How we got here: Injuries

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There’s a tricky line to draw when you write about injuries. They are a certainty in football (not unlike death and taxes off the field), but there is also a line where you’ve got to take injuries into account when adjusting your expectations for a team’s ability to perform.

There’s a school of thought that argues (probably successfully, I’d add) that regardless of injuries, Notre Dame shouldn’t lose to Navy or Tulsa. A simple look at the star-ratings and offer list of Notre Dame’s second string would support that claim, though it doesn’t take into account the development that happens after you’ve arrived on campus.

If there was a No. 1 knock on Charlie Weis as a collegiate head coach, it was probably his ability to develop his roster. Elite offensive talent seemed to thrive under Weis’ tutelage, but the middle of the roster — the long-term development of players in years three, four, and five of the program are the players that determine whether or not you’ve got a BCS team or a team filled with NFL prospects. (We’ll get to this later, I promise.)

As we saw plainly in 2007, Charlie Weis did little to develop the second level of his roster in the early years of his tenure, and his career never recovered when his teams in 2008 and 2009 failed to get better than mediocre results, struggling to replace veteran offensive and defensive linemen, safeties, or linebackers.

Brian Kelly entered Notre Dame with a reputation for developing talent, and he quickly set about implementing a practice system and approach that tried to strengthen and ready the depth on the roster. That approach has been put to the test this season, as Kelly not only had to implement new offensive and defensive systems, but also had to instill in his team a “Next Man In” attitude that was often preached by Weis, but never truly implemented.

Kelly started his first spring practice with only two players in “protected” status: Quarterback Dayne Crist, who was recovering from a torn ACL and running back turned wide receiver Theo Riddick, who was recovering from shoulder injury. Tight end Kyle Rudolph was also battling to stay healthy, being monitored by his position coach as a “restricted” player in Kelly’s training system. The Irish excited the Blue-Gold game without a major injury, getting Dayne Crist through every snap of spring practice even while he was less than five months removed from knee surgery.

From there, it was practically all down hill.

Nine games into the season, the Irish have lost a litany of players to injury. Major injuries have ended the seasons of starting quarterback Dayne Crist, senior tailback Armando Allen, and tight end Kyle Rudolph on offense alone. The loss of Rudolph robs the Irish offense of an All-American, the loss of Allen robs it of one of its most productive, and the loss of Crist removes the most indispensable players on the Irish roster. Three catastrophic losses any way you slice it.

Offensively, the Irish also lost presumed starter Dan Wenger for the season before it ever started, inserting first-timer Braxston Cave into the lineup at center. After finding his form at the slot receiver, Theo Riddick finds himself in the midst of a major ankle injury, robbing the Irish of it’s second most explosive offensive threat, and a player absolutely instrumental to Kelly’s spread attack. Starting right tackle Taylor Dever missed significant time, forcing redshirt freshman Zack Martin to flip over to the right tackle position, and pushing senior Matt Romine into the left tackle position, a spot he’s taken limited snaps in during his four years on campus. Running back Jonas Gray also has missed a significant portion of the year with an injury, turning a four-headed position that was the deepest position on the roster into a 1-2 punch of Cierre Wood, playing his first football since his senior year of high school, and Robert Hughes, a jumbo-sized back that’s a square peg in the round-hole mold of spread running backs needed for Kelly’s system. Finally, wide receiver Michael Floyd, the Irish’s best offensive player, battled hamstring issues of his own before sitting out the Navy game, watching from the sideline the Irish’s ugliest loss of the season.

On the flip side of the ball, no injury took a greater toll on the defense than the strained MCL of senior nose tackle Ian Williams, who could’ve player his last game in a Notre Dame uniform after being injured against Navy. The Irish battled depth and injury issues at middle linebacker from the beginning of the year, losing senior Steve Paskorz to a knee injury and Anthony McDonald to a variety of ailments, paving way for Carlo Calabrese, who suffered a major hamstring injury of his own. A position that was already incredibly thin forced the Irish to counter with true freshman Danny Spond and Prince Shembo in the middle, but Spond’s been out with injuries for the past few weeks and Shembo suffered a concussion Saturday afternoon. The Irish plugged senior Brian Smith in at inside linebacker, a move Kelly would barely concede to during spring ball unless it was an extraordinary emergency situation.

In the secondary, the Irish safeties have been decimated by injury. Both Jamoris Slaughter and Danny McCarthy have struggled to stay healthy all season, with Slaughter injuring an ankle that’s been incredibly slow to heal and McCarthy having a nagging leg injury that robbed him of the speed necessary to cover the back-end of the defense. With two of the four scholarship safeties on the roster sitting out, the Irish were forced to play the odd couple of Harrison Smith and Zeke Motta in the defensive backfield, two maximum effort players that leave some coverage skills on the table.

Irish fans have likely been spoiled during the transition years of the past two regimes, where a veteran roster stormed out of the gates quickly. Kelly wasn’t dealt the same hand, playing with a deck of cards short some very important faces. For all the struggles the Irish have faced along the offensive line since Charlie Weis took over the program, the line play has been decent considering three new starters at the positions most vulnerable and two veteran guards who have hardly taken the leap to elite that many had hoped. Defensively, outside of the game against the Naval Academy, the Irish have played a much better brand of football than they did last season, limiting explosive plays by the opponent and surviving with a more structurally sound, bend, don’t break, defense.

On the road to a 4-5 record through nine games, the Irish can easily look back at losses to Michigan and Tulsa and wonder if a healthy Dayne Crist couldn’t have gotten them through two opponents that had sizable flaws. And since losing Riddick and Rudolph, the Irish have lost every game not played against Western Michigan. It’s the ultimate game of “what could’ve been,” but the Irish are likely playing it after seeing their training room filled with some of the most important players on the roster.

Brian Kelly & Jack Swarbrick on Notre Dame’s changes moving forward

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Whether 2016’s disappointing 4-8 finish was the impetus to program-wide alterations at Notre Dame this offseason, it certainly underscored the need. For the last few months, Irish coach Brian Kelly has focused those changes on himself and self-assessment, and he reiterated that approach when talking with PFT Live’s Mike Florio early Monday morning.

“This is my 27th year of being a head coach, and prior to last year I had one losing season,” Kelly said. “You have a way of doing things, you have a system in place, you follow that year after year. Certainly you make tweaks along the way, but this is the first time where I’ve really taken a step back and made substantial changes in terms of how I’m doing things on a day-to-day basis…

“From my perspective, after being at it as long as I have, you have to take it on yourself that you’re the one that needs to make the corrections. It’s not the players.”

None of this is new. Kelly has been consistent in his springtime messaging, but others have looked past the effects of the 4-8 record and insist the changes were coming regardless of the win-loss totals. Senior captain Drue Tranquill, for example, acknowledged the severity of the losing record Friday but argued adjustments were needed no matter what the final scores were.

“If you have an average season like 8-4, some things might carry over to the next season,” Tranquill said the day before the spring practice finale. “Whereas when you go 4-8, something has to change.

“But I think even at Notre Dame, 8-4 is never really acceptable or tolerated. Those things that were taking place, just within our culture, would have been noticed whether we were 10-3, 4-8. The criticism gave it a lot more hype and juice. We could kind of feel as guys in the program throughout the past three years that certain things needed to change.

“Those things were finally brought to light and it happened to be during a 4-8 season. I don’t necessarily know that 4-8 was the reason all this change happened.”

New Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko expressed a similar sentiment Friday morning, discussing the pressure moving forward.

“If we were coming off a 12-0 season in which we were competing for the national championship, there would be pressure on us at Notre Dame to be successful this year,” Elko said. “That’s Notre Dame.”

Elko has been a quick study, as his comments were echoed the next day by Irish director of athletics Jack Swarbrick during NBC Sports Network’s broadcast of the Blue-Gold Game.

“We expect to compete for national championships and 4-8 is not acceptable,” Swarbrick said. “On the other hand, when you’re in that situation, you have to decide how you’re going to move forward. We decided to move forward by making a major investment in retooling our program with Brian as the leader of it. That’s not a one-year investment for us. We brought in some talented assistant coaches. We rebuilt elements of the program

“We view it as a multi-year investment going forward.”

KELLY ON RECRUITING PITCH
Using this week’s NFL Draft as a peg, Florio also asked Kelly about balancing players’ NFL aspirations with team success both in the recruiting process and during the actual season.

“We have to talk more in terms of process over production,” Kelly responded. “We talk in terms of you’re coming to Notre Dame for a reason. You’re going to get a degree, which will set you up for the rest of your life, and you’re going to play on the grandest stage at Notre Dame, so everybody will see you.

“As long as there’s the balance there—and there has to be that balance in terms of getting your education and playing for championships—then we’re okay. It’s when that balance is out of whack, we’ll have an issue. We vet that out in the recruiting process and make sure we don’t take any kids that are coming to Notre Dame just because they’re waiting for that [junior] year to complete so they can go to the draft.”

A reminder: The NFL Draft begins with its first round Thursday night. Kelly will be joining former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer at the draft in Philadelphia to await Kizer’s destination and future employer.

MISSED THE BLUE-GOLD GAME?
It is available for streaming: here.

Following spring practice, will Notre Dame continue habitual progress?

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By no means is Irish coach Brian Kelly going to measure Alizé Mack’s progress by if the junior tight end makes his bed every morning. Mack’s mother might—mine would certainly factor it in—but when Kelly cited the need to start the day with hospital corners, he was simply trying to make a point.

“He’s taking care of business off the field, which invariably it always comes back to this,” Kelly said Wednesday. “If you’re taking care of work in the classroom and you’re starting the day right, making your bed—I’m just using that analogy—if you start the day right, it’s going to trend the right way and it’s trending the right way on the field for him.”

Mack is the most obvious example of a needed change in habits. When you miss a season due to academic issues, reconfiguring your priorities becomes a topic of conversation. His instance, though, serves as a readily-cited example of a more widespread concern. Of all the optimistic conversation and concerted change following last season’s 4-8 disappointment, Kelly’s preaching of good habits simultaneously appears as the most abstract aspect and the easiest understood.

“It starts with guys being aware of it first,” Kelly said following Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold Game on Saturday. “Then once they are aware that they need to have these good habits to be good football players, then you start to see it show itself in good run support angles. You see it offensively, guys always lined up properly. We had very few penalties today, and that’s a product of some of the habits that are being built on a day-to-day basis.”

It makes sense. If a receiver doesn’t realize he lined up a few feet closer to the sideline than desired, for example, then he will make that same mistake the next time, especially if he still makes a catch on the play. Next time, the defensive back may be more able to capitalize on the gift of less route uncertainty.

It is unrealistic to expect anyone, let alone a 19- or 20-year-old, to display this exacting discipline on the football field without practicing it throughout the rest of the day. Successfully cutting corners in one area of life convinces the psyche it can be done anywhere. Thus, Kelly has needed to harp on his charges about their off-field activities, including—but perhaps not seriously—making their beds.

“I think we ask our guys to do a number of different things on a day-to-day basis,” Kelly said. “First of all, understanding how habits carry over to what they do in the classroom and what they do on the football field.”

Kelly and his coaching staff have had four months to make this impression. The issue is, bad habits are hard to break. They’re usually more fun, anyway. As Kelly pointed out, the rewards of good habits are slow in coming. Delayed gratification, if you will.

“I think our guys understand that it takes time to build those habits, because some of them have bad habits, and to get rid of those bad habits, you really have to be creating good habits over a long period of time,” Kelly said. “That’s the process that is hard for these guys, because it takes time, and they want it to happen right away.

“Sometimes they forget and they just want to go out and play. If you go out and play, but you don’t do it the right way, it’s going to get you beat.”

This all sounds well and good, and some of the effects were evident Saturday. There were few penalties (none, in fact, according to the official statistics), the quarterbacks took advantage of the receiving corps’ size and missed their targets high. But soon comes the toughest time to continue this trend.

Kelly and his staff have worked on the Irish to internalize these lessons. Now, Kelly and his staff will cover the country in recruiting. In a few weeks, the players will scatter home for a break before returning for a summer session spent in the weight room and classroom. If they slip back into old habits, the last four months were spent fruitlessly.

Mack played well Saturday. The question has never been does he have physical talent. He undeniably does.

The question has been, is and will be: Did you make your bed today, Alizé?

What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

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Time spent on a traditional game wrap of a spring intrasquad exhibition seems misspent. Gold won Notre Dame’s annual Blue-Gold Game 27-14 led by rising sophomore quarterback Ian Book. The first-string defense (Gold) held the first-string offense to an average of 5.4 yards per play. For context’s sake: Last season Notre Dame gained an average of 6.1 yards per play and held opponents to 5.4.

With that abbreviated recap out of the way, what did Saturday’s pseudo-game environment show about the Irish? If the 20,147 in attendance paid attention, they had the chance to learn a few things:

Daelin Hayes will be ready to hit a quarterback in September
Notre Dame’s quarterbacks were off limits all spring. Bulls might charge when they see red, but the Irish defensive line has had to remember to ease up when they come across a quarterback’s red jersey. If sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes had forgotten that Saturday, Notre Dame might not have any quarterbacks left to play in the fall.

“At the end of the day, we’re on the same team,” Hayes said, dismissing any bitterness about the quarterbacks’ protections. “We have to keep our guys healthy. I wasn’t frustrated, but come September 2, you know.”

Officially, Hayes was credited with three sacks and another tackle for loss among his seven tackles. Admittedly, gauging sacks is tricky when the quarterback does not actually go to the ground. How many of Hayes’ three sacks and the defense’s 11 total would have been evaded if the defender needed to do more than touch the passer? That answer is highly subjective, but discounting Hayes’ numbers would miss the bigger picture.

“We showed [pressure] in as far as the quarterback wasn’t getting really comfortable, not having all day to throw back there,” Hayes said. “I think it’s been huge, buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

Senior end Jay Hayes (no relation) notched two sacks and sophomore end Ade Ogundeji came the closest to tackling a red jersey when he stripped junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush from behind. The defensive line has been expected to be a weak point for the Irish moving forward, but the spring performance indicates it has a chance at holding its own. These accomplishments bear further merit considering Notre Dame’s offensive line is widely-considered one of its few spots of expected quality.

RELATED READING: Now is the time for Daelin Hayes to turn athleticism into pass rush threat

“I think it’s pretty clear Daelin Hayes is going to be around the football and be a disruptive player for us,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “I’d have to watch the film, but it seemed like [sophomore end] Julian Okwara was a hard guy to block coming off the edge, as well.”

Ian Book provides some peace of mind
Book was not spectacular, but he was also far from incompetent or intimidated. In his first action on the field at Notre Dame Stadium, Book completed 18-of-25 passes for 271 yards and a touchdown, highlighted by a 58-yard connection with sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson. Meanwhile, junior Brandon Wimbush completed 22-of-32 passes for 303 yards.

Bluntly, one has not needed to follow Notre Dame for very long to fit that “long enough” qualification. Last season’s backup, Malik Zaire, saw competitive action against both Texas and Stanford. In 2015, DeShone Kizer came off the bench to start 11 games after Zaire suffered a season-ending ankle injury. (more…)

What Notre Dame players should you actually watch? Plus, catch up on reading

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If technology does its part, this will post as its typist meanders toward finding his credential for the Blue-Gold Game to conclude Notre Dame’s spring practice. If technology doesn’t do its part, well, then this will be lost to the cobwebs of the internet. Such as it goes.

This space has spent much of the past week discussing what to look for in the 12:30 p.m. ET exhibition. Worry about the big picture, not the individuals. Fret about the macro, not the micro.

RELATED READING: Focus on Notre Dame’s dueling new schemes, not the indivdual players
Blue-Gold Game primer with help from Notre Dame’s coordinators
Four defensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game
Four offensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game

But, if insistent on focusing on singular players, look to the inexperienced, the names you are unfamiliar with. The 15th and final practice of spring may be no more than a practice in reality, but it is in front of nearly 30,000 fans in Notre Dame Stadium. Some players do not have so much as that minimal experience.

“The Blue-Gold Game, specifically, is a time for us to emulate a game-like situation,” senior safety/linebacker/rover Drue Tranquill said. “Especially for guys like freshmen, second-semester guys coming in, it’s a great opportunity for them to get that game feeling, but also continue to take steps in the process to get better.”

The question on the tip of your tongue is a fair one. If you are unfamiliar with the names, how are you supposed to focus on those players? How are you to know who fits the appropriate tunnel vision version of perspective?

Let’s turn to Irish coach Brian Kelly’s mentions from Wednesday–primarily, sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara, sophomore long snapper John Shannon, senior kicker Sam Kohler, sophomore defensive end Khalid Kareem and sophomore safety Jalen Elliott.

Obviously, that is just a sampling. Less obviously, this post’s purpose may or may not be to link to previous reading material and remind you of the vague but pertinent purposes to today’s endeavor. It is neither be-all nor end-all. It is simply another opportunity to gauge what may come down the line.

But hey, how about a prediction? Per Kelly, the first-team offense and second-team defense will be in blue, against the first-team defense and second-team offense in white.

PREDICTION: Blue 37, White 21

HOW TO WATCH
As a recurring reminder, the Blue-Gold Game kicks off at 12:30 p.m. ET on Saturday and will be broadcast on NBC Sports Network, as well as streamed online at ndstream.nbcsports.com and on the NBC Sports app.