Five things we learned: Notre Dame vs. Stanford

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Van Morrison said it best: There’ll be days like this.

Stuck in neutral for much of the afternoon, Notre Dame’s took a large step backward as Jim Harbaugh’s Stanford squad easily defeated the Irish 37-14, dropping Notre Dame to 1-3 on the season.

The Cardinal physically dominated the game, winning the battle at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. The revamped Cardinal defense was all that was advertised, holding the Irish to only 44 yards rushing and continuously taking Dayne Crist to the ground. On offense, Stanford put together a workman-like performance, getting 166 yards on the ground and giving Andrew Luck all day to throw the football. Even on special teams, Stanford had the upper-hand, limiting the Irish kick returners to meager gains and consistently dominating the field position battle.

With three losses in the first four games of the season, Notre Dame will have to reevaluate their goals for the season. Here are five things we learned during Stanford’s 37-14 win over Notre Dame.

1. Notre Dame’s offensive line was exposed.

Today was not a banner day for Ed Warinner’s crew. The three-man front of Stanford’s defense confused and dominated the Irish, keeping Notre Dame’s running game obsolete. More surprising, Stanford was able to pressure Dayne Crist with a three- and four-man pass rush, allowing Cardinal defenders to drop seven and eight men into coverage and clog up passing lanes.

Stanford blitzed early and often and drilled Dayne Crist just as much, continually putting the Irish quarterback to the turf. The first three weeks, Notre Dame’s inexperienced tackles looked up to the task at hand. This afternoon, they didn’t. No offensive line is immune to growing pains, but this afternoon’s performance was an ugly reminder that Notre Dame is breaking in three new starters up front. Expect an emphasis in practice this week to be put on the snap count, as Stanford took advantage of Crist’s predictable delivery and timed their blitzes perfectly.

2. The Irish special teams need to improve quickly.

There’s no excuse for Notre Dame not to be better on special teams, and this afternoon’s performance was mediocre at best. Earlier in the week, Brian Kelly put Cierre Wood on notice that his hesitance on kick returns wouldn’t be tolerated. Wood failed to answer the bell this afternoon, tip-toeing out of the end zone on the opening kickoff and failing to get past the 20 yard line multiple times. It’s not all on Wood either, as the blocking up front failed to create running lanes.

The hidden yardage battle was also becoming glaringly obvious, with punter Ben Turk only averaging 32 yards a kick on his five punts, including a massive shank when he tried to kick one rugby style. While the game was already out of reach, the onside kick attempt by the Irish was a triple-failure as well, with kicker Nick Tausch failing to kick the ball ten yards, Harrison Smith running offsides, and Stanford recovering the ball.

On Thursday, Kelly had this to say about the special-teamers:

“We’ve taken our lumps on some effort things, more so than we have
schematically, Kelly said. “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… 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.”

Mike Elston’s a very good special teams coach and you can bet there will be plenty of time dedicated to fixing these problems. Now we’ll see if Kelly is true to his word when the travel squad is announced for next week’s game at Boston College.

3. Manti Te’o is a dynamic presence.

While it was in a losing effort, Manti Te’o was all over the field this afternoon, making a career-high 21 tackles this afternoon. Te’o runs sideline to sideline as good as any middle linebacker in college football, and the hit he made on the Stanford sideline is a great reminder that he’s a got knock-out power as well.

“He played with a will today,” Kelly said about Te’o. “He had a look o his face, a toughness to him that he hasn’t displayed since he’s been a player here at Notre Dame. Today is one of those watershed moments for a defensive plyer that we can model.”

If you’re looking for reasons to believe that Te’o’s becoming a complete player, don’t look at the stats he’s putting up. Instead, rewatch the great job he did in coverage, running stride-for-stride down the seam and making a great play on a well-delivered Andrew Luck pass for a pass break-up. Te’o is a true sophomore and still very much a work-in-progress, but Notre Dame has found the rock in the middle of its defense.

4. Dayne Crist is having growing pains.

Dayne Crist reminded us that he’s only making the fourth start of his career this afternoon. Even though he got off to a quick start, Crist once again hit a lull in the middle of the game, grinding the Irish passing attack to a halt as he missed on five consecutive throws and struggled making the correct reads. With the Irish ground game MIA, it was up to Dayne to carry the offense and the first-year starter just wasn’t able to get it done.

“Every day he’s growing,” Kelly said of Crist. “There’s new things he’s confronted with. He’s learning. But it is a process. This is the maturation of a quarterback right before your eyes.”

Stanford defensive coordinator Vic Fangio had Crist off-balance or in the turf much of the afternoon, giving the quarterback multiple looks and dropping as many as eight white shirts into coverage. Fangio also took away tight end Kyle Rudolph, and Crist was lost without his safety valve.

5. Stanford is in a different class than Notre Dame right now.

At the quarter-mark of the season, it’s clear that Stanford is just a better football team than Notre Dame right now. Think about this: The Irish defense picked off Andrew Luck twice, held him below 250 yards passing, kept the vaunted Cardinal running game below four yards a carry… and Stanford still beat Notre Dame by 23 points.

