Pregame Twelve Pack: Stanford edition

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Week four of the Pregame Twelve Pack. Twelve fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings as we head into the Purdue game.

1. Kelly and the Irish are going dark.

You can’t blame me as I’m never at practice, but somebody broke the practice policy for reporting, and as a result media will no longer be allowed inside LaBar Practice complex for the remainder of the season.

The entire system of what was reportable and what wasn’t was kind of vague to begin with, but beat-writers and media members won’t have access to Wednesday practices for the rest of the season. This ban is likely to stop reporting on things like injuries, which as Jim Harbaugh has proven this week, is something some team’s like to play close to the vest.

2. Is Stanford a Rose Bowl contender or paper lion?

We’ll most likely find out in the next three-game stretch, but the $64,000 question really seems to be, how legit is Stanford? While the early returns are certainly promising on the new 3-4 defense, I’m not sold on this group after three games against Sacramento State, UCLA and Wake Forest. From listening to Brian Kelly yesterday, you can tell that he and the staff aren’t quite sure of what to expect either.

“To be honest with you, it’s hard to evaluate them,” Kelly said. “Sacramento State,
the game was out of hand. It as 17-0 early. Got to 28-0 against UCLA. I
can tell you it’s a whole different scheme from last year. They’ve
employed a 3-4 defense and a lot of man to man coverage. They matched up
really well against an offense like Wake Forest, because they could put
nine, 10 guys on the line of scrimmage. They overwhelmed Sac State, and
quite frankly, UCLA, I don’t know what they were doing offensively.
They visited Nevada and put in the pistol offense and I don’t know what
was going on there.

“This will be totally different than what they have
seen, relative to our offense. It’s going to be fun. It’s going to be a different kind of scheme
for us. It’s going to be a great challenge on both ends.”

3. Looking for a scouting report on Chris Owusu? Try calling Jimmy Clausen.

Owusu will likely be at full-strength this weekend after being held our of the first two games of the season. His two two touchdowns against Wake Forest last week are a reminder that the preseason All-American is one of Stanford’s most explosive athletes. While Notre Dame has seen plenty of tape on Owusu, one person they could call is his high school quarterback, some kid named Jimmy Clausen, who connected for nine touchdowns and 750 yards during Jimmy’s senior season.

If Owusu runs wild against Notre Dame, they’ll only have themselves to blame. The Irish were one of his favorite schools during recruiting, but never came to the table with a scholarship offer.

4. There will be some familiar faces wearing Stanford uniforms this Saturday.

There will be some memories revived for a few Cardinal players, with former Irish football players Konrad Reuland and Nate Whitaker returning to South Bend after transferring from Notre Dame.

Reuland was a highly-touted recruit for Charlie Weis but never found his groove on the Irish roster, transferring out early in the 2007. He’s a big-bodied tight end that’ll be part of the depth chart for the Cardinal.

Whitaker was a walk-on kicker for the Irish, eventually becoming a kick-off specialist in 2007 before transferring to Stanford. He converted over 72-percent of his field goal attempts and was named honorable mention All-Pac-10 last season. Talking about his decision to transfer, Whitaker feels like he didn’t get a fair shake with the Irish.

“To be honest, I have tried to stay away from this but I don’t feel like I got a completely fair chance because of the fact that I was a walk-on,” Whitaker told the South Bend Tribune. “But other people have different opinions on that factor, and it’s up for discussion. But personally I don’t think that I had the fair chance that I deserved.”

Whitaker has certainly proved his worth, coming through with a great season as Stanford’s primary kicker, doing it under the same special teams coach he had at Notre Dame.

5. It’s not just players returning to South Bend…

The Stanford coaching staff also is ripe with connections to Notre Dame, with former special teams coordinator Brian Polian now holding the same position under Jim Harbaugh and defensive line coach Randy Hart back on the West Coast after spending the 2009 season at Notre Dame with Charlie Weis.

Polian spent five years at Notre Dame, recruiting the West Coast for the Irish, making him a pretty logical fit for Harbaugh.

6. How good is Andrew Luck? Well, Mel Kiper thinks he’s pretty good.

ESPN’s NFL Draft guru has just moved Luck to the top of his 2011 Big Board, his projections on the best player available in next year’s draft. Kiper has this to say about the Stanford quarterback: “Great arm, NFL smarts, solid footwork. Prototypical size and intangibles. Checks down with a veteran’s savvy.”

