Pregame Twelve Pack: Michigan State edition

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Round three of the Pregame Twelve Pack. Twelve fun facts, tidbits,
leftovers, or miscellaneous musings as we head into the Michigan State
game.

1. Charlie Weis may have been a Bon Jovi guy, but Brian Kelly is a Van Halen man.

While the real news should be that defensive line/special teams coach Mike Elston has been released from the hospital, Brian Kelly gave everybody a snap-back to the 80s moment by comparing Elston’s return to the band dynamics of Van Halen.

“Van Halen was just OK with Sammy Hagar,” Kelly said. “David Lee Roth was still what
made Van Halen. So we had Sammy Hagar in this week. Wasn’t too bad. But
David Lee Roth is back. He’s the rock star around here.”

Not sure Kelly would be wise to start playing “Running With the Devil” at the LaBar practice fields, but as one reporter pointed out, it might have been the first Van Halen reference by a football coach in Notre Dame history.

Elston received a standing ovation from the team when he returned to The Gug this afternoon. He’ll be joining the team in East Lansing, but won’t do so in a coaching capacity, with Lorenzo Guess filling in at tight ends coach and Mike Denbrock shifting down to defensive line while also spear-heading the special teams.

2. Dan McCarthy returns as the safety position slowly heals itself.

Last week we took the time machine back to November of 2007 to find out more about walk-on safety Chris Salvi, who was suddenly thrust into the two-deep at safety with injuries to both Dan McCarthy and Jamoris Slaughter. This week it looks like we’ll finally see the younger McCarthy brother roaming the secondary.

“McCarthy moved around pretty good today. He’s a go,” Kelly said. “Slaughter is
probably emergency backup. That’s the way it looked today. He got, for
the first time, McCarthy, real reps in seven-on-seven. And I know our guys were
excited in practice that he’s ready to go.”

Kelly described McCarthy’s injury as a soft-tissue problem that’s befuddled the Irish training staff as they’ve tried to find a solution. It’ll be interesting to finally see Dan McCarthy in the secondary. He clocked only one minute of playing time last year and made 15 special teams appearances, but all reports had McCarthy as an elite high school athlete and a guy who has all the tools to be a playmaking safety. Getting on the field was the first step, and with Slaughter injured and only three scholarship safeties available, this could be the breakout game needed for Dan to make his mark.

3. They will be battling for the Megaphone Trophy.

While many people don’t associate Michigan State as a true rivalry, the Irish and Spartans will be battling for the cherished Megaphone Trophy, a keepsake that has been sponsored jointly by the school’s alumni clubs in Detroit since 1949.

The megaphone is half-blue with a gold ND monogram on it and half white with a green MSC for Michigan State. Every game since 1949’s score is printed on the Megaphone, with the winning team holding onto the trophy for the year.

After 36 consecutive years of playing for the Megaphone, the Irish took a two year break in 1995 and 1996. The next interruption is scheduled for 2014 and 2015.

4. Playing under the lights is a rare occurrence in Spartan Stadium.

There have only been nine night games in the 87-year history of Spartan Stadium, and the Irish have been a part of three of them. Notre Dame holds a 2-1 record at night against Michigan State. Here’s a recap of the three primetime face-offs:

September 9, 1998: MSU 45, No. 10 ND 23 — After springing the upset on the defending national champs in Michigan, the Irish got drilled by Nick Saban’s Spartans, who had a staggering 42-3 lead at half before cruising to a 45-23 victory. “I’m embarrassed, this football team’s embarrassed,” head coach Bob Davie said. “There’s
not going to be a whole lot of talk about it. I think we came in here expecting
to play well and we didn’t. We had no chance because of our execution.”

September 18, 2004: ND 31, MSU 24 — The Fighting Irish defense forced six turnovers and Brady Quinn threw and ran for a touchdown. Tommy Zbikowski’s fumble strip and return for touchdown and Matt Shelton’s 123 yards on three catches helped pace the Irish win. “When we come into the team meeting and look at the film, we’re going to be very ill,” Michigan State coach John L. Smith said.

September 23, 2006: ND 40, MSU 37 — Cornerback Terrail Lambert’s interception return for a touchdown capped off a miraculous rally to help the 12th-ranked Irish escape with a narrow victory. The Irish trailed 37-21 halfway into the fourth quarter when they stormed back in a driving rainstorm. Brady Quinn threw for five touchdowns and Jeff Samardzija had two of them as Notre Dame mounted an epic comeback. “I think at halftime the guys realized the season was starting to fall away for us… It was basically ‘Hey fellas, what’s it gonna be? Are we going to be a bunch of also-rans or are we going to come out here and give it a chance to win the game?” Charlie Weis said after.

5. The new kids are alright.

Asked this afternoon about the first-year starters that were performing well, Kelly pointed out a few players that just two weeks ago were some of the biggest concerns on the team.

“After two weeks, taking both games into account, there’s a couple
players I would point out. Defensively, I’d say Carlo Calabrese – very
little experience coming in, has played consistent for two weeks in a row,” Kelly said.
“Offensively, I’d say Zack Martin – very little experience, but at the
left tackle position has done a really nice job. You could throw TJ
(Jones) in there, I think you could make the case for Taylor Dever. I
think our tackles, as first-time starters, have done a really nice job.”

The fact that we haven’t noticed Zack Martin is one of the best compliments I could give the rookie left tackle. There’s a very good chance that in three years Martin is one of those Irish players that is getting talked about weekly by guys like Mel Kiper and Todd McShay.

6. Want to beat Michigan State? Better stop the running game.

While the wins that the Spartans have put up haven’t been all that impressive, the way the running backs are putting up numbers has been pretty eye-popping. Both Le’Veon Bell and Edwin Baker are averaging over 9 yards per carry, with Baker running for 300 yards and 3 TDs in just two games and Bell pounding his way for 190 yards on only 20 carries. That’s all been done without presumed starter Larry Caper, who is returning from injury this week. Kelly knows it’ll be a test for his defense.

“We’ll know where we are defensively against the run, because we’re going
to get challenged,” Kelly said. “In the 3-4 defense, they’re going to run right at
us. We’ll find out a lot about ourselves after this weekend relative to
the running game.”

Baker is the defending CFPA National Running Back of the Week after dicing the Florida Atlantic defense for 183 yards last week. For the Irish to win, the defense will rely on the front of Ethan Johnson, Ian Williams and Kapron Lewis-Moore to step up their game.

7. It wasn’t all negative for Bob Diaco’s defense last week.

Adding to the legend of Denard Robinson wasn’t in anybody’s plans on the Notre Dame sideline last weekend, but there were plenty of positives to take out of the defensive performance, even if they did give up 502 total yards of offense to the Wolverines’ quarterback.

The Irish defense was able to force 10 punts last weekend against Michigan, the most by an Irish opponent since Rutgers punted 10 times in 2002. Michigan was only 3-for-16 on 3rd down, and the Irish forced five three-and-outs. Final stat that’ll have Irish fans kicking themselves: The Irish held Michigan scoreless for 31:24 from the second quarter until the game’s final drive.

“If we make a stop against Michigan, all that would be talked about was the 32, 33 minutes of shutting out Denard Robinson,” Kelly said.

8. The defense might not have closed, but the coaching staff did on the recruiting trail.

David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross gave us the immortal line, “Coffee is for closers.” Well, there’s no coffee in the defensive team meeting room, but there should be in the coaches lounge. Recruiting coordinator Chuck Martin and personnel man Dave Peloquin certainly did their jobs off the field this weekend with the commitments of Stephon Tuitt, and George and Josh Atkinson. Defensive line coach Mike Elston handles Georgia for the Irish, so Tuitt is likely the fruits of his labor, especially coaching the position that Tuitt plays. As for the Atkinsons, credit needs to go to tight ends coach Mike Denbrock, who pulled the brothers out of California, always a victory when you’re recruiting against coaches like Lane Kiffin, Rick Neuheisel, Chip Kelly, and Steve Sarkisian.

With 19 recruits committed after just the second week of the season, expect the coaching staff to swing for the fences with their final few spots and start targeting some high-profile juniors for next season.

Just to put an issue to rest, it’s pretty certain that Brian Kelly and his coaching staff will be able to recruit just fine at Notre Dame.

9. Irish win the tale of the tape against the Spartans

Here’s an interesting comparison of the two rosters breaking down the heights and weights of the starters by position groupings.

        AVERAGE HEIGHTS & WEIGHTS

                                                                  Michigan State          Notre Dame
       Offensive Line & Tight End                 6-5, 293                    6-5, 300
       Offensive Backs & Wide Receivers    6-1, 214                    6-1, 210
       Defensive Line                                    6-4, 277                    6-3, 291
       Linebackers                                        6-1, 231                    6-2, 244
       Defensive Backs                                 6-0, 191                    6-0, 197

The Irish have a pretty distinct advantage on the front line, as well as against the undersized Michigan State linebacking corp, so it’ll be interesting to see if Notre Dame tries to pound the ball themselves.

10. Armando Allen has a shot at going down in the Notre Dame record books.

The first two games of the season have shown Irish fans a new and improved version of Armando Allen. And it’s that new running back that’ll likely go down in the school’s record books as one of the most versatile backs in Notre Dame history.

Right now, Allen sits at 8th on the all-time list for most career all-purpose yards for Irish running backs. He trails Julius Jones by nearly 1,600 yards so getting to the top of the charts might not be doable for Allen, but making his mark as the top receiving back very well could be. Armando only needs 433 receiving yards to pass Joseph Heap as the yardage leader for running backs, and only needs five catches to pass Darius Walker as the running back with the most catches in Irish history. He’s got a chance to pass Walker on Saturday, and should be able to pass Heap with a great season.

11. Common ground at Cincinnati doesn’t give either coach an upper-hand.

You’d think that Brian Kelly and Mark Dantonio’s paths would have crossed somewhere along the line, especially considering that Kelly succeeded Dantonio at Cincinnati. But according to Dantonio, there’s not much of a connection between the two coaches.

“I don’t really know him that well,” Dantonio said of Kelly. “I really don’t know him. I know of him, I know his reputation, I know he’s a great football coach, but as far as the Cincinnati thing, to me it’s sort of a non-issue. The fact that he went to Cincinnati and was able to win championships there, to me, he helped make the dreams come true for some of the players I recruited.

“When we recruited some of those players, we were just entering the Big
East, we were just getting new facilities. We recruited them with the
idea that they could do something special. The fact that they were able
to recognize that dream, and [Kelly] had a part of doing that, I think
is a huge statement for what he did for that program and what he did for
those young people. So I applaud him for that.”

12. If you’re looking for a showcase position, look no further than middle linebacker.

Most Irish fans are familiar with the exploits and potential of Manti Te’o. But if you’re looking for the class of the football field at middle linebacker, check the opposing defensive huddle. The Irish might not play a finer defensive football player this season than the Spartan’s Greg Jones, the reigning Big Ten defensive player of the year, and a returning first-team All-American. Jones has started 35 games for the Spartans, ranks second among all active players in college football with 379 career tackles, and was named to the preseason watch list of six major national awards.

Last season against the Irish, Jones had nine tackles, a total that’d rank among the top performances for Irish players this year, but a game that ranked as one of his least productive over the last two seasons.

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.

Five things we learned: Signing Day 2016

FILE - In this Jan. 1, 2016, file photo, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly makes a call during the first half of the Fiesta Bowl NCAA College football game against Ohio State in Glendale, Ariz. Kelly has agreed to a six-year contract to stay on as coach at Notre Dame through 2021, the school announced Friday, Jan. 29,2 016.  (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)
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There were no last minute defections. No roller coaster recruits or down-to-the-wire decisions. Heck, there were no fax machines—with Notre Dame ditching the office dinosaur for a wireless, smart phone option.

Brian Kelly inked another Top 10 recruiting class on Wednesday. And he did so in decidedly uneventful fashion.

“It’s awesome. I think that everybody should try it once in their career,” Kelly said.

So while Kelly and the Irish staff hold out hope that 5-star talents Caleb Kelly and Demetris Robertson still decide to spend their college careers in South Bend, the 23-man class announced Wednesday was another Top 10 effort and a step in the right direction for a program on very stable ground.

Let’s find out what we learned.

 

Notre Dame’s staff continued to focus on rebuilding the secondary and rushing the passer. 

Yes, Brian Kelly saw what you saw—a group that struggled getting to the passer or to field a nickel or dime personnel grouping. So they countered that in the best way they knew how: By continuing to stockpile talent.

Notre Dame added seven defensive backs and four edge defenders in the cycle. They include safeties Jalen Elliott, D.J. Morgan, Spencer Perry and Devin Studstill and cornerbacks Julian Love, Troy Pride and Donte Vaughn. Perhaps just as important is the impression some of these defenders made in their time on campus, with Kelly pointing to Elliott and Studstill’s work during summer camp really making them must-have recruits.

“Jalen Elliott competed like no player that I have seen since I’ve been coaching in a camp setting,” Kelly said. “Same thing with Devin Studstill. His skill level was of corner-like ability but had the size of the safety, and so our guys went right to them early on, and that was a focal point because we got a chance to see them up close and personal.”

At defensive end, the Irish welcome 5-star recruit Daelin Hayes, getting him on campus as he recovers from shoulder surgery. He’s joined by former Alabama commit Khalid Kareem, the strongside counterpart that is an early candidate to see the field, especially as the staff looks for someone to spell Isaac Rochell for a few snaps. Longer-term prospects include a few speed rushers—Julian Okwara (younger brother of Romeo) and Ade Ogundeji, a long-limbed, below-the-radar edge rusher.

“We’re pretty excited about the potential for some guys in this class that can answer some four-man pass rush needs that we do have,” Kelly said.

 

It may not be the biggest group, but Brian Kelly is excited about his offensive line—especially the guys he pulled from Ohio State’s backyard. 

Three recruits in the offensive line class point to a big 2017 at the position. But the three the Irish did sign—guard Parker Boudreaux and tackles Liam Eichenberg and Tommy Kraemer—have Kelly very happy.

“Parker Boudreaux has that physical presence inside like, and I’m not comparing him, but he’s a Quinton Nelson in terms of size and physicality,” Kelly said. “And then two edge guys with Liam and Tommy on the outside. Those two kids are as good as you’re going to find in the country, and couldn’t be more excited to have two kids from the state of Ohio, from two great Catholic schools in St. Ignatius and Cincinnati Elder from the state of Ohio.”

Both Eichenberg and Kraemer were priority targets for Urban Meyer and company, with neither wavering after committing to Notre Dame. Kraemer was Ohio’s Gatorade Player of the Year and an Army All-American. He’ll be able to step into the two-deep immediately, capable of playing up front if the Irish need him. Eichenberg more than held his own at the Under Armour All-American game and has a high ceiling, especially as he learns the game under Hiestand.

It doesn’t take away the sting of the Fiesta Bowl. But it’s a nice consolation prize.

 

Irish legacies Jamir Jones and Julian Okwara may have big brothers who played for Brian Kelly, but they earned scholarships on their own. 

Classmates Jarron Jones and Romeo Okwara will turn over the reins to their younger brothers, linebacker Jamir Jones and defensive end Julian Okwara. The younger duo’s commitments felt all but inevitable throughout this recruiting cycle—even if that wasn’t always the case.

Jones had to come to camp to earn a scholarship. Having played quarterback and tight end as a high school standout in Rochester, the defensive staff had to see how he moved before they could find a position for him to play.

Similarly, Okwara’s journey to Notre Dame shouldn’t be taken for granted. While his older brother leaves Notre Dame the team’s leading quarterback sacker, Julian has a better natural pass rush skill-set than the 2015 team-leader.

“Julian can separate himself in a way because he has an elite initial movement and speed that Romeo has had to try and develop,” Mike Elston said in Okwara’s Signing Day video. “Romeo has the size and the power and the aggressiveness, but Julian can really add value for us right away.”

Kelly talked about how important it was to not just land this duo, but to have them already understand what the journey is that lies ahead.

“We didn’t recruit them because their brothers were here. We recruited them because we thought they were players that fit here at Notre Dame that would be very successful,” Kelly said. “Obviously it helps when their brothers have a great experience here and really enjoy their Notre Dame experience as a student and as an athlete, so that helps you in the recruiting… those kids really fit and can stand on their own two feet.”

 

Even without Demetris Robertson in the fold, Notre Dame’s receiving class is a group to watch. 

You want productivity? Throw on a highlight tape of Javon McKinley. You want an intriguing set of physical tools? Look no further than Chase Claypool. You want a sleeper prospect who out-performed every elite prospect who came to the Irish Invasion camp? Then your man is Kevin Stepherson.

Most of the attention on Signing Day was the fate of 5-star receiver Demetris Robertson. But the trio of athletes that’ll reload the receiving corps is a group that deserves recognition even without an additional infusion.

