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A to Z: Your comprehensive spring breakdown

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While the Irish were thrown a major curve ball with Michael Floyd’s arrest and indefinite suspension the weekend before spring practice was set to start, there’s plenty to be excited about as Brian Kelly kicked off the spring season for the Irish Tuesday with some opening comments.

For those of you that’ve been away from the computer since the Irish drubbed Miami in the Sun Bowl, here’s a quick A to Z breakdown of what to expect during these 15 practices that culminate with the Irish playing the 82nd Annual Blue-Gold Game live on Versus on April 16th.

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A is for Aaron Lynch. One of the crown jewels of the 2011 recruiting class has been on campus adding weight and muscle to his frame since January. We’ll finally see him in an Irish uniform on Wednesday, where we’ll find out how close he is to making an impact.

“Physically, he’s as developed as some of our juniors and seniors,” Kelly said.

B is for Bob Diaco. While some fans were wondering if he’d last his inaugural season in South Bend, Diaco put together one of the best defensive improvements in college football last season, thanks to a constant message and stressed fundamentals. He’ll have virtually all the same tools to play with this season, with a year of experience under their belts, only now he’ll coach both inside and outside linebackers.

C is for Crist, Dayne. This time last year, Irish fans (and coaches) held their breath as Crist returned to the field ahead of schedule after a major knee injury ended his season. Fast forward 12 months and the song sounds the same, with Kelly pointing to last year’s practice model as essentially the same thing going forward. One thing Irish fans have to feel good about is Crist’s development mentally, even if he’s struggled to stay healthy these last two years.

“I can sense that when I talk to him, it’s a lot more of a comfortable situation,” Kelly said. “He knows the offense, he knows what’s expected of him, he knows what to expect from me. There’s a very good communication base between him and I.”

D is for Dog linebacker. While Carlo Calabrese hasn’t solidified his job opposite Manti Te’o yet, the position opposite Darius Fleming is wide open, with Kerry Neal and Brian Smith graduating. It’s the only spot on the defense where a player with starting experience doesn’t return, and four players seem like they’re in line to battle for the job: Danny Spond, Dan Fox, Prince Shembo, and Steve Filer.

E is for Early Entries. With the rest of the 2011 recruiting class set to join their teammates this summer for informal workouts, five freshman will take the field for the first time. Joining Aaron Lynch will be kicker Kyle Brindza, defensive end turned offensive lineman Brad Carrico, Everett Golson (more on him in a second), and Ishaq Williams. Brindza will battle David Ruffer at placekicker, but probably holds the inside position for kickoffs, while he’ll also battle Ben Turk for the punting job.

F is for Filer, Steve. As we mentioned earlier in the week, the future is now for Filer. I expect the coaching staff to give him every chance to win the job at ‘Dog’ linebacker, and the Chicago native certainly has the athleticism needed to succeed. Whether Kelly meant to do it or not, Filer’s name wasn’t one of the first he mentioned for the open linebacking job, so consider the message sent.

G is for Golson, Everett. Enter Golson, the first true spread quarterback of the Brian Kelly era. The head coach has already hinted that Golson will likely see the field early, and during spring practice he and freshman Andrew Hendrix will wear both red jerseys and blue — live — jerseys.

H is for Hamstrings. Kelly also formally announced the move of former team trainer Jim Russ into a leadership role and Notre Dame’s hiring of Rob Hunt as head athletic trainer for Irish football. With that hiring, the Irish medical staff completely turned over, and used the offseason to take a comprehensive look at what seemed to cause all those balky hamstrings.

“We were able to evaluate everything,” Kelly said. “All of those areas have been addressed. It wasn’t one particular area and we feel pretty good that we’ve made very good strides in that area.”

I is for Ishaq Williams. While Darius Fleming might be entrenched at the ‘Cat’ linebacker position, expect to see Ishaq Williams running around chasing quarterbacks a lot this spring.

“Physically, he’s a gifted young man and the transition is a whole lot easier for him,” Kelly said, before hinting at some evolutionary changes the Irish might make.

Last season the Irish lined up with a three-man front 53 percent of the time, a nearly 50-50 proposition, hinting that the influx of big-time edge players like Lynch and Williams, joining guys like Prince Shembo, might be enough to push the Irish into more multiple fronts.

J is for Jackson, Bennett. As Jackson announced earlier this offseason on his Twitter page (something the staff wasn’t exactly happy about), Jackson is switching to cornerback where he’ll take his special teams prowess and apply them to the defensive side of the ball.