Luck still has another year of eligibility, but if he continues to play great football, it looks like Harbaugh will be replacing the best quarterback he’s coached.

7. Harbaugh playing coy with injury to one of his top receivers.

While Brian Kelly has shown in his first three weeks that he’s pretty candid about injuries, Jim Harbaugh has taken a page out of Bill Belichick’s book when dealing with injuries, specifically one to veteran wide receiver Ryan Whalen, who dislocated an elbow and his highly doubtful to play on Saturday.

When asked at his press conference if Whalen was going to play, Harbaugh went stealth.

“As soon as I tell you, you’re going to tell Notre Dame,” Harbaugh said. “I’d want to know about the status of every player on their team, what percent they are, how many plays they are going to play. That’s valuable information.”

Whalen was wearing a shoulder sling at practice this week, giving reporters an ability to read between the lines.

8. The Tunnel Workers’ Union is a blue-collar bunch.

As Stanford Daily sports editor Kabir Sawhney mentioned, the Stanford offensive line has established quite a reputation. Dubbed “the tunnel workers’ union,” by Stanford fans, Jonathan Martin, Andrew Phillips, Chase Beeler, David DeCastro, and Derek Hall combine to create a formidable running game.

Let’s take a quick look back at their recruiting pedigree — often times a hard evaluation when dealing with linemen.

Jonathan Martin — Three Stars. UCLA and Utah Offers. California native.
Andrew Phillips — Three Stars. Northwestern and North Carolina offers. Maryland native.
Chase Beeler — Three Stars. Oklahoma transfer. Oklahoma native.
David DeCastro — Three Stars. Oregon State and Washington offers. Washington native.
Derek Hall — Three Stars. BC and Michigan State offers. Defense end recruit.

While the group may not wow you with their star-power, it’s another good example that you find great football players in all shapes and sizes.

9. The Irish need to play some solid red zone defense.

That’s because Stanford looks like a juggernaut in the scoring zone, going 19-for-19 thus far on the season, with a staggering 16 touchdowns. What makes a team like Stanford so dangerous close to the goal line is a solid running game and a mobile quarterback that is also accurate, two traits that make Andrew Luck very valuable. For the Irish to win this football game, they’ll need to punch in their own opportunities, as well as hold the Cardinal to field goals instead of touchdowns.

10. Look for the Irish to make a big play on special teams.

Last week’s fake field goal is a gigantic stain on a special teams group that prides itself in being one of the best in the country. Kelly and special teams coordinator Mike Elston have put the troops on notice that things better turn around quickly.

“We’ve taken our lumps on some effort things, more so than we have
schematically. Obviously one of things I mentioned earlier in the week,
I didn’t like the effort of some of the veteran players on special
teams,” Kelly said. “This has been more of a, look, this is your last shot or you’re
not going to go to BC. I’m not putting you on the bus —
if you’re the third string whatever position and you’re not giving us
great effort on special teams, then I’m just going to leave you home.
This has been more challenging our players to play at a higher level.”

11. The defensive line will be front and center on Saturday.

It’ll be mass-on-mass up front, with the winning line likely dictating the game. Defensive linemen Ethan Johnson, Ian Williams, and Kapron Lewis-Moore know they’re up for a challenge. When asked how Stanford compared against the Irish’s two previous opponents, Lewis-Moore saw some subtle differences.

“I feel like Stanford is a mix of Michigan State and Michigan, the way
the offensive line plays,” Lewis-Moore said. “The offensive line, they’re moving in space.
Michigan State is coming straight at you.
Stanford, they can do a combination of the both. They’re fast, quick,
have good pad level. They’re going to try to knock us off the ball. I
think it’s going to be a great challenge for us.”

The front-three will need to stay on their feet, and take advantage of their opportunities to make big plays in the backfield.

12. Irish need to break a very ugly streak this Saturday.

Talk about a trend that needs to be reversed: The Irish have lost 10-straight games against top-20 opponents. Four of those games have come inside Notre Dame Stadium.

This is the highest-ranking the Cardinal have ever had when they played Notre Dame, and the Irish are a 4.5 point underdog according to Las Vegas, a number that might not make sense for people that look at the Irish record and Stanford’s three-game start. The good news for Irish fans? Brian Kelly is 8-2 against ranked opponents, so it looks like something has to give.

 

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.

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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.”