Floyd returns: How Brian Kelly brought back his star receiver

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Apologies to Aaron Lynch, Stephon Tuitt, and Ishaq Williams, but the Irish coaching staff landed their biggest recruit of the offseason with Michael Floyd’s return to Notre Dame for his senior season.

Armed with a PowerPoint presentation, a plan to have Floyd graduate next December, and a detailed focus on how he’ll be used in the second iteration of the head coach’s offense, Brian Kelly and his offensive coaching staff essentially re-recruited the 6-3, 227-pound junior from St. Paul in a closed door meeting yesterday, bringing back the most important member of the Irish roster for a season basically nobody saw coming.

“This was one of the toughest decisions I have ever had to make in my life,” Floyd said.

Heading into the holiday break, many assumed Floyd had said goodbye to South Bend. Reports on the internet quoted his dislike for the city and weather (never mind that he’s from Minnesota), his lukewarm relationship with Kelly, and his family’s modest economic standing as reasons he’d all but decided to forgo his senior season at Notre Dame and enter the NFL Draft.

But Monday’s initial reports that Floyd was already set to announce his intent to leave misunderstood the key elements that went into Floyd’s decision to return for a fourth season in blue and gold.

“I’m returning to Notre Dame for three reasons: to earn my degree, return Notre Dame to the top and improve myself as a player,” Floyd released in a statement. “First, I promised my mom I would graduate from Notre Dame and I am 40 credit hours shy of attaining that goal. I chose to attend Notre Dame in part because I knew it was a 40-year decision and not a four-year decision. Graduating from Notre Dame will help me for the rest of my life. Second, I want to get Notre Dame back to a BCS game. I believe we are very close to returning the Irish to where we belong and I want to be part of something great. Lastly, I want to show everyone in the country that I’m the best wide receiver in college football in 2011. There are many things I need to improve, but I feel with the coaching I have at Notre Dame, I can become the best at my position in this game.”

The desire to graduate from Notre Dame can’t be understated. Both Floyd and his mother, Theresa Romero, put great value on getting a Notre Dame degree, and the Irish coaching staff put in detailed plan in place that would help Floyd earn the 40 credit hours needed. He’ll have the spring semester, a summer session, and next fall to meeting the university’s obligations before leaving school next December with a diploma to begin preparations for the 2012 NFL Draft.

But if Floyd’s decision came down to anything, it was the thawing of a relationship between the team’s star wide receiver and his head coach.

Barely a month after Kelly’s hiring at Notre Dame, his star wide receiver was caught up in an embarrassing underage drinking fiasco, after a fight on the University of Minnesota campus over Christmas break. From there, whether it was real or perceived, Floyd often felt he was the scapegoat for the previous regime’s inability to win games, a dangerous tactic to take with your offense’s most important player.

During Kelly’s first media day with the national press, he took a shot at a consensus preseason All-American.

“Michael Floyd… I thought Michael Floyd was over-hyped. I thought he was, at times, average,” Kelly said. “He ran down the field and they threw it up. He wasn’t a precision route runner. He wasn’t asked to be. He was a match-up guy. You never saw him in a position to run the dig or the drive or one-on-one where he had to beat press coverage on a slant on 4th and one. All those things that go to winning football games, I didn’t see that. Maybe it’s because they had Golden Tate and he did all that for them. So my evaluation of Mike was based upon the film I’ve had.”

(Looking back now, that statement reads almost like a tactical strike against Floyd. Preseason kudos? Undeserved. Physical abilities? So what. Anybody big and strong can go up and get the football. When the team needed to win last year, they didn’t call #3’s number, they looked to Golden Tate. Go ahead and look for yourself, the film doesn’t lie…)

If that statement was meant to be a message to his star wide receiver, Floyd apparently received it loud and clear, making it a personal mission to work harder than everyone throughout the spring and summer months. Even though Floyd was used to the special rules Charlie Weis had for him, Golden Tate, and Jimmy Clausen, and was confused why his head coach would take dead aim at a player that was responsible for carrying most of the offensive load, he grinded on, showing both his teammates and a new coaching staff what kind of player he truly is. In the days before the season started, it was clear that Kelly noticed.

“In my 20 years, I have not had a player who has worked as hard as Michael Floyd has worked,” Kelly said in August. “And I mean that. He has out-worked everybody on the offensive side of the ball to the point where he has single-handedly set the bar for where everybody else needs to bring their play.”

From there, Kelly learned that while he might not have seen what made Floyd special on tape, his opponents did. Complacent to keep Floyd stationed in one place, he watched as Dayne Crist struggled to connect with his best receiver. Against Purdue, Floyd was only targeted seven times, with three completions going for less than 10 yards. Against Michigan, more than half the throws to Floyd went incomplete, and his five catches for 66 yards were inconceivable numbers against a ravaged secondary that Floyd lit up the year before in Ann Arbor. It took until Notre Dame’s decisive loss to Stanford for Floyd to break the 100-yard mark in a game, the longest stretch since his freshman year to reach that number.

But as the season evolved, both receiver and head coach understood what Floyd meant to the offense, and his 13 targets against USC were critical to the Irish beating the Trojans for the first time since Bob Davie coached Notre Dame. After his six catches, 109 yards and two touchdowns torched a talented secondary, it sounded as if Kelly knew keeping Floyd for another season would be difficult.

“We have a young man here at Notre Dame that has given everything to Notre Dame,” Kelly said of Floyd. “If he decides it’s in his best interests to come back next year, we’ll be very, very happy for him. But we want what’s best for Mike Floyd. Today he showed why he’s a championship football player.”

It turns out that both Floyd’s best and personal interests brought him back to Notre Dame. While reviews of his draft stock were mixed, the easy thing for Floyd to do would have been leaving for the NFL. Whether it was bottom of the first round money or third round money, it would’ve done enough to instantly change the life of both him and his mother.

“This was a tough decision because my dream has always been to play in the NFL, but I didn’t think that this was the best time to make that jump,” Floyd said. “Ultimately, I wanted to be at Notre Dame for my senior season because you never get college back.”

That senior season will likely see Floyd break just about every major receiving record in Notre Dame’s history books. He already sits atop the books in receiving touchdowns and yards per game, as well as holds a slew of freshman records from his 2008 season. With Theo Riddick, Tyler Eifert, TJ Jones, and Cierre Wood back, Floyd will also have diversified set of skill players that’ll help take the focus off the senior receiver as well as a quarterback (playing behind a veteran offensive line) that has likely played significant minutes.

What’s next for Floyd likely will be determined by the relationship that he and his head coach forge over the next nine months. Floyd returned to Notre Dame in many ways in spite of his relationship with his head coach, not because of it. Yesterday’s meeting, a candid session between Floyd and Kelly, could have been the breakthrough needed for both parties to leave the past behind and begin building a team that’s well positioned for a BCS run.

“We had a great meeting yesterday,” Floyd said in his statement explaining his return to school. “I felt (Kelly) was very truthful and candid in our conversation and I really appreciated that.”

Whatever was said behind those doors in the Guglielmino Athletics Complex resulted in Notre Dame’s most prolific wide receiver passing up the NFL for the chance to take a shot at some unfinished business.

If Notre Dame is going to take the leap from good to great next season (see Auburn’s jump from 8-5 to BCS Champions), they’ll need their head coach and star receiver to be on the same page. After a rocky start, Floyd’s unlikely return to Notre Dame is a sign that after wondering what might have been with stars like Jimmy Clausen, Golden Tate and Kyle Rudolph, the stars could finally be aligning above the Golden Dome.

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.