brian-kelly-michigan

Candor not helping the Kelly narrative

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After the first eight games of his inaugural season, Brian Kelly has won exactly as many games as he has lost, which has quite a few members of the Irish faithful weary. Kelly has failed to win the close games that got Charlie Weis removed after his fifth season, and even worse, has openly conceded he hasn’t had answers for two opponents’ schematical game plans.

Last minute losses to Michigan and Michigan State aside, Kelly’s inability to counter Stanford’s drop-eight coverage kept the Irish offense from mounting any sort of challenge against the Cardinal. On Saturday, the Irish coaching staff had no answer to Navy’s veer-option, a tweak the Irish defense was simply unable to counter when trying to stop the Midshipmen’s attack. Two different sides of the ball, two different games, and Kelly’s stated plainly after both losses that the coaching staff didn’t have the players prepared for what the opponents did.

If we learned anything from the Charlie Weis era, it’s that a coaches’ narrative is often written in the opening days of his tenure. For Weis, that included the dreaded quote where he promised Irish fans something they yearned to hear, that Notre Dame would now have a “decided schematic advantage” over their opponents. That was far from the only quote from his opening press conference that came back to haunt him in the end, as Weis’ hubris and a ego went from perceived assumption to assumed fact, and the final three seasons of his tenure at Notre Dame became exercises in completing the narrative of failure for sportswriters and message-boarders alike, with Charlie Weis receiving a proper comeuppance in the end.

The first months of Brian Kelly’s tenure weren’t remembered for preposterous proclamations, rather for a man that worked tirelessly reuniting a fractured fanbase. From the opening days of Kelly’s time at Notre Dame, he hit the road visiting alumni groups and donors, working to heal the psyche of a fanbase that’s long assumed the university’s adminstation has failed it repeatedly since Lou Holtz left South Bend. Amidst those 180-some-odd visits, Kelly was also tasked with assembling a coaching staff, implementing a new spread offense with an inexperienced quarterback recovering from major knee surgery, and putting together a defense hamstrung by depth issues and saddled with a roster filled with players that had just put together one of the worst defenses in the school’s history.

Even though Notre Dame just hired the National Coach of the Year, Kelly’s hiring was hardly universally approved. Whether it was the rumored chase of Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops, or Kelly’s small school Grand Valley State upbringing and D-I resume that includes the dim lights of places like Central Michigan and Cincinnati, the naysayers looked at Kelly not as an offensive innovator and proven winner, but as a guy that had never done it on a stage close to the one he was stepping onto at Notre Dame.

With the last two Notre Dame coaches sprinting out of the gates, Irish fans have become reliant on a new coaching staff bringing immediate results, as if the breath of fresh air was all that was needed. Now that Kelly has shown that there will be no easy solution during his first season, the narrative many of his detractors formed early is starting to take shape: Kelly’s an overwhelmed coach not ready for a spot like Notre Dame.

Supporting those claims is Kelly’s willingness to fall on the sword for the losses against Stanford and Navy. His candor after both of those games, when he admitted that the opposition confused his players by showing a look they hadn’t seen during film study was something fans and press aren’t used to hearing from coaches that never concede strategic defeat. It’s ammo for those that believe Kelly’s overwhelmed, but it’s also likely a sign that he’s comfortable enough in his own skin that he realizes his team’s psyche is much more fragile than a 20-year veteran head coach.

Kelly and his regime received quite a bit of heat for closing the doors to media during practice sessions, when he was unhappy with information making it into the media that could hurt the progress of the team. In this case, Kelly’s post-game candor — a reporter’s best friend — is something that’s hurting his perception among a segment of the Irish faithful, many of whom already have their minds made up.

After eight games, it’s far too early to write any story on the fate of Notre Dame football under coach Brian Kelly, regardless of performances against Stanford and Navy in Year One. That said, Kelly understands that won’t be the case forever.

“Let’s put it this way,” Kelly said Sunday. “If we play like we played defensively, there won’t be a year five or six for me.”

Notre Dame gets 10 invites to NFL Scouting Combine

2013 NFL Combine
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Notre Dame will send ten former players to the NFL Scouting Combine. The annual event in Indianapolis serves as the unofficial apex of draft season, a meat-market where the best professional prospects are poked, prodded, questioned and tested in a variety of on- and off-field drills.

Heading to the festivities from Notre Dame are:

Chris Brown, WR
Sheldon Day, DT
Will Fuller, WR
Nick Martin, C
Romeo Okwara, DE
C.J. Prosise, RB
KeiVarae Russell, CB
Elijah Shumate, S
Jaylon Smith, OLB
Ronnie Stanley, OT

For a prospect like Smith, it’ll be teams first opportunity to talk to the elite prospect and check his progress medically as he returns from a Fiesta Bowl knee injury. Russell will also be a non-participant in physical drills, waiting until Notre Dame’s Pro Day to go through testing.

Invites to Chris Brown, Romeo Okwara and Elijah Shumate are crucial in finding their way into the draft, as the three former Irish starters participated in the Shrine Bowl, where scouts had an early look at them. Likewise, Nick Martin and Sheldon Day continue their ascent, both coming off strong Senior Bowl weeks.

For Irish fans, it’ll be fun to watch early-enrollees Fuller and Prosise test. Both are expected to be some of the fastest players at their position. Brown may also have the ability to surprise teams, with his track background and leaping ability capable of earning him an extended look. Offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley will look to impress as well, hoping to check out as one of the draft’s most impressive athletes at offensive tackle.

Ohio State led all schools with 14 invites. National Champion Alabama had nine former players invited.

 

WR Corey Robinson named Notre Dame student body president

Notre Dame v Florida State
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On Wednesday, wide receiver Corey Robinson added another impressive title to his resume as a student-athlete at Notre Dame: Student Body President.

The junior, paired with classmate Becca Blais as his vice presidential running mate, won a majority of the votes cast by his fellow students, a runaway winner with 59.4% of the votes, nearly triple the next highest vote getter.

Robinson posted the following on Twitter, thankful for the opportunity to serve his fellow students:

Robinson’s time at Notre Dame has been filled with accomplishments both on and off the field. He was named an Academic All-American as a sophomore. He’s a six-time Dean’s List member in the prestigious Program of Liberal Studies and is also pursuing a sustainability minor. He’s won the team’s Rockne Student-Athlete Award as well.

That’s quite a bit on the plate of Notre Dame’s lone senior wide receiver. But as you might expect, Robinson is well prepared for the next challenge ahead.

“I’ve planned ahead, gotten all of my hard work out of the way this semester, and I’m finishing up my senior thesis,” Robinson told The Observer. “I’m doing all the hard stuff now so in the fall and the spring, I just have to take two classes pretty much.”

Robinson’s other contributions as a student-athlete at Notre Dame include One Shirt one Body, an opportunity for college athletes to donate their athletic apparel to local communities. Robinson has presented the plan to the ACC as well as the NCAA, earning immediate support from both organizations.

 

Mailbag: Now Open (scheduling input requested)

UNIVERSAL CITY, CA - JUNE 01:  Actors Mike Myers (L) and Dana Carvey as Wayne and Garth from "Wayne's World" onstage during the 17th annual MTV Movie Awards held at the Gibson Amphitheatre on June 1, 2008 in Universal City, California.  (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
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Okay folks, we’ve had enough semi-positive encouragement to keep the video mailbag going for another week. With that said, I’ll need some reader participation to keep this thing rolling on.

As always, submit your questions below or on Twitter @KeithArnold. You can also ask your questions live via Facebook. You’ll need to LIKE THIS PAGE first, and then at the appropriate time, head on over to watch and participate.

To that point, let’s pick a time that works for everyone. Right now, here are the options that work at Inside the Irish HQ.  Weigh in and the best time wins. (How’s that for a democracy?)

***

 

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)

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
Mark Harrell*, C/G
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.