“Begin by tipping my hat to Stanford, Coach Harbaugh,” Kelly said. “Well-coached football team. They were well prepared. It’s a fine football team. They deserved to win today.”

Harbaugh’s troops play an incredible effective brand of football, controlling the clock, the line of scrimmage, and never backing down from an opponent. We’ll find out if Stanford has a Rose Bowl worthy squad in the next two weeks, but Stanford’s last three wins — dominating UCLA, Wake Forest, and Notre Dame — certainly rank among the best in college football.

As for the Irish, they’re at a fork in the road and Kelly knows it.

“There’s going to be a lot of 1-3 football teams across the country,” Kelly said. “Some are going to finish 1-11, some are going to be 9-3. It’s what you decide to do from here on out.”

Restocking the roster: Offensive Line

Notre Dame offensive line
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When Notre Dame takes the field this spring, there’ll be two very large holes in the offensive line that need filling. All-American left tackle Ronnie Stanley is gone. As is captain Nick Martin at center. Both three-year starters leave Harry Hiestand with some big decisions to make in the coming months as the Irish look to fill those key positions and still field a unit with the ability to dominate in the trenches.

The Irish have had incredible stability at left tackle, with Stanley sliding in seamlessly after four seasons of Zack Martin. Perhaps the best six-year run in the program’s storied history at the position, Stanley will likely join Martin as a first-rounder, back-to-back starters at a key spot that often dictates the play of one of the most important units on the field.

Replacing Nick Martin could prove equally tricky. Rising junior Sam Mustipher served as Martin’s backup in 2015, filing in capably for Martin after an ankle sprain took him off the field briefly against UMass. But Mustipher will face a challenge this spring from rising sophomore Tristen Hoge, the first true center recruited by Hiestand and Brian Kelly since they arrived in South Bend.

Kelly talked about 2017 being a big cycle on the recruiting trail for restocking the offensive line. You can see why when you look at the depth, particularly at tackle. Let’s look at the work that’s been done the previous two classes as Notre Dame continues to be one of the premier programs recruiting in the trenches.

 

DEPARTURES
Ronnie Stanley
, Sr. (39 starts)
Nick Martin, Grad Student (37 starts)
Mark Harrell, Sr* (No Starts, fifth-year available)

*Harrell’s departure is not confirmed, though expected.  

2015-16 ADDITIONS
Tristen Hoge
, C
Trevor Ruhland
, G
Jerry Tillery
, T
Parker Boudreaux
, G
Tommy Kraemer
, T
Liam Eichenberg
, T

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Hunter Bivin, T
Quenton Nelson, LG
Sam Mustipher, C
Steve Elmer, RG
Mike McGlinchey, RT

Alex Bars, T
Colin McGovern,* G/T
Tristen Hoge*, C
John Montelus*, G
Jimmy Byrne*, G
Trevor Ruhland*, G

*Has an additional year of eligibility remaining. 

ANALYSIS:
It’ll be a fascinating spring up front for the offensive line. We’ll get our first look at potential replacements and see if the Irish staff values a veteran presence (as it has done in the past) or puts former blue-chip recruits in position to become multi-year starters.

For now, I’m putting last season’s backups in line to ascend to starting spots. That’s not to say I think that’s what’ll happen. Hunter Bivin may have been Stanley’s backup last season, but as long as Alex Bars is fully recovered from his broken ankle, I think he’s the best bet to step into that job. Sharing reps at guard—not a natural spot for Bars to begin with—was more about getting him some experience, with the aim to move him into the lineup in 2016. That allows Bivin to be a key swing reserve, capable of playing on either the right or left side.

At center, the decision is less clear cut—especially since we’ve yet to see Tristen Hoge play a snap of football. Size and strength is a genuine concern at the point of attack for Hoge, not necessarily the biggest guy hitting campus. But it sounds like he’s had a nice first season from a developmental standpoint, and if he’s a true technician at the position, he could be a rare four-year starter at center if he’s able to pull ahead of Mustipher this spring.

On paper, the other three starting jobs don’t seem to be in question. Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey are ready to step to the forefront. Concerns about Steve Elmer’s buy-in will certainly be answered by spring, there’s little chance he’ll be on the field in March if he’s not going to be around in August. I’m of the mind that Elmer’s too good of a character guy to leave the program, even if his life doesn’t revolve around football 24/7. Now it’s time for him to clean up some of the flaws in his game, the only starter from last season who held back the Irish from being a truly elite group.

Depth isn’t necessarily a concern, but there isn’t a ton of it at tackle. That happens when you move a guy like Jerry Tillery to defensive line and lose a player like Stanley with a year of eligibility remaining. That could force the Irish to cross-train someone like Colin McGovern, a veteran who can swing inside or out if needed. McGovern seems to be a guy who would start in a lot of other programs, but has struggled to crack a two-deep that’s now filled with former blue-chip recruits, all of them essentially handpicked by Hiestand and Kelly.

Restocking the roster: Wide Receivers

Notre Dame v Florida State
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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)

 

2015-16 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.

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