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QB battle will have a little of everything

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Ah, the benefits of a fully stocked roster.

For the first time since Tyrone Willingham struggled to fill a roster with D-I recruits, the Irish will have a full 85-man allotment of scholarships on their roster. And of all the positions where battles will be fought for playing time, no spot on the depth chart will have as many eyes on it as the quarterback spot.

With Nate Montana’s exit to the Grizzlies of Montana and Luke Massa spending the spring at wide receiver, four quarterbacks will take snaps for the Irish. Two, Dayne Crist and Tommy Rees, we’ve seen. Two, Andrew Hendrix and early-entrant Everett Golson, we haven’t.

Helping to kick start this discussion, our friends at Her Loyal Sons pontificated on what quarterback had the better season last year: Dayne Crist or Tommy Rees.

Without completing hijacking their column, The Biscuit (who is on a mission to attend ND’s Annual Fantasy Camp, which I can attest is a once-in-a-lifetime experience) looked at five different criteria for judging the two players:

1) Stats
2) ND’s running attack
3) ND’s defensive performance
4) The competition
5) The competition’s defense

Here’s where he came out:

Overall, these two players had pretty similar performances stats-wise. Rees edges out Crist in a few key categories, and played against an overall more difficult schedule. But Crist was more productive against a tougher set of defenses, and wasn’t helped out by the Irish Running Game or Defense the way that Rees was.

Obviously, one statistical area where Rees trumps Crist was in the W/L column, with Rees piloting the Irish through most of a 4-1 stretch while Dayne went 4-4 before getting injured early against Tulsa. But as we discussed back in December, setting an appropriate bar for Crist was one area where most fans/analysts/bloggers failed.

Even with a five-star pedigree, Crist was walking into a new offensive system after spending two seasons immersed in Charlie Weis’ way of playing quarterback. He was a first-time starting quarterback playing his first year in a new system and doing it after rehabbing from a major knee injury that added another hurdle to his development process.

Comparing Crist’s physical tools to those of Tommy Rees isn’t going to come out in favor of Rees. In fact, Rees won’t come out in front of any of the six quarterbacks that were on the roster at the New Year. But Kelly made it clear that he’s got a clear vision on how he’s offense will adapt during year two of his tenure.

“Suffice to say that I’m pretty clear on the styles that we have and how to utilize those styles within our offense,” Kelly said. “Not everybody can run the style of offense that I would want us to be running, so we’re going to utilize our quarterbacks to best help us win football games.”

What style offense Kelly will run in 2011 might be an evolutionary question befitting Darwin. During his state of the program remarks before Signing Day, Kelly talked about the changes that come with coaching Notre Dame.

“In 21 years of being a head coach, most of the jobs I’ve had revolved around not just winning, but being exciting, being relevant, putting fans in the seats,” Kelly said, comparing work under the Golden Dome to that at Cincinnati, Central Michigan and Grand Valley State. “None of those things matter at Notre Dame. I don’t have to create an exciting offense, I just have to win football games, and defense goes hand in hand with winning.”

Those comments might mean that the hurry-up, no-huddle, time-of-possession-is-an-overrated-philosophy that dominated the opening days of the Kelly era are over. With the Irish’s defense resurgence coming much sooner than anybody ever expected, it’s clear that Kelly’s way of winning football games won’t get in the way of simply winning games, style points be damned.

All that being said, don’t expect Kelly to simply trade in an offensive philosophy 20 years in the making for a slug-it-out, just win the game mentality. It could simply mean he hasn’t found his signature quarterback yet.

‘‘It’s a guaranteed Heisman Trophy to whoever that guy is,’’ former Cincinnati quarterback Ben Mauk to the Chicago Sun-Times a few weeks ago. ‘‘Once he gets a guy in there he can trust — they’re on the same page and they go through those meetings where he knows he’s on the same page — then you’ll see a whole new dimension to the offense.’’

(As the Irish pursue Mauk’s younger brother, highly-touted prep quarterback Maty Mauk, it’s clear that Kelly and company can certainly rely on big brother’s endorsement.)

In the one season that we’ve seen of both Crist and Tommy Rees, it’s hard to determine that either of those guys is purely that quarterback, but it’s also clear looking at Kelly’s track record that he’s won plenty of football games with quarterbacks of all shapes and sizes.

The days continue to tick down to March 23, the official start to Irish spring practice. Those fifteen sessions will give all of us our first look at Golson, a pure spread quarterback, and Hendrix, a player whose toolbox might contain attributes unparalleled amongst the rest of the competition.

There’ll be plenty of time to read between the lines as each quarterback states their case for playing time come autumn. But it’s clear that whoever Kelly trusts to lead the offense, they’ll be one of the largest factors determining the fate of the 2011 Irish.

Restocking the roster: Wide Receivers

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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)

 

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

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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.

***

Kelly and Swarbrick turn attention to science of injury prevention

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Amidst the chaos of their live Signing Day show, UND.com ran had a far-reaching interview with head coach Brian Kelly. It was conducted by his boss, athletic director Jack Swarbrick, and his former team captain, Joe Schmidt.

So while there was a little bit of talk about the 23 recruits who signed their national letters-of-intent, there was also a very illuminating exchange on an issue that’s really plagued the Irish the past few seasons: Injuries.

Football is a dangerous game. And for as long as people play it, there’ll be impactful injuries that take players off the field. But as Notre Dame settles into what looks like their longest run of stability since the Holtz era, the focus of Kelly and Swarbrick has moved past modernizing the team’s medical services, strength program and nutrition and onto the science of injury prevention.

Here’s what Kelly said about the efforts currently taking shape:

“I think the science piece is very important, because no longer is it just about strength and conditioning,  it’s about durability. It’s the ability to continue to play at an optimal level but also with the rigors of a college schedule, and particularly here at Notre Dame, how do we maximize the time but maximizing getting the most out of our student-athletes and not lose them?

“As you know, we’ve had a couple years here in a rough stretch of injuries. And how do we have an injury prevention protocol that brings in the very best science? You’ve done a great job of reaching out in getting us those kind of resources. so I think tapping into that is probably the next piece. As well as providing the resources for our student-athletes. Continuing to look at facilities. Continuing to give our student-athletes maybe that little edge. Because everybody’s got 85 scholarships.”

It’s clear that the issue is one that’s on the radar for not just Kelly, but the athletic administration. So it’ll be interesting to see some of the steps taken as the program begins investing time and additional resources to an issue that’s really hit the Irish hard the past few seasons.

There’s plenty of other good stuff in the 13-minute interview, so give it a watch.