McKinley provided the day’s only scare when his smart phone struggled to send his signature via electronic fax. Claypool sent his national letter of intent in the day after scoring 51 points on the basketball court. And Stepherson is already taking part in team workouts in Paul Longo’s strength facilities, getting a jump start with the spring semester and 15 practices as the Irish try to figure out what life looks like after Will Fuller, Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle.

After Fuller left campus early on the back of two record-setting two seasons, Kelly said his staff has become more and more comfortable with the fact that his skill players need to develop quickly—especially with the allure of the NFL just ahead.

“If you’re really that good, you may not be here very long, and we hope that you’re here for four years and you stay, but you’ve got to be ready to compete,” Kelly said. “So our expectation in the recruiting process is for the wide receiver group to come in and compete to get on the field and be a player for us immediately.”

That’ll happen whether or not Robertson is a part of this group.

 

Amidst significant transition on both the coaching staff and recruiting office, Notre Dame managed a Top 10 class. Expect things to only get better from here. 

Let’s go back to Signing Day 2015. Within 24 hours of Brian Kelly’s press conference, he was dealing with two major changes—recruiting coordinator Tony Alford was out the door to Ohio State and Kerry Cooks was headed to Oklahoma. Two aces on the staff were gone, forcing the Irish to not just replace long-time staffers, but to find new area recruiters for the state of Texas and Alford’s stronghold in Florida.

Kelly brought in first-year college assistant Todd Lyght to work with defensive backs. He tapped the school’s rushing leader Autry Denson to handle the backs and duke it out in Florida. Mike Sanford shook up the offense as Bob Elliott moved into an off-field position. But perhaps just as important as those moves, Kelly turned over the administrative reins to Mike Elston, who moved into a recruiting coordinator position he had filled for his boss back at Cincinnati.

Elston had to reorganize a staff that saw relationships walk out the door and reboot a recruiting effort that saw significant changes behind the scenes. And in short order things got back on track and have progressed to the point that the Irish are ahead of the game, setting junior days and summer camp dates earlier than ever.

For those paying attention, they’ve noticed the improvements. Notre Dame has paid more attention to messaging—staffers more active on Twitter. There have been improvements on Instagram, Facebook and Vine—platforms that might sound like gobbledygook to grownups, but are critical pieces to a year-long recruiting effort. That should help this staff press ahead in 2017, a recruiting class that already has five members.

“With that team that we’ve put together, we’re not going to look back. It’s only going to get better,” Kelly said.

It was Elston that engineered the equipment truck visit to Savannah, a late-game recruiting move that drew a lot of attention to Notre Dame. It was recruiters like Denson who went to Alabama and got a visit out of Ben Davis, a Crimson Tide legacy who gave the Irish a much longer look than anybody could have expected. And it’s no surprise that a former Pro Bowler and first-round draft pick like Lyght was able to reel in a large group of defensive backs eager to learn from a guy who was a clear success story.

“I think each and every year, you hope that this group is the best group you’ve ever recruited,” Kelly said. “I’m hoping for that again.”

 

Faxes in: Liam Eichenberg

Liam Eichenberg
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LIAM EICHENBERG
Cleveland, Ohio

Measurables: 6’6″, 280 lbs.

Accolades: 4-Star, Under Armour All-American, 2015 MaxPreps first-team All-American, 2015 American Family Insurance All-USA Ohio, AP All-Ohio Division I first-team.

Impressive Offers: Florida State, Miami, Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, Tennessee

Projected Position: Offensive tackle.

Quick Take: Another offensive tackle with sky-high potential, Notre Dame snatched Eichenberg out from under Urban Meyer’s nose, bringing in yet another blue-chipper for Harry Hiestand to mold. More of a developmental project than Kraemer, Eichenberg’s upside could be just as lofty, especially after some time in a weight room and on the practice field.

What he means to the Irish: With numbers at tackle on the light side, Eichenberg won’t be asked to get on the field, but he might start his career in the two deep behind Mike McGlinchey. That could take away a redshirt if things go wrong, but the view from behind McGlinchey is a good spot for him, learning behind another talented athlete who came to campus as a developmental prospect but will enter his senior season (McGlinchey has two years of eligibility remaining) as a legit NFL prospect.

Eichenberg has the same kind of ceiling. He’ll just need to keep improving—something that he’s shown after a strong Under Armour All-American week in Orlando.

Obligatory YouTube clip: