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Kelly declares 2011 quarterback derby open

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Brian Kelly met with the media today as the Notre Dame student body finished up with their final exams and addressed one of the million dollar questions that’ll take over once the Irish play Miami in the Sun Bowl: Who will be the starting quarterback against USF to kickoff 2011?

“I think we have a lot of players that I believe we can develop into being front line quarterbacks,” Kelly said. “We clearly have a number of quarterbacks and it’ll be competitive. That’s exciting for me. I hope that it’s not murky. I hope it’s just a great competition, and whoever wins that slot is better because it’s a very competitive situation.”

In other words, Kelly was unwilling to name Dayne Crist, or any of the quarterbacks on the roster, the frontrunner for the starting job come spring practice.

While it’ll probably be an exercise we’ll repeat a half dozen times before the spring, let’s take a good look at the quarterback depth chart and lays some early odds on who’ll end up starting against Skip Holtz and the South Florida Bulls next September 3rd.

DAYNE CRIST
(Odds — 5:2)

A couple of weeks ago we crunched Crist’s numbers against three high profile quarterbacks that replaced Sam Bradford, Tim Tebow and Colt McCoy and Dayne more than held his own. But watching the season play out, it was obvious that Crist wasn’t fully comfortable running Kelly’s spread option yet, and the first year starter showed some growing pains that many hoped the junior quarterback wouldn’t experience.

With Crist battling his second major knee surgery in as many football seasons, his mental and physical ability to battle back from a torn patellar tendon will determine if he can return as the starting quarterback.

“If he comes back physically able to compete at the highest level, he’s got obviously a great deal of experience,” Kelly said about Crist. “There’s a lot of time that we spent together. A lot of information he’s been able to digest in his first year as a starter. As long as he’s physically able to come back, and I believe he will, he’s got a great amount of experience that’s going to serve him well.”

Kelly disclosed that Crist suffered an infection in his surgically repaired knee that set him back 7-10 days in his rehab, and the timeline on his recovery will largely determine whether or not Dayne will fully participate in spring practice.

Crist lacks the true mobility needed in a spread quarterback to do damage on the ground, but he possesses all the arm strength needed to pilot a Notre Dame offense that could have a ton of weapons back in 2011. Was his first year starting what optimistic Irish fans hoped for? Probably not. But Kelly and offensive coordinator Charley Molnar have far too good of a track record with quarterbacks to count Crist’s ability to develop into a great one out, especially if Dayne responds to another bump in the road.

“From everything I’ve seen from the way he’s rehabbed, he’s already past that mentally because he had to go through it the first time,” Kelly said. “I see in him a different look in his eye like, ‘Coach, I’m going to get through this and be stronger because of it.’ Once he’s healthy, he’ll have a chance to compete and be a starter.”

TOMMY REES
(Odds — 4:1)

If Rees didn’t struggle mightily against USC, I’d be inclined to put him in a dead heat with Crist. But the freshman showed his age in the Coliseum, and reminded those that forgot what a true freshman quarterback looks like playing on the road.

Even with his struggles against USC, it’s hard not to be impressed with what Rees has done in such a short time on campus. The freshman enrolled early at Notre Dame, walking away from a senior season of high school basketball because the Irish depth chart was so precarious. Described as drinking from a fire hydrant by Kelly in the preseason, Rees’ career began as inauspiciously as it could, misplaying a two-step read on a trick play against Michigan and throwing an interception on his opening series.

But Rees’ development was impressive, and Kelly and company prescient decision to put the freshman in against Navy in mop-up time could be one of the key coaching decisions made all year. Rees completed six of seven throws as he marched the Irish offensive down the field for a touchdown, a meaningless score in a lopsided game, but an incredibly important one in developing a backup quarterback that would take the reins as number one just a week later.

Rees has had a month to prepare for his next start, and his skillset will come in handy against a Hurricane pass-rush that is among the best the Irish have seen.

“Being in the shotgun allows us to get the ball out on time and quicker,” Kelly said. “Tommy is good about getting the ball out of his hands. We’re going to rely on some of his strengths, and that is, he’s pretty accurate and can get it out quickly.”

Again, Rees isn’t one of those quarterbacks that’ll wow you with his physical attributes and will pilot a two-dimensional spread attack. But if we’ve learned anything since he took over against Tulsa, he’s got the ability to win football games, a skill that this coaching staff truly values.

ANDREW HENDRIX
(Odds — 6:1)

Even with Crist going down with a season-ending injury, Kelly has been careful to save the eligibility of Hendrix, who became the emergency third-string quarterback for the game against Army. But it’s hard not to be intrigued by the raw freshman’s skillset, which Kelly described when comparing him to Rees.

“You can see the athleticism of Hendrix, strength of arm, and then you can see the strengths that Tommy has in picking up a game plan, where it comes natural to him,” Kelly said. “You go into a practice and he understands what you’re trying to accomplish. He’s got to be able to accomplish those things, but his recognition is really good for a true freshmen, and you can see the athleticism of an Andrew Hendrix, but it’s hard to put it all together right now because he has a very, very shallow base of what we want to accomplish.”

Having watched Hendrix from the sideline throwing the ball with the other quarterbacks, he’s got every bit the arm and athleticism of anyone else on the roster. But there’s no question that he’s the rawest prospect on the Irish roster, even if you include soon to be incoming freshman…

EVERETT GOLSON
(Odds — 8:1)

If you’re a betting man, you’d be wise to throw a little money on this darkhorse candidate. While he’s undersized to play D-I quarterback in a system that requires the quarterback to take some hits, Golson is probably the ideal fit for Kelly’s offense and has all the tools necessary to walk in and compete for a starting job.

I’m not one to wax on about a quarterback that I’ve never seen in person and whose only game footage I’ve seen comes via highlight tape, but Golson’s offer to play North Carolina basketball, his leadership and ability to overcome an injury plagued season and lead his team to a South Carolina state championship (and a very good head on his shoulders) has me about as excited for a incoming freshman quarterback since a spiky haired Southern California kid flashed some state championship rings at the College Football Hall of Fame.

LUKE MASSA
(Odds — 15:1)

He’s been a bit of a forgotten man behind fellow freshman Rees and Golson, but Luke Massa has plenty of the tools that are needed to be a starting college quarterback, and you’d be silly to count out anyone when you’re dealing with Brian Kelly and quarterbacks.

Kelly singled out Massa early in preseason camp for doing some great work, and had this to say about the freshman quarterback when he signed his letter-of-intent.

“Very smart, very disciplined,” Kelly said of Massa. “He’s 6-5, 205-pounds. He’s going to be really big. He’s going to be a strong player. He’s got great feet, he’s an outstanding basketball player.”

Massa winning the job out of camp next year would be an incredible upset. But who thought that Tommy Rees would lead the Irish to an undefeated November? If anything has become apparent this season, it’s that have the head to run Kelly’s offense is far more important than having the body. Kelly had a long time to evaluate the Ohio native, had recruited him as a quarterback when he was coaching at Cincinnati, and obviously saw enough in him to bring him to South Bend. What that means for his future, we’ll find out.

NATE MONTANA
(Odds — 25:1)

While it’d be the best story to cover, I just don’t see how Nate Montana battles his way up the depth chart with the stack of recruited quarterbacks in front of him. That said, watching Montana in the tail end of the season, I was impressed with how fluid he threw the football, and I get the feeling that Kelly could figure out how to win a football game with Nate behind center, something the Irish obviously couldn’t do earlier in the year.

The fact that Nate’s in the two-deep and able to play serviceable minutes is an accomplishment in and of itself, especially considering he struggled to play even mediocre football when he transferred to Pasadena City College for playing time instead of being buried on the bench under Charlie Weis, and didn’t play much football at even the high school level.

So while we won’t get much time to write about how the Son of Joe woke up the echoes and lead the Irish to victory, Nate’s done everything asked of him, even with a lot thrust on his shoulders.

 

 

 

 

Spring positions to watch for revelations: DL & WR

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 05: Jerry Tillery #99 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish tackles Jerrod Heard #13 of the Texas Longhorns for a loss of yards during the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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If quarterback, rover and the early enrollees could be Notre Dame fans’ springtime Christmas thrills, what positions present as potential spots of coal?

Three former Irish players were invited to next week’s NFL Combine in Indianapolis: quarterback DeShone Kizer, defensive tackle Jarron Jones and defensive end Isaac Rochell. Losing two consistent defensive linemen leaves this year’s unit with some questions. Jones and Rochell combined for 100 tackles, 18 for loss and three sacks last season. Notre Dame’s returning defensive linemen combined to total 111 tackles and only 5.5 tackles for loss. To be clear, sacks are not included in that latter list because no returning defensive linemen recorded one. Among the returnees, junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37 tackles, three for loss) and senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26, 0.5) contributed solidly alongside the two NFL prospects.

This dearth of known and reliable linemen is a large part of why the potential transfer of Clemson graduate defensive tackle Scott Pagano is so intriguing. Pagano would immediately be a favorite to start, and if not that, at least rotate in heavily.

For now, though, Pagano remains a theoretical

By the end of spring practice, who already on campus will emerge alongside Tillery and Trumbetti in the Irish front? Senior ends Jay Hayes (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) and Jonathon Bonner (nine tackles) seem the most-likely candidates … aside from former four-star recruit and now rising sophomore Daelin Hayes. In his debut season, D. Hayes finished with 11 tackles.

Look for senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) to establish himself as Tillery’s immediate backup this spring, but that spot in the rotation will be up for competition all over again once four-star tackle Darnell Ewell (Lake Taylor High School; Norfolk, Va.) arrives on campus in the fall. His size and quickness should play right into new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s system.

Equanimeous and Who?
Not only did Notre Dame bring in a graduate transfer at receiver in former Michigan wideout Freddy Canteen, but it has also already received the commitments of two four-star receivers in the 2018 recruiting class. The continued emphasis on the position reflects the lack of bona fide game-breakers currently on the roster.

Junior Equanimeous St. Brown established himself as the top Irish threat in 2016, and he should shine only further with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush targeting him. Classmates often amplify each other’s success, simply due to the added shared reps innate to joining practice at the same time. With Torii Hunter, Jr., now pursuing a professional baseball career, who will prevent the secondary from focusing all its energies on St. Brown?

Canteen will not be with Notre Dame in the spring, as he does not graduate from Michigan until April. That will give a clear shot for the likes of juniors Chris Finke, C.J. Sanders and Miles Boykin, and sophomores Kevin Stepherson, Javon McKinley and Chase Claypool to establish themselves. Did that say “clear” shot? It should probably read, “a chance to separate from the crowd.”

If a genuine threat does not line up opposite St. Brown, his explosiveness will likely be greatly reduced by focused defensive scheming. Wimbush will need another target before 2018.

Of course, here is where one should acknowledge the millennia-tested fact: Coal under pressure becomes diamonds.

2016 Notre Dame’s win expectancy was 7.2
Sports Illustrated’s Chris Johnson named the Irish as his team most likely to dramatically improve its record in 2017. Johnson’s thinking is based, at least in part, on Notre Dame’s second-order win total having been 7.2 in 2016, compared to the four wins the Irish actually walked away with. That discrepancy was the largest in the country.

Second-order win totals reflect how many points a team should have scored and allowed based on offensive and defensive stats. In theory, this shines a light on how luck and chance factored into results. Naturally, losing seven games by one possession will often be reflected by a higher second-order win total.

“Notre Dame’s win-loss record belied a solid, if imperfect, squad that just couldn’t pull out close games…” Johnson writes. “The Irish may not get back into College Football Playoff contention in 2017, but they’re bound to post a few more Ws because of reversion to the mean.”

Admittedly, the small sample size of a football season reduces the applicability of metrics such as second- and third-order wins when compared to baseball and basketball.

Jones becomes Mack
A quick piece of housekeeping: Apparently junior tight end Alizé Jones has changed his name to Alizé Mack.

While Notre Dame’s roster may not reflect that change yet, it is reasonable to expect it will after its next update. The football program has consistently respected the intricacies of players’ name preferences. Tai-ler Jones becoming TJ Jones jumps to mind, for example.

Anyways, hopefully noting Mack’s name change here might reduce some confusion down the line. Probably not. How many readers possibly read to the actual bottom of an article? But hey, in good faith.

WR Lenzy makes 11th commitment, brings speed to Irish

lenzy
rivals.com
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At what point does an impressive recruiting roll become something more? When does it become a harbinger of things to come, even if not for a few seasons? How many notable commitments in a row establishes a class as special?

If the answer to any of the above is 11 commitments by the end of February, including five within two weeks, then Notre Dame is there following consensus four-star athlete Braden Lenzy’s announcement Thursday evening.

The Tigard High School (Portland, Ore) receiver/cornerback chose the Irish over offers from USC, Oregon and Michigan State, among a litany of others. In all, nine Pac-12 schools chased Lenzy—and a 10th, Washington, had shown interest—per rivals.com.

Lenzy will fit the leading 2018 need voiced by Irish coach Brian Kelly three weeks ago on National Signing Day 2017.

“Elite speed on offense will be a primary goal for us,” Kelly said Feb. 1. “Guys that can change the game on one possession. I think we’ll see that… We want a couple of home run hitters. We don’t care if they’re Darren Sproles’s size. We’re going to come off the board in terms of profile. We want some guys that can change the game on offense with elite speed.”

At 6-foot, 175 pounds, Lenzy is taller than Sproles’s 5-foot-6, but it is still his speed that drew Notre Dame’s interest.

“They made it clear they want me to do kickoff return and use me as a deep threat across the field,” he told Irish Illustrated. “Just being kind of an athlete, similar to what I’ve been doing already in high school, just on a bigger scale with a quarterback that can throw it a lot farther.”

Presuming Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush is that arm in 2018, throwing great distances should not be an issue. Between Lenzy and fellow 2018 commit Micah Jones, covering those distances should be a reasonable request, as well.

Lenzy brings Notre Dame’s class of 2018 to 11, including eight four-stars according to Rivals’ rating system. Current scholarship projections indicate the class will not be a large one, meaning the Irish coaching staff has already garnered the commitments of more than half the class. Once again, though, Kelly’s sentiment regarding recruiting timing should be remembered.

“We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

SWARBRICK’S TAKE ON RECRUITING
Kelly credited Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick with much assistance in securing the country’s No. 13 recruiting class in 2017. A refresher on those comments:

“In a lot of instances, [Swarbrick] had to be there to support our football program and talk to recruits about where this program is and where it’s going,” Kelly said. “There are questions when a family comes on campus. He reminded them about the investment we were making in staff and what we were doing for the present and for the future.”

Swarbrick did not dispute the factual nature of any of that in an interview with the Indianapolis Star, but he did contest the need for praising what he saw as part of his job, one of the preferred parts of his job, at that.

“I can’t say anything about this year felt all that different,” Swarbrick told Star reporter Laken Litman. “Some asked questions about the future of the program and can we compete for a national championship. And I would talk about the elements of the program we were focused on improving.”

Swarbrick and Litman discussed a number of items in the second-half of the interview released by the Star, including Notre Dame’s facilities, a possible early signing period in football and if the Oct. 8, 2016, game against North Carolina State should have been played. Spoiler: No. Then why was it? Go check it out.

Swarbrick also told Litman he likes to write in his free time.

“I tend to think strategically with a pen in my hand.” Swarbrick added he is currently scribbling away on where he thinks college athletics are headed.

This scribe, for one, would be most interested in skimming those legal pads.

Will Wimbush, Elko and the early enrollees surprise in spring practice?

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 26: Fans congratulate Brandon Wimbush #12 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish after he ran for a 58 yard touchdown against the Massachusetts Minutemen at Notre Dame Stadium on September 26, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Umass 62-27.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Exactly 59 days from today, the Irish will take the field at Notre Dame Stadium. Sure, they will be playing against themselves, but nonetheless, it will be somewhat-competitive football played in gold helmets.

For timing context, exactly 59 days ago, you looked beneath the Christmas tree to learn if Santa Claus left you season tickets, socks or coal. I got socks. They had some of that extra cushioning, so I considered them a suitable treat.

Whether you care about my argyles or not (you don’t), for many the Blue-Gold Game and Christmas morning hold similar excitement. That fact is apparently why Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick does not concern himself when groups of alumni publicly lament his decisions, or lack thereof.

“I never worry about that,” Swarbirck told the Indianapolis Star in an exclusive interview you really should read. Go on, click the link, it will open in a new tab. You can come right back here when you are done.

“The hardest job in athletics is trying to generate passion in your program. If that sort of stuff bothers you, you can’t be the athletic director, head coach or the quarterback at Notre Dame.”

That very passion will undoubtedly lead to frame-by-frame discussions of video snippets from spring practice, parsing of each and every word Irish coach Brian Kelly says in quick interviews after those practices, and extreme pessimism and optimism about the 2017 season.

In the Christmas spirit, what toys could bring the must excitement during the spring unwrapping? Personally, the gift I was unsure of always brought the most joy. I would rather open an unexpected book than know about a charcoal-gray suit. In other words, at least for today, let’s look past the offensive line, the running backs and the inside linebackers. Instead, let’s look forward to learning about… (more…)

How did Mike Elko fare against past Irish opponents?

TALLAHASSEE, FL - OCTOBER 18:  Karlos Williams #9 of the Florida State Seminoles scores the touchdown that would win the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during their game at Doak Campbell Stadium on October 18, 2014 in Tallahassee, Florida.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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Former Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder took over at that position before the 2014 season. Former Wake Forest defensive coordinator, and now VanGorder’s successor at Notre Dame, Mike Elko took over in Winston-Salem at the same time. Since then, the two programs faced common opponents nine times.

With the lone exception of Army, all these games featured ACC opponents. When it comes to talent, Wake Forest tends to be outmatched in the ACC. Recruits from 2011 to 2016 suited up for the Deacons in the 2014-16 seasons. During those six recruiting cycles, Wake Forest never finished higher than No. 10 in the conference according to rivals.com’s rankings. In 2012 and 2014, the Deacons finished at the bottom of the conference in recruiting.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, finished behind an ACC team a total of 10 times over those six years. Florida State outpaced the Irish five times, the exception being Notre Dame’s No. 3-ranked class in 2013 following its national championship game appearance. Clemson finished ahead of the Irish four times (2014 joining 2013 as the outliers), and Miami rounds the listing off with its No. 9-finish in 2012, compared to Notre Dame’s No. 20.

The point being, VanGorder and the Irish could anticipate having a stronger and deeper roster in at least six of the games discussed below. Elko and Wake Forest may have been able to make that argument—and it would be a debatable one—just once, when they faced Duke this past September.

Before comparing the two units’ successes and failures in those nine—actually, 18—contests, let’s establish two points of clarification. Notre Dame and North Carolina State played in a literal hurricane this past October. Comparing that game to any other will accomplish nothing. Furthermore, before anyone starts griping about that afternoon’s play-calling, this is an exercise discussing defensive performances, not offensive. The run:pass distribution of Oct. 1, 2016, bears no significance here.

Secondly, the other two games the Irish played fitting this criteria but after VanGorder’s dismissal—Syracuse and Army—are included below. Only so much of the scheme changed mid-season, and the personnel did not.

If you are busy catching up from a long weekend and do not have the time to look at the numbers below, a quick summary for you: In five of the eight instances, Elko’s unit fared distinctly better than VanGorder’s in multiple notable statistical categories. However, the Deacons struggled with Army’s triple-option attack, and both 2014 Florida State and 2015 Clemson blew right through the aggressive defense far easier than they did against Notre Dame.

Presented in something resembling reverse chronological order: (more…)