“We like Bennett’s speed and playing with athleticism on the defensive side of the ball gives us an opportunity to have length and speed at cornerback,” Kelly said about the new No. 2, taking over Darrin Walls’ old number.

K is for Kerry Cooks. The news has been in the works for some time, but Kerry Cooks is shifting back to coaching cornerbacks after his one-season run at outside linebackers coach. Cooks came onto the staff having never coached linebackers, and was shifted likely because Chuck Martin was already in control of the secondary. Martin’s basically like having a second defensive coordinator, and keeping Cooks working hand-and-hand with a group of corners without much margin for error is a smart decision.

L is for Louis Nix. With Kelly announcing that Sean Cwynar is out for the spring as he recovers from multiple offseason surgeries, the focus shifts to one of ND’s most highly touted redshirts. It sounds like Kelly expects some big things from an equally large  Louis Nix.

“He’s going to be a guy that when you turn on the tape, you can recognize Louis Nix,” Kelly said. “Louis just needs to continue to work on his volume and what he can handle. He’s a big fella, he’s close to 345 pounds and to carry that weight, it’s a matter of how many quality reps can he give us. We know what we can get in very short spurts, but this spring is about what he can handle in volume.”

M is for Michael Floyd. This wouldn’t be a comprehensive breakdown without including the plight of the Irish’s returning MVP and co-captain, but after being prodded two or three times, Kelly finally gave a logical explanation of what he was going through when he heard the news of his star receiver’s arrest.

“There’s a range of emotions that you have,” Kelly said. “I think it’s a lot like a parent would have — from anger to disappointment to making sure that something like that in his life never happens again. I think you go through the gamut of all those things. We want to be able to support Mike, but also understand that this was a serious, serious offense, and so I think all of those emotions play in it when you first hear about something like that.”

Kelly wouldn’t put a timetable on the suspension, nor the university decision, but at the very least, the head coach both understands that Floyd did something incredibly serious and stupid, but he also needs support as he tries to get through this tough time.

N is for Nose Guard. Cwynar’s limitations this spring almost clarify an interesting situation on the interior of the defensive line as Cwynar is the only defensive tackle on the roster not listed as a nose guard.

With Cwynar out, the Irish will see what they have in a talented group of reserves, highly touted guys like Brandon Newman, Nix, Tyler Stockton, and Hafis Williams. That foursome had plenty of recruiting stars, but so far have done next to nothing on the football field.

O is for offensive evolution. If you’re looking for Brian Kelly’s offensive contemporaries, look no farther than his guests for his coaching clinic — Urban Meyer and Chip Kelly. Neither of those coaches inherited a personnel package as polar opposite as the grouping they needed to run their preferred offense. As players become comfortable with the system and Kelly begins to bring in players to fit his scheme, look for the offensive attack to evolve.

The installation of Ed Warinner to running game coordinator is a likely first step in that process, as it was far from coincidental that the Irish’s running game helped kickstart a team badly in need of some wins. The promotion might be the product of Warinner staying put and not chasing an open offensive coordinator position at Nebraska, but it’s well deserved for a coach that’s already been one of the best coordinators at the collegiate level.

P is for Prince Shembo. Watching Shembo develop this spring will be very interesting, as the freshman spent last season almost exclusively chasing the quarterback and not worrying about much else. If he’s going to be one of the top 11 guys on the field, he’ll need to do it with some semblance of a skill-set at drop linebacker. If Shembo can make strides covering the pass instead of chasing the passer, he might make his move to the top of the OLB depth chart.

Q is for QB competition. Who would’ve thought this time last year that Dayne Crist was more of a question mark at quarterback entering the spring of 2011 than he was replacing Jimmy Clausen?

“My expectations are it’s going to be a very competitive situation at quarterback,” Kelly said, “and Dayne can include his name in that competitive battle.”

Another knee injury certainly contributed to the competition, but the impressive play of freshman Tommy Rees and the development of Andrew Hendrix helped turn a position that was a huge question mark heading into last season into a spot where the Irish already know they can win with two different guys.

“It’s going to be fun to watch,” Kelly said.

R is for Running Backs. Gone from the backfield are Armando Allen and Robert Hughes, leaving Cierre Wood as the No. 1 starter and Jonas Gray as the primary backup. While Cameron Roberson impressed last season on the scout team, it’s clear that Kelly believes it’s now or never for Gray.

“It’s pretty clear that Jonas Gray is a very integral part to our success,” Kelly said. “He is no longer that guy that tells jokes and goofs around, and you guys get the message there. But the fact of the matter is, football has got to be, outside of academics, a priority for him because he is in an absolute crucial position for us. We have to play with two tailbacks. You can’t get by with one guy. We all know that. So this is extremely important for him to show that we can count on him this spring.”

S is for Slaughter, Jamoris. This will be a huge spring for Slaughter to prove that he’s healthy after having a season essentially ruined by an ankle injury suffered in the season opening win against Purdue. When healthy, Slaughter’s a perfect defender for Bob Diaco’s defense, a strong tackling safety that has the coverage skills to play as a corner in the Cover 2.

T is for Tyler Eifert. If you’re looking for a guy that proved his worth last year, consider that heading into the season many weren’t sure if Tyler Eifert was even going to be playing on the football team, after a major back injury made it seem like his career was in doubt. But Eifert filled in for Kyle Rudolph more than valiantly, and his receiving ability brought a dimension that even Rudolph didn’t bring last season before he got hurt.

U is for Justin Utupo. While most Irish fans probably forgot about him, Utupo was listed in the conversation as a potential starter opposite Manti Te’o, who will spend the spring severely limited after having his knee cleaned up. Utupo enters the battle along side fellow redshirt Kendall Moore, who won rave reviews for his play at middle linebacker on the scout team.

Utupo’s move to the inside is a semi-surprise, as he was recruited by Charlie Weis to be a defensive end. The fact that this coaching staff thinks Utupo can play in both space and at middle linebacker means that the California native has the athleticism needed to be a run-stuffing playmaker.

V is for Victories. The only currency worth anything after an eight win season came when a four game winning streak helped people forget the frustration that came with starting 1-3. Injuries and the transition period are a long way from being understandable excuses to a fanbase not known for its patience.When asked what he wants to do differently this year, Kelly was clear:

“Win more games,” Kelly said. “I think definitely win more games.”

W is W Receiver. Gone indefinitely is one of the best W receivers in the country. Filling in for him? That’s what we’ll find out this spring, as Kelly broke down the indefinite Floyd-less plan.

“I think you’ll see Goody (John Goodman) playing a lot of the W-receiver position for us, and Danny Smith, both of those guys, will get a lot of work,” Kelly said. “Luke (Massa) will also get some work at the W position. I feel pretty good. Obviously from Goody’s standpoint, a guy that’s got a lot of football in him, can make plays and we know what he can do. Danny is kind of that unknown, big, physical, strong kid and he needs a lot of work this spring and Luke we are breaking in.”

X is for X receiver. Flipping over to the other side of the offense, the pressure ratchets up on TJ Jones as well, who got off to a blistering start before getting slowed down by some bumps and bruises. But one name Kelly put front and center was another promising recruit who has yet to made a different in his four seasons at Notre Dame: wideout Deion Walker.

“He’s had a great offseason,” Kelly said. “I’ve love the way he’s competed. He’s a changed young man in the way he goes to work every day. I questioned last year his love for the game and his commitment. He’s shown a totally different side of himself in our workouts up to this point. Quite frankly, Deion’s a guy I want to see and he’s going to get some reps and some work. We’re going to have a clear evaluation as to where he is in this program after the spring.”

That sounds an awful lot like a challenge.

Y is for Youth development. If there’s anything we’ve learned over the last four or five seasons it’s that signing talented recruits is only step one of the process. Step two — and a step that’s far more important — is developing the youth your roster has.

If you’re looking for a silver lining in the entire Floyd Fiasco, or injuries to Sean Cwynar and Manti Te’o, it’s the opportunity to give young players important reps throughout the spring and get the development process jump-started.

How Kelly decides to use players like Lynch and Williams, Utupo and Moore, even Bennett Jackson and Austin Collinsworth — first time defenders looking to crack the two-deep, will determine whether or not Notre Dame can build a consistent winner under Kelly.

Z is for Zeke Motta. Thrown into the fire last year and playing much of the season without a safety net, Motta held up incredibly well, and might have played his way into a starting job. Nobody would’ve confused Motta for a pass-first center fielder, but his cover skills improved as his knowledge of the defense and scheme continued to grow. If the Irish can keep Motta on the field for all three downs, they’ll be able to use the trio of Motta, Harrison Smith and Jamoris Slaughter to really tighten up the passing defense.

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…)

Four-star WR Micah Jones chooses Irish; Rees may need to wait; Other late-week reading

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A day may come when Notre Dame suffers a recruiting disappointment in the 2018 cycle, when a high school star spurns the Irish coaching staff for a foe, but it is not this day.

Rivals.com four-star receiver Micah Jones (Warren Township High School; Gurnee, Ill.) committed to Notre Dame on Friday, joining a class of now 10 recruits, including four who committed just this week.

Jones chose the Irish over offers from the likes of Iowa, Michigan State and Ole Miss, among others.

He is the first receiver among the 10 commitments and the seventh considered a four-star prospect. At 6-foot-5, 196 pounds, Jones should present a large target for whomever the Notre Dame quarterback is in the fall of 2018, most likely then-senior Brandon Wimbush.

Tom, Tommy or Thomas; Assistant Coach or Graduate Assistant?
Thomas Rees may need to wait a season before officially being a coach at Notre Dame. The legislation to approve a 10th assistant coach was expected to be voted on, passed and effective in April. A newly-added amendment may push the effective date to following the 2017 season. The amendment will be voted on immediately before the legislation itself is.

The delay makes sense. Most coaching hirings and firings occur in December and January. In theory, creating a one-timing hiring frenzy following spring football could leave many programs in the lurch. In practice, however, this is not anticipated.

“The majority of the FBS guys that I’ve talked with currently believe that 10th coach is going to come from within their own organization,” Todd Berry told the Associated Press. Berry is the executive director of the American Football Coaches Association and former coach at Army and Louisiana-Monroe. “Quality control, graduate assistants, analysts, or they’re planning on hiring somebody that’s out of work.”

A majority is not a unanimity, though, and that carousel will innately work to the disadvantage of the Group of 5 schools.

As for Rees, a graduate assistant can still work extensively with players. The most-pertinent difference between a graduate assistant and an assistant coach is the former cannot recruit. Given Notre Dame’s recent success on the recruiting trail—and the early commitment of class of 2018 consensus four-star quarterback Phil Jurkovec (Pine-Richland H.S.; Gibsonia, Pa.)—Rees may not be an absolute necessity in that regard this cycle.

A Kizer Appraisal
Former NFL scout Greg Gabriel took a look at former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer this week, largely paying the draft prospect compliments.

In calling Kizer “the most talented quarterback in this draft class,” Gabriel set a high ceiling for Kizer’s spring. Part of Gabriel’s positive assessment comes from acknowledging Kizer’s responsibilities as the Irish signal-caller.

“The spread offense that Kizer played in at Notre Dame is more sophisticated than many of the spread offenses we see elsewhere at the collegiate level. The Notre Dame offense is a whole-field read scheme in which the quarterback has to go through a progression that encompasses both sides of the field. He also can change the play and/or protections at the line of scrimmage. Given all that, Kizer was asked to do more than many spread quarterbacks are asked to do.”

Gabriel also reflected on the dynamic differences for Kizer in 2015 and 2016 and what may have elicited some of his seeming stagnation.

“There was the unnecessary quarterback controversy at Notre Dame, and the offensive line wasn’t as experienced or as talented and the receivers were mostly first-year starters.”

As much as Gabriel raves about Kizer, he would be the first to tell you anything beyond individual player evaluation is a waste of air this early in the draft process. Mock drafts may be fun, but they are not much beyond that.

Take the fates of Tony Romo and Jimmy Garoppolo, for example. Few, if any, in the NFL expect them to dress for the Cowboys and Patriots, respectively, again. Where they end up could directly impact Kizer’s draft placement.

Jaylon Smith May Be Back to Form
Former Notre Dame and current Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith posted yet another encouraging video to Twitter. This one shows Smith really might be game-ready right now and, if not, almost certainly will be by the fall. Should there be any difficulty with the embedded video below, here is a link straight to it.

OL Mabry makes third commitment this week; WR Jones may follow Friday

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rivals.com
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Two weeks ago, Irish coach Brian Kelly gave a non-answer of an answer to a question about a likely early signing period this coming December. Avoiding specifics, he indicated he thinks the effects of such a change will be seen on a case-by-case basis entirely dependent on the recruits.

“Some will, some won’t,” Kelly said. “…Each kid is going to have to react to it based upon also how their school is going to be dealing with it. Some will come off the board at the time.

“We’re expecting some to sign early, but I think our mindset is we’re going into it business as usual. We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

After this week, Notre Dame is going to have more year-long fights than anticipated. Consensus three-star offensive lineman recruit Cole Mabry (Brentwood High School; Brentwood, Tenn.) became the third prospect to offer a verbal commitment to the Irish coaