The case for patience

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There are some very ugly facts surrounding Notre Dame football, the most distressing being that the Irish have now lost seven of their last eight football games dating back to last season.

And while there are certainly more than a few sane and logical arguments to be made in support of ditching your blue-and-gold and taking up another pastime during the fall months, two of the senior voices covering Notre Dame football made some excellent points in the aftermath of the ugly Stanford loss.

The South Bend Tribune’s Eric Hansen had this to say when deconstructing the Irish after four football games:

The only commodities ND first-year head football coach Brian Kelly is in danger of losing at this juncture are bandwagon-jumpers.

The
best thing the Cardinal did Saturday on Kelly’s behalf was show him
that his 1-3 football team isn’t just a mistake or two, a blown coverage
or three, a missed block or four away from being “return to glory”
good.

There’s some retooling, maybe reinvention, required to change the trajectory of this season.

The foundation is in order. The things that made Kelly the right fit for the program haven’t changed — 19 years of prior head coaching experience at the college level,
knowledge of both sides of the ball, ability to move players to new
positions and develop them there, and the ability to think on his feet.

It may come as a surprise to some Notre Dame fans (or perhaps not after actually watching him coach), but Kelly has had slow starts and losing streaks.

There haven’t been many of those rough spots — not as a head coach
anyway. Kelly has experienced two four-game losing streaks in his
career, both at Grand Valley State, preceding his two Division II
national titles there. One started at the tail end of 1998 and extended
through the first three games of 1999. The other started at the end of
1999 and finished up in 2000.

He’s never lost five in a row, for those thinking ahead to the Oct. 9 home game against Pittsburgh.

Kelly
has been 1-3 three times before, though. and nothing close to
apocalyptic happened. In 2005, his Central Michigan team followed that
start with a four-game winning streak. In 1999, his 1-3 Grand Valley
team won four of its next five to finish 5-4. And in 2000, his 1-3 team
actually started 0-3. From there, Kelly won 20 games in a row and 40 of
his next 41.

Those are reassuring trends for Irish fans, though nothing would make people feel better than a step in the actual right direction.

Meanwhile, veteran scribe Lou Somogyi of BlueandGold.com reached into the mailbag to help quell reader anger.

From Somogyi:

After dropping to 1-3 under a new head coach that
was and is still considered the man who will turn it around for Notre
Dame football, we received the following mail from subscribers.




A doctor in Kansas City wrote: “It’s not that we’re not used to losing
(how couldn’t we be). It’s about the weekly exercise in losing ugly.
Notre Dame football equates with buffoonery. I’ll check back in five or
ten years.”

From Columbus, Ohio: One reader who is constantly
mocked by Ohio State Buckeyes fans asked, “Is this the new leader we
were looking forward to? I doubt it.”




From Pennsylvania, our top state for subscribers: “The strength of the
team is the wide receivers. Why didn’t the ball get to any of them?
Notre Dame looked very disorganized.”




From Brooklyn: “Let’s end the hypocrisy right now. If [Charlie Weis] was still coaching the Irish, the record would be the same… the Irish would still be committing uncorrected errors. The press would be rightfully all over [Weis].
Why the double standard? Why has the press fawned all over [Brian Kelly]?

By the way … those letters are from 1986. I just
took a little liberty with the last one by inserting Charlie Weis’ name
instead of Gerry Faust in the brackets, and Brian Kelly instead of Lou Holtz. The fourth game blowout came at Alabama, 28-10, a game where three Irish quarterbacks (Steve Beuerlein, Terry Andrysiak and Steve Belles) each threw an interception. That hadn’t happened again until … well, this season with Kelly versus Michigan (Dayne Crist, Tommy Rees and Nate Montana).

Nobody is saying Kelly will turn it around like
Holtz. Nobody is saying he can’t. All we’re trying to show is that
whether you’re a future Hall of Fame head coach or one who is aspiring
to attain such a stature (and statue), the road toward prosperity seldom
comes smoothly paved. And instant results by some segments of the
fandom are expected now just as they were then.




The travails continued for Holtz that year when he and the Irish lost
10-9 at home to a mediocre Pitt team that would finish 5-5-1. That
dropped Notre Dame to 1-7 overall in its last eight games — just like
now.


As Somogyi points out — Lou Holtz wasn’t Lou Holtz when he got the Notre Dame job. And after starting 1-3, he was just another guy that may have won before coming to South Bend, but wasn’t up to the task of waking up the echoes.

The point is, we’ll find out if Brian Kelly will win at Notre Dame soon enough. For some fans, it’s already taking too long. For those with some patience, find strength that there’s logic in your beliefs.

 

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)

 

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.