And in that corner… the Michigan Wolverines

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While most of us are still processing the opening win against Purdue, there’s no game that’s been circled on Irish calendars more than the rematch against Michigan. Last season’s stunning loss was the coronation of freshman quarterback Tate Forcier, who thanks to some questionable play-calling and mediocre defense by Notre Dame, and some impressive moxie and field presence, led the Wolverines to a last-second touchdown to beat the favored Irish.

Fast forward a year, and so much has changed. Forcier is now third in the depth chart behind Denard Robinson. Charlie Weis is now sitting in the press box for the Kansas City Chiefs. And the two promising seasons that got off to decent starts for both the Irish and Wolverines? They ended with both teams spending the holidays and bowl season at home.

A convincing opening victory against UConn orchestrated by the stunning play of Denard “Shoelace” Robinson has Wolverines fans calling off the dogs that were chasing head coach Rich Rodriguez out of town, and potentially gearing up for a season where they play the role of Big Ten darkhorse. Covering it all is AnnArbor.com’s Michael Rothstein, who has the unique perspective of having walked the Irish beat as well, covering Notre Dame for the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette before making the move to Ann Arbor.

Mike was nice enough to answer a few questions on the state of the Wolverines, their defense, that Shoelace guy, and Michigan fans’ perspective on their former local son, Brian Kelly.

Inside the Irish: Both squads had impressive debuts on Saturday: Michigan with an impressive offensive showing, Notre Dame with a strong defensive game. What was more surprising?

Michael Rothstein: I’d say Notre Dame having a strong defensive showing. The defense, in
many ways, is what really did Charlie Weis in at Notre Dame last year.
He spent more time recruiting offensive talent and then had a stubborn
defensive coordinator so it was tough to really say how much talent was
there. With Michigan, you had a feeling the offense would be dynamic
because there are a lot of playmakers and the promise Denard Robinson
showed in the spring. So I’d say Notre Dame’s defense – although I’m not
sold on either defense just yet.

ITI: Let’s get serious. Can the Michigan defense win the game with the secondary they’re trotting out there?

MR: On paper? No. Michigan will see the best wide receiver it’ll face all
year (Michael Floyd), the best tight end it’ll see (Kyle Rudolph) and
probably one of the top three quarterbacks on the schedule in Dayne
Crist, with Ohio State’s Terrelle Pryor and Iowa’s Ricky Stanzi being
the other two. Notre Dame has a lot of offensive options and Michigan’s
secondary really wasn’t tested last week. Plus, it’s now down two
defensive starters as Troy Woolfolk is out for the season with a
preseason ankle injury and freshman safety Carvin Johnson is “highly
doubtful” according to Rich Rodriguez with a sprained left MCL. If the
Wolverines’ secondary can manage to contain this Notre Dame offense,
I’ll become a believer. But not until I see it do something.

ITI: Did Rich Rodriguez win back some of the Michigan faithful with a strong opening win? Is he still on the hot seat? After last year’s 4-0 start, what does he have to accomplish to stick around for year four?

MR: Winning, unsurprisingly, cures a lot. Make no doubt, Saturday was a big
win for Rodriguez, perhaps even bigger than the season-opener a year ago
because this time it was against a BCS league opponent which had been
touted as a contender in the Big East. And Michigan, for the most part,
was dominant. So I think some fans have probably started to shift back
to Rodriguez if they were on the fence about him. One game, though,
doesn’t cure all. A loss Saturday and Michigan is still 1-1. It’s funny,
actually, on the numbers question. I’m at the point where I refuse to
give any sort of number projection because I just don’t know. I don’t
know if numbers will play into it as much as progress (barring injury)
and that there isn’t some major change in the status when the NCAA comes
back with its findings from the August Committee on Infractions
hearing. I’d say if Michigan were to start 4-0 this year, it’d be more
of an accomplishment because it’ll be two very well-coached teams. Randy
Edsall is a really good coach and Brian Kelly, from a coaching
standpoint, is better than Charlie Weis and Jon Tenuta.

ITI: You reported that Tate Forcier said he was “out” after Saturday’s game. What’s going on at QB and with the Forcier family in general? Is Forcier a locker-room cancer? Is he going to continue the family legacy of transferring schools?

MR: I’d have to say very few people really know when it comes to what is
going on with the Forcier situation. And that’s what I’m calling it now.
He said what he said to me, then his father  told the AP he is “150
percent” not transferring. And then according to the Channel 7 news
guy’s Twitter feed here in Michigan, he started to blame the media
saying they were trying to drive his son out of Michigan. It’s been a
weird set of circumstances. There certainly have been a lot of rumors,
though. Can’t speak to the locker room issue, save for that in the
spring and the preseason, Rodriguez pointed to Forcier as a guy who
needed to improve some of his off-the-field stuff and Woolfolk called
him out on media day. That sort of stuff just doesn’t sit well with
teammates. Reports have been that he’s earned that trust back, but he
was still No. 3 on Saturday against Connecticut. That answer is just a
long way of saying it is certainly a situation to continually pay
attention to as the season progresses.

ITI: Let’s talk Shoelace. He was pretty electric last weekend. Is he a star in the making? What do the Irish have to do to keep him in check? And when is someone going to explain to him that actually tying his shoelaces and using his cleats properly would actually help him?

MR: I think he is. He was flat impressive Saturday. The thing that I
wondered – especially after watching him a year ago – is how he’d handle
pressure and what would happen when he had to pass. I think he answered
all of those questions at least for one week. Notre Dame’s defense, on
tape, looked a lot better than Connecticut in person. As far as the
shoelaces, I’d be hesitant to change anything. Consider it a quirk –
much like Jim Furyk’s golf swing – that you just leave alone. I think
Notre Dame will have to hit him and play good contain defense on the
ends to keep him honest and in the pocket. When he starts to scramble,
that’s when he’s even more dangerous.

ITI: What’s the impression of Brian Kelly as a coach from the UM perspective? Are the Irish more dangerous with Kelly in charge?

MR: I think so, if for no other reason than sometimes change is good for a
program. It was clear toward the end that it just wasn’t working with
Weis and Jimmy Clausen at quarterback. Clausen had so much talent but it
never seemed like the team was fully behind him from the time he
stepped on campus. Crist, though, is an overwhelmingly likable guy,
which makes it easier to rally around him. Kelly, too, seems more down
to earth than Weis. And understand, this opinion is just from talking
with others and from my experience mostly with Weis. But he’s been a
head coach before and has a lot of talent at his disposal. Plus, he’s
already shown he can recruit. I think people up here respect Kelly, for
sure. After all, he had success in the state both at Grand Valley on the
Division II level and then at Central Michigan in the MAC. Rodriguez
has faced him before and they have a mutual close friend in Butch Jones,
so I don’t think he is going to be surprised by anything Kelly tries to
do. But there is certainly mutual respect there.

ITI: What does Michigan have to do to win in South Bend?

MR: Hope the secondary doesn’t get burned too bad and that Robinson is able
to replicate, at least in part, what he did last week. Michigan doesn’t
need the record-setting day it got out of Robinson again this week, but
that’s because he has a couple good running backs in Michael Shaw and
Vincent Smith who can do some of the lifting for him. Michigan’s main
problem will be containing Floyd and Rudolph. If it can get some
pressure on Crist – and the Michigan defensive line is probably the
strongest part of that unit – then I think the Wolverines have a shot.
Either way, it’s a close game.

ITI: Obviously, last year’s game came down to the wire, with a few critical breaks going Michigan’s way. What do you see happening this year?

MR: Not sure. And I say that fairly at this point. Michigan’s secondary is
still such a large question that I have a tough time believing they can
hold it together for a whole game against this type of passing talent.
That said, Notre Dame’s tackling from the linebackers, specifically
Te’o, wasn’t great. If the middle linebacker is missing tackles against
Robinson or Shaw, that could open any play up to turn into a touchdown. I
think, much like last year, it is a very offensive-based game. Not
going to make a prediction just yet because I’ll do that at AnnArbor.com
later in the week. Also, because as of Tuesday afternoon, I just don’t
know what way I’m going to go.

*****

Check out Mike’s coverage as he covers the game this week. Want a trip down Memory Lane? Here’s what we had to say about 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)

 

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.

***

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.