Harrison Smith

Floyd and Smith named captains for 2011


Saturday’s Notre Dame Football Awards Show gave us plenty to discuss, but the headline was probably Brian Kelly naming Michael Floyd and Harrison Smith the captains of the 2011 Fighting Irish.

For Smith, that means his application for a fifth year has been accepted. For Floyd, it’s a permanent accolade after being named game captain more times than any other teammate last season. It’s an amazing leap for Harrison, who had been dogged by fans and coaches for his inconsistent play and arrested development thanks to continual position switches and misuse in Jon Tenuta’s 4-3 scheme.

If you’ve got a spare 100 minutes, head over to UND.com to watch the entire awards show, which included a tuxedo with a gold tie on Kelly and even fancy clip packages befitting of a red carpet extravaganza.

Here’s a quick breakdown of the awards given:

Offensive Scout Team Player of the Week: Cameron Roberson
Defensive Scout Team Player of the Week: Kendall Moore
Offensive Newcomer of the Year: Tyler Eifert
Defensive Newcomer of the Year: Prince Shembo
Special Teams Player of the Year: Bennett Jackson
Nick Pietrosante Award (Most Inspirational): Robert Hughes
Moose Krause Award (Lineman of the Year): Ian Williams
Guardian of the Year (Offensive Lineman of the Year): Zack Martin
Rockne Student Athlete Award: David Ruffer
Next Man In Award: Tommy Rees
Most Valuable Player: Michael Floyd

If you’re looking for a reason why the coaching staff isn’t too worried about losing Robert Hughes and Armando Allen, it could be Roberson, who has gotten nothing but positive reviews from the coaching staff. He’s a much more powerful back that Cierre Wood, and it’s likely he’ll immediately push for playing time, fighting Jonas Gray for the No. 2 spot.

The fact that Kendall Moore made such a nice splash on the practice field has to have people excited about adding another impact player in the middle of the defense. Last year, the Irish were in a very tough spot when Carlo Calabrese went down with an injury and by the end of the year, Manti Te’o was the one player on defense that was absolutely irreplaceable. Adding a guy like Moore to the middle will add some much needed depth behind Te’o and whoever wins the other inside position.

Eifert, Shembo, and Jackson are no-brainer choices. Eifert’s ascension to the starting job and his incredibly bright future are amazing when many of us wrote him off after a major back injury. Shembo’s 4.5 sacks were great production from the edge, especially considering coaches admitted he only knew a fraction of what was needed to play outside linebacker in the 3-4 system. Edge players like Ishaq Williams and Shembo should help ratchet up the pass rush opportunities next season. Jackson’s play on special teams was incredible. His first three plays on the football field ended with Jackson making tackles and he added explosive speed to the return game as well.

Hughes winning the Pietrosante Award is a fitting finish to a wonderful career for the senior. During Hughes’ freshman season, his 24-year-old brother Earl was murdered on Chicago’s West Side. While he certainly had a seesaw career, he ended it with a bang, carrying the Irish down the stretch, including the game-winning touchdown against USC and 27 tough carries against Miami in the bowl game. Hughes’ leadership was evident by the respect he earned from his teammates, who applauded loudly when he was given the game ball after the victory against the Trojans.

While Ian Williams being named defensive lineman of the year was expected, the fact that Zack Martin graded out as the most consistent lineman of the year was pretty astounding. Martin sat out last season, and was such an afterthought that his name was misspelled ‘Zach’ up until he was named the starting left tackle during spring ball. While many expected big things out of Trevor Robinson and Chris Stewart, they struggled on the interior of the line while Martin seemed to thrive at both left tackle and at right when Taylor Dever went down.

Having a 3.92 GPA and a perfect regular season kicking field goals should be good enough to win a scholarship, and Kelly confirmed it on Friday before naming Ruffer the student-athlete of the year. It’s amazing how far Ruffer has come this season. After the opening win against Purdue, Ruffer was made available to the press and I spent 10 minutes chatting with him because nobody else was talking with him. It was there I learned that he’d never kicked a field goal as long as the one he made against Purdue in his life because he’d never actually played any football before coming to ND. All that was well before Ruffer’s Lou Groza run, and the best statistical season of any Irish kicker.

Tommy Rees personified the Irish coaching staff’s philosophy of “Next Man In,” and his 4-0 stretch run and solid play against Tulsa made this spring’s quarterback competition interesting. While his raw skills probably rank near the bottom of the QB position, he’s got moxie and guts that defy his tenure at Notre Dame. Whether he has a long career as the Irish starting quarterback or ends up falling behind the other five quarterbacks on the roster, Rees should be remembered for some absolute heroics when the team needed it most.

The night’s final award went to Michael Floyd, who led the team in touchdowns, receptions and yards. While his performance this season left something to be desired by NFL scouts, it was clear that he was the sole engine that drove the Irish offense. Unlike the rest of the award winners, after Floyd won the MVP, both Kelly and his teammates asked for a speech, which Floyd reluctantly gave. It didn’t entail much more than a few nervous chuckles and a half-dozen thank yous, but it was a great moment for a football player that’ll lead the charge into 2011, a year that holds a lot of promise.

Only focus after Clemson loss is winning on Saturday

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 19: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks on against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 19, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Georgia Tech 30-22. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

The 2015 college football season has yet to showcase a truly great football team. With early title contenders like Ohio State and Michigan State looking less than stellar, Alabama losing a game already and the Pac-12 beating itself up, the chance that a one-loss Notre Dame team could still make it into the College Football Playoff is certainly a possibility.

But don’t expect Brian Kelly and his football team to start worrying about that now.

We saw a similar situation unfold last season, after the Irish lost a heartbreaker in the final seconds against Florida State. With many fans worried that Notre Dame wasn’t given credit for their performance in Tallahassee, the Irish’s playoff resume mattered very little as the team fell apart down the stretch.

As Notre Dame looks forward, their focus only extends to Saturday. That’s when Navy will test the Irish with their triple-option attack and better-than-usual defense, a team that Brian Kelly voted into his Top 25 this week.

Can this team make it to the Playoff? Kelly isn’t sure. But he knows what his team has to do.

“I don’t know,” Kelly said when asked about a one-loss entrance. “But we do know what we can control, and that is winning each week. So what we really talked about is we have no margin for error, and we have to pay attention to every detail.

“Each game is the biggest and most important game we play and really focusing on that. It isn’t concern yourself with big picture. You really have to focus on one week at a time.”

Kelly spread that message to his five captains after the game on Saturday night. He’s optimistic that message has set in over the weekend, and he’ll see how the team practices as they begin their on-field preparations for Navy this afternoon.

But when asked what type of response he wants to see from his team this week, it wasn’t about the minutiae of the week or a company line about daily improvement.

“The response is to win. That’s the response that we’re looking for,” Kelly said, before detailing four major factors to victory. “To win football games, you have to start fast, which we did not. There has to be an attention to detail, which certainly we were missing that at times. We got great effort, and we finished strong. So we were missing two of the four real key components that I’ll be looking for for this weekend. As long as we have those four key components, I’ll take a win by one. That would be fine with me. We need those four key components. That’s what I’ll be looking for.”

Go for two or not? Both sides of the highly-debated topic

during their game at Clemson Memorial Stadium on October 3, 2015 in Clemson, South Carolina.

Notre Dame’s two failed two-point conversion tries against Clemson have been the source of much debate in the aftermath of the Irish’s 24-22 loss to the Tigers. Brian Kelly’s decision to go for two with just over 14 minutes left in the game forced the Irish into another two-point conversion attempt with just seconds left in regulation, with DeShone Kizer falling short as he attempted to push the game into overtime.

Was Kelly’s decision to go for two the right one at the beginning of the fourth quarter? That depends.

Take away the result—a pass that flew through the fingers of a wide open Corey Robinson. Had the Irish kicked their extra point, Justin Yoon would’ve trotted onto the field with a chance to send the game into overtime. (Then again, had Robinson caught the pass, Notre Dame would’ve been kicking for the win in the final seconds…)

This is the second time a two-point conversion decision has opened Kelly up to second guessing in the past eight games. Last last season, Kelly’s decision to go for two in the fourth-quarter with an 11-point lead against Northwestern, came back to bite the Irish and helped the Wildcats stun Notre Dame in overtime.

That choice was likely fueled by struggles in the kicking game, heightened by Kyle Brindza’s blocked extra-point attempt in the first half, a kick returned by Northwestern that turned a 14-7 game into a 13-9 lead. With a fourth-quarter, 11-point lead, the Irish failed to convert their two-point attempt that would’ve stretched their lead to 13 points. After Northwestern converted their own two-point play, they made a game-tying field goal after Cam McDaniel fumbled the ball as the Irish were running out the clock. Had the Irish gone for (and converted) a PAT, the Wildcats would’ve needed to score a touchdown.

Moving back to Saturday night, Kelly’s decision needs to be put into context. After being held to just three points for the first 45 minutes of the game, C.J. Prosise broke a long catch and run for a touchdown in the opening minute of the fourth quarter. Clemson would be doing their best to kill the clock. Notre Dame’s first touchdown of the game brought the score within 12 points when Kelly decided to try and push the score within 10—likely remembering the very way Northwestern forced overtime.

After the game, Kelly said it was the right decision, citing his two-point conversion card and the time left in the game. On his Sunday afternoon teleconference, he said the same, giving a bit more rationale for his decision.

“We were down and we got the chance to put that game into a two-score with a field goal. I don’t chase the points until the fourth quarter, and our mathematical chart, which I have on the sideline with me and we have a senior adviser who concurred with me, and we said go for two. It says on our chart to go for two.

“We usually don’t use the chart until the fourth quarter because, again, we don’t chase the points. We went for two to make it a 10-point game. So we felt we had the wind with us so we would have to score a touchdown and a field goal because we felt like we probably only had three more possessions.

“The way they were running the clock, we’d probably get three possessions maximum and we’re going to have to score in two out of the three. So it was the smart decision to make, it was the right one to make. Obviously, you know, if we catch the two-point conversion, which was wide open, then we just kick the extra point and we’ve got a different outcome.”

That logic and rationale is why I had no problem with the decision when it happened in real time. But not everybody agrees.

Perhaps the strongest rebuke of the decision came from Irish Illustrated’s Tim Prister, who had this to say about the decision in his (somewhat appropriately-titled) weekly Point After column:

Hire another analyst or at least assign someone to the task of deciphering the Beautiful Mind-level math problem that seems to be vexing the Notre Dame brain-trust when a dweeb with half-inch thick glasses and a pocket protector full of pens could tell you that in the game of football, you can’t chase points before it is time… (moving ahead)

…The more astonishing thing is that no one in the ever-growing football organization that now adds analysts and advisors on a regular basis will offer the much-needed advice. Making such decisions in the heat of battle is not easy. What one thinks of in front of the TV or in a press box does not come as clearly when you’re the one pulling the trigger for millions to digest.

And yet with this ever-expanding entourage, Notre Dame still does not have anyone who can scream through the headphones to the head coach, “Coach, don’t go for two!”

If someone, anyone within the organization had the common sense and then the courage to do so, the Irish wouldn’t have lost every game in November of 2014 and would have had a chance to win in overtime against Clemson Saturday night.

My biggest gripe about the decision was the indecision that came along with the choice. Scoring on a big-play tends to stress your team as special teams players shuffle onto the field and the offense comes off. But Notre Dame’s use of a timeout was a painful one, and certainly should’ve been spared considering the replay review that gave Notre Dame’s coaching staff more time to make a decision.

For what it’s worth, Kelly’s decision was probably similar to the one many head coaches would make. And it stems from the original two-point conversion chart that Dick Vermeil developed back in the 1970s.

The original chart didn’t account for success rate or time left in the game. As Kelly mentioned before, Notre Dame uses one once it’s the fourth quarter.

It’s a debate that won’t end any time soon. And certainly one that will have hindsight on the side of the “kick the football” argument.