Dayne Crist and Louis Nix

Irish redshirts ready themselves for competition

3 Comments

More than a few people were surprised when Brian Kelly announced early during his first spring practices that freshman Zack Martin was working with the first-team offensive line at left tackle. At the time, Martin was a little known commodity, so far off the radar that even the official roster had his name spelled wrong — swapping in a ‘h’ for the ‘k’ at the end of his first name.

But that’s what happens with freshman that stay off the field during their first season on campus. They’re largely forgotten, relegated to a season on the practice squad and a year physically and mentally preparing for life in college athletics.

After spending their freshman seasons watching, nine Irish football players will prepare to take their first meaningful snaps as they reinsert themselves into the depth chart. Quarterbacks Andrew Hendrix and Luke Massa will fight to be among the four signal-callers getting reps during spring ball. Running back Cameron Roberson will walk into a depth-chart shy Robert Hughes and Armando Allen and look to build on an impressive freshman season where his work on the scout team earned him postseason honors as offensive scout team player of the year. Alex Welch, seeing another Elder High School graduate, Kyle Rudolph, leave for the NFL after three seasons, now finds himself square in the middle of a positional battle that’s headlined by Tyler Eifert and fifth-year player Mike Ragone. Christian Lombard, one of Notre Dame’s first commitments to the 2010 recruiting class, will head into battle for an open guard position vacated by Chris Stewart.

On the defensive side of the ball, Bruce Heggie, who spent last season adding considerable bulk to his already impressive frame enters the depth chart at defensive end. Justin Utupo, who started the trend of the Irish nabbing the Los Angeles Times’ lineman of the year, likely enters an outside linebacker competition that’s lost Brian Smith and Kerry Neal from the fold. Kendall Moore, who drew rave reviews for his play at inside linebacker on the scout team, now enters the battle to play opposite Manti Te’o. And Louis Nix, after seeing his weight balloon above 350 pounds, now takes his massive physique to the interior of the defensive line, where he’ll try to fill the void left by senior Ian Williams.

Earlier in the week, ESPN’s Bruce Feldman took a look nationally at the most anticipated redshirt freshmen in the land, and ranked Nix No. 7 in the country, quite the compliment for a nose tackle that had many recruitniks salivating last year. Here’s what he had to say about Nix, who committed to the Irish and assistant coach Tony Alford while Notre Dame was without a head coach.

7. Louis Nix, NT, Notre Dame Fighting Irish

We’ve heard all about how much Notre Dame has upgraded the edges of its 3-4 defense with the newcomers it just signed to its 2011 class. But the next question is: How about that middle? The Irish have been desperate for some big, dynamic bodies in the interior of their defensive line for a while now, and Nix may become the kind of big-time tackle they’ve been missing.

With reliable Ian Williams graduated, there is plenty of room for somebody to step in. The question now is whether Nix, who had to get in much better shape after signing last year as a freshman, ready to consistently bring the kind of effort defensive coordinator Bobby Diaco will demand? The buzz surrounding Nix from inside the program has been pretty good, but only time will tell.

While Nix is the only freshman getting national hype, it’ll be very interesting to see where guys like Roberson and Moore end up in the depth chart, as they both impressed the coaching staff all year with their performances on the scout team. The same can be said for a quarterback like Hendrix, who has wowed the coaching staff with his measureables, but just hasn’t played a lot of football in the spread. Early last season, Kelly openly considered taking the redshirt off Alex Welch and getting him into the lineup and while he didn’t do that, Welch will probably leap-frog a guy like Ragone as a pass-catcher, though how often he plays in two tight end sets will depend on how well he’s able to block at the point of attack. After Martin’s ascension into the starting lineup after a redshirt season, it should surprise no one if Lombard makes a run at the guard position that’s open.

With a little over a month to go before spring practice kicks off, a storyline to keep your eye on is which of these nine end up making a leap like Martin did into the headlines. If it turns out anywhere near as successful as it did for Zack, then Kelly and his coaching staff will be very happy.

 

Restocking the roster: Offensive Line

Notre Dame offensive line
4 Comments

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)
Mark Harrell, Sr* (No Starts, fifth-year available)

*Harrell’s departure is not confirmed, though expected.  

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
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.

Restocking the roster: Wide Receivers

Notre Dame v Florida State
Getty
12 Comments

Some believe that the best way to look at recruiting is in two-year increments. As programs rebuild and rosters turn over, covering the needs of a football team over two recruiting cycles  allows a coaching staff to balance its roster.

That balance is critical to the health of a program. And it’s not just the work of a rebuilding coach. As we saw in Brian Kelly’s sixth season, injuries, attrition and scheme change impacted the defense, especially in the secondary.

Another position set to deal with major change is wide receiver. Gone is All-American Will Fuller, departing South Bend after three years, scoring 29 touchdowns over the past two seasons. He’ll look to run his way into the first round of the NFL Draft. Also gone are veterans Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle, putting the Irish in an unenviable position, needing to replace the team’s three leading receivers.

Reinforcements aren’t just on the way, they’re already on campus. While there’s not a ton of production to see, the recruiting stockpile has created a chance to reload for Mike Denbrock’s troop. So let’s take a look at the additions and subtractions on the roster, analyzing the two-year recruiting run as we restock the receiving corps.

DEPARTURES
Will Fuller
, Jr. (62 catches, 1,258 yards, 14 TDs)
Chris Brown, Sr. (48 catches, 597 yards, 4 TDs)
Amir Carlisle, GS (32 catches, 355 yards, 1 TD)
Jalen Guyton, Fr. (transfer)

 

2015-16 ADDITIONS
Equanimeous St. Brown

Miles Boykin*
CJ Sanders
Jalen Guyton
Chase Claypool*
Javon McKinley*
Kevin Stepherson*

 

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Corey Robinson, Sr.
Torii Hunter, Sr.*
Justin Brent, Jr.*
Corey Holmes, Jr.*
CJ Sanders, Soph.
Miles Boykin, Soph.*
Equanimeous St. Brown, Soph.
Kevin Stepherson, Fr.*

 

ANALYSIS
Brian Kelly expects St. Brown to step into Will Fuller’s shoes. If the Irish are able to pluck another sophomore from obscurity to the national spotlight, it’ll say quite a bit about the depth and productivity the Irish staff has built at the position. At 6-foot-5, St. Brown has a more tantalizing skill-set than Fuller—and he was a national recruit out of a Southern California powerhouse. But until we see St. Brown burn past defenders and make big plays, assuming the Irish won’t miss Fuller is a big leap of faith.

The next objective of the spring is getting Corey Robinson back on track. The rising senior had a forgettable junior season, ruined by injuries and some bruised confidence. A player who has shown flashes of brilliance during his three seasons in South Bend, the time is now for Robinson, not just as a performer but as an on-field leader.

Torii Hunter Jr. is also poised for a big season. After finding reps at slot receiver and possessing the versatility to see the field from multiple spots, Hunter needs to prove in 2016 that he’s not just a utility man but an everyday starter. His hands, smooth athleticism and speed should have him primed for a breakout. But Hunter might not want to stay in the slot if CJ Sanders is ready to take over. After a big freshman season on special teams, Sanders looks ready to make his move into the lineup, perhaps the purest slot receiver Brian Kelly has had since he arrived in South Bend.

The rest of the spring depth chart should have modest goals, though all face rather critical offseasons. Justin Brent is three years into his college career and the biggest headlines he’s made have been off the field. Whether he sticks at receiver or continues to work as a reserve running back remains to be seen. Corey Holmes is another upperclassman who we still can’t figure out. Will he ascend into the rotation with the top three veterans gone, or will he give way to some talented youngsters?

Miles Boykin earned praise last August, but it didn’t get him time on the field. He’ll enter spring with four years of eligibility, same as early-enrollee Kevin Stepherson. The Irish staff thinks Stepherson has the type of deep speed that they covet, capable of running past cornerbacks and stretching a defense. Boykin has size and physicality that could present intriguing options for an offense that’ll be less reliant on one man now that Fuller is gone.

Live Video Mailbag: 40-year decision, more BVG, freshmen and more

BVG
28 Comments

We’ve done plenty of mailbags, but this is our first shot at a Live Video Mailbag. This should be a better way to answer more questions and hopefully interact with a few of you as we try to work off some of yesterday’s Super Bowl snacks.

Topics on the list: The 40-year decision, more Brian VanGorder talk, the incoming (and redshirt) freshmen and a whole lot more.

***