brandon Tiassum
Jerry Tillery
Drue Tranquill
Andrew Trumbetti
Donte Vaughn
Nick Watkins
Nic Weishar
Ashton White

McGovern set to start at right guard

Colin McGovern 247
Irish247
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Lost amongst captains, suspensions and quarterbacks, Brian Kelly named senior Colin McGovern Notre Dame’s starting right guard. He won out over fellow senior Hunter Bivin and sophomore Tristen Hoge.

McGovern’s strong camp helped solidify the starting five two weeks before the team heads to Austin, where 100,000 fans will present the most hostile environment the Irish will see this season. His ascent also turned around a situation that had the Illinois native running third this spring after a concussion kept him out of multiple practices.

As camp continued, McGovern ended up winning Brian Kelly and Harry Hiestand’s trust, a veteran who the staff believes is better equipped for the interior job than Bivin and has more strength at the point of attack than Hoge.

Kelly talked a bit about the positives McGovern brought to the job earlier in camp, while also explaining some of the evolutionary changes the offense has made in the past few seasons, a key to McGovern emerging as the starter.

This offense requires more of a puller, a guy that is more a guy that can get out in space and Tristen can do that, Colin can do that,” Kelly explained earlier in August. “You know even Hunter can do that, he’s pretty athletic. So we’ve changed the nature of the guard position if you will. He’s got to be a guy can get out and run.”

With McGovern winning the job, it appears that Hoge will now serve as the first man in at any of the three interior positions while Bivin will back up both tackle spots. Mark Harrell will also be a safety net, hopefully allowing the staff to redshirt Tommy Kraemer unless major attrition hits.

McGovern played in eight games last season, seeing the majority of his time on special teams while getting extended time in the home victory against UMass. He’ll be making the first start of his career against Texas.

 

 

Irish A-to-Z: Ashton White

Ashton White247
Tom Loy, Irish 247
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A solid spring and a nice training camp were lost in the shuffle when Ashton White was pulled over in Fulton County, Indiana on Friday evening. Along with four teammates, White’s future with the Irish football team was thrown into question, charged on suspicion of marijuana in an incident that already cost Max Redfield his place on Notre Dame’s roster.

Even with his punishment to be handled internally by his head coach, legal charges and university discipline are still being decided. And until then, those questions will overwhelm any role White could’ve had in the Irish secondary, competing for a spot in the two-deep among a talented group of cornerbacks.

 

ASHTON WHITE
5’11”, 195 lbs.
Sophomore, No. 26, CB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

White didn’t necessarily have the highest recruiting ranking, but the three-star prospect was an early target of the Irish staff, flipping his commitment from Virginia Tech to Notre Dame over the summer.

White had offers from Ohio State, West Virginia, Iowa and many more.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2015): Did not see action, preserving a year of eligibility.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

Hit this one on the head, though saving that year of eligibility seems fairly minor now.

While I think that Coleman and Crawford are going to play this season, I wouldn’t be surprised if White redshirted. With the depth at cornerback, White would need to do something impressive to jump in front of Devin Butler or Nick Watkins (not to mention his classmates) and you’ve got to wonder if there are snaps available to make that worth it.

That’s not to say that White isn’t competing. He earned an ear-full from Brian VanGorder when he didn’t step out of the way in a seven-on-seven passing drill after blitzing untouched at the quarterback, but he’s fully involved in one-on-ones  and mixing and matching with a large group of moving pieces.

Ultimately, saving a year now and learning could be what’s best. Especially when looking at the turnover in the secondary come 2016 and 2017.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

There’s every reason to believe that one mistake won’t doom White’s career—especially if Brian Kelly has anything to say about it. But any forward momentum he had during camp was thrown away when he found himself square in Kelly’s crosshairs after one of the more head-scratchingly stupid off-field messes we’ve seen.

Setting aside all of that, White’s got plenty of things to appreciate. He’s a solid cover man, a competitive player, and even if he wasn’t going to get a ton of playing time, he was expected to be a key component of Scott Booker’s special teams units.

As long as Notre Dame keeps recruiting talented cornerbacks, it’s going to be tough to get on the field. But White’s part of a reloaded position group that has already turned a depth chart deficiency into a strength—even with the understanding that his murky future eliminates some of that wiggle room.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I expect White and the other three guys in the car to serve a suspension that’s give or take two games. And from there, I expect him to fight his way back into the rotation—starting outside the two-deep at cornerback but immediately in the mix on special teams game.

White plays with a brashness and confidence that you have to appreciate. If he can survive the boneheaded decision he made, I think he’ll take advantage of the second chance and become a situational contributor. But it’s certainly a black mark on his record, and one that makes you wonder about his decision-making skills.

 

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
John Montelus
D.J. Morgan
Nyles Morgan
Sam Mustipher
Quenton Nelson
Tyler Newsome
Adetokunbo Ogundeji
Julian Okwara
James Onwualu
Spencer Perry
Troy Pride Jr.
Max Redfield
Isaac Rochell
Trevor Ruhland
CJ Sanders
Avery Sebastian
John Shannon
Durham Smythe
Equanimeous St. Brown
Kevin Stepherson
Devin Studstill
Elijah Taylor
Brandon Tiassum
Jerry Tillery
Drue Tranquill
Andrew Trumbetti
Donte Vaughn
Nick Watkins
Nic Weishar

 

Kelly and Irish do their best to move forward

LANDOVER, MD - NOVEMBER 01: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks on from the sidelines during the first half against the Navy Midshipmen at FedExField on November 1, 2014 in Landover, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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Available to the media for the first time since the Friday night that did its best to rock the foundation of his football program, Brian Kelly acknowledged what he was thinking and feeling as the news came in.

Kelly said the emotions came in three waves.

“My first one was disappointment. Then that disappointment kind of moved on to embarrassment—for the university,” Kelly said Wednesday evening. “And then I was mad as hell. I think those are the three stages that I went through.”

And so the Irish football program moves on, trying to get the egg out of its collective faces before they head to Austin to battle Texas in the season opener. They took their best step forward, naming four team captains yesterday—with hopes that Mike McGlinchey, Torii Hunter, James Onwualu, and Isaac Rochell could self-police a group of young players that clearly need more than what the coaches are already doing.

So while guns and drugs and bar brawls with cops feel like something out of an SEC program gone rogue, it’s a single night in August for a team that believes it’s competing for a national championship. Even with dueling quarterbacks, inexperience across the roster, and now a true freshman making his debut at free safety in front of 100,000 at Darrell K. Royal Texas Memorial Stadium.

But Kelly has to move on. So a head coach seven years into his tenure in South Bend, having lived through more than a few rough moments already, has to find the silver lining in perhaps the most embarrassing incident of his career.

“They’re life lessons,” Kelly said, when asked how he addresses his young team. “It’s more than just you.

“So we talk about selfish decisions. We talk about representing more than just yourself. You represent the university, you represent a program, you represent an entire fanbase. Those are the things we talk about more than anything else. It’s just not about you.”