brian-kelly-press-conference

Tuesdays with BK: USC edition

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As he does every Tuesday at noon, Brian Kelly met with the assembled media to discuss the upcoming game and the state of the program. This week’s subject, the vaunted USC Trojans.

Here’s what Kelly had to say about playing Lane Kiffin’s troops, the walking wounded on the Irish roster, the transformation of his team, and a few other things…

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*****

While there are plenty of rivalry games on the Irish schedule, there’s only one rivalry week.

“Each and every week we’re confronted with the rivalry game, whether it started with Purdue, with the Shillelagh, or the Leahy Bowl with BC, Michigan, Michigan State,” Kelly said. “But I can tell you from my perspective, this is rivalry week at the University of Notre Dame. This is a rivalry game against USC. You can tell that in the very first meeting with our players.”

It didn’t take long after dispatching of Army for the players to look toward USC, which is promising because it was clear from their performance on Saturday night that the Irish certainly didn’t overlook its opponent. That said, Kelly was emphatic that something needed to happen from Notre Dame’s perspective to make this a true rivalry.

“I got to tell you also, from my perspective again, rivalries are such when it’s not one-sided,” Kelly said. “This one has been one-sided. It’s our job to make this a true rivalry. That is winning the football game.”

Throughout the Weis era, people critized the coaching staff for its inability to get the players to the same emotional level as the Trojans. We’ll see if that’s a problem for Kelly and his staff, but I’m guessing it won’t be.

*****

There’s a lot of good news and a little bit of disappointing news when it comes to injuries. Kelly announced that TJ Jones and Theo Riddick are both back in the depth chart, with John Goodman sliding in front of Duval Kamara opposite Michael Floyd. Neither Jones nor Riddick are in starting spots however.

“We have a couple of guys back. T.J. Jones, we’re going to dress Theo Riddick, he will practice this week,” Kelly said about his wideouts. “They are not in starting positions. But we’ll see how that works out as we go through the week. They’ll get more work as they feel more comfortable. Carlo is in the depth. He was last week obviously. But he’s certainly somebody that will see some playing time. We have a couple guys back that, again, won’t be in starting positions, but will give us some depth from an offensive standpoint.”

I mentioned it during the live blog on Saturday night, but Theo Riddick looked pretty smooth in pregame running around in shorts and a t-shirt, and if I had to guess, I expect to see him on the field. (Then again, I thought Carlo Calabrese looked fine, too, and he didn’t see much time at all.) If Irish fans were looking for good news on the Ian Williams front, unfortunately, it doesn’t look like he’ll be ready to go Kelly said this afternoon, with the senior nose guard most likely sitting out until the bowl game.

*****

One of the more under-reported stories of the year has been Tyler Eifert’s rise at tight end. Eifert was a guy that I all but counted out after hearing about the severity of his back injury. Playing only a few snaps last year against Nevada, Eifert missed basically the entire season with what looked to be a career threatening injury. Now Irish fans see the vertical threat that’s helped keep the Irish offense running without star tight end Kyle Rudolph, and if Rudolph decides to play his senior season, the Irish could have the best 1-2 punch at the position in all of college football.

When asked about what helped Tyler emerge after Kyle’s injury, Kelly pointed to the work Eifert’s put into the program.

“I just think a couple things. First and foremost, his health. He had a back surgery last year, and it required him to gain a lot more of a conditioning base and strength level, to be able to go out there and take really the pounding at that tight end position,” Kelly said. “As you know, we use him in power and outside zone as well as running down the field. I think it’s just the maturation process for him.  You know, I know we list all these guys as sophomores, but they’re freshmen. It’s a combination of freshmen. So really what you’re looking at is the development of a freshman throughout the season.”

The Irish have had a pretty incredible run at the tight end position and all reports on incoming freshman Ben Koyack and freshman Alex Welch have been promising as well.

*****

I was one of the pundits that thought Trevor Robinson was ready to make the leap into an elite collegiate lineman. Watching tape this year, that hasn’t been the case. But Kelly discussed Trevor’s season, and why it’s currently on the rise.

“What we really wanted from Trevor is to play more physical. He was not the strongest of our offensive linemen. We felt there was a deficiency there in his overall strength,” Kelly said. “He has gotten stronger physically as the season has progressed. That, I think, has begun to separate him in terms of his ability now to really strike, get up on a second level. Braxston has to help him out a little bit more. Braxston gets a little bit too anxious to get out on the second level and leave Trevor alone. But I would say clearly it’s his physical strength that he’s improved on during the year that’s allowed him to be more consistent.”

Robinson was listed on quite a few preseason watch lists, which had people understandably bullish on his future, but he’s also played through quite a few injuries that likely curtailed his ability to weight train the way he should have the past two years. If Trevor can make it out of the season healthy, put in a good offseason of work, he and Chris Watt should be a very nice pairing at guard next year, with Braxston Cave also developing more next year at center.

A healthy offseason with Ed Warinner and every starter but Chris Stewart returning could get the Irish running game up to speed.

*****

If you’re looking for the quote of the year, Brian Kelly supplied it when answering Pete Sampson’s question on how the Irish are playing their best football without some of their best players.

“Because we’ve moved Notre Dame from being a collection of individuals to being a football team,” Kelly said. “I felt that some of the things that maybe we inherited that we needed to move in my direction, how I feel philosophically, was to get this more as a team, as a next man in, everybody pulling in the same direction, and not about a collection of individuals. When we get those players back, we’ll be a better team because we’ve put the foundation of team first.”

It’s hard to argue with Kelly’s statement. While many of us predicted better things this season, it’s clear that this football team has become a cohesive unit as opposed to falling apart, the Irish’s m.o. the past two Novembers.

 

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?)

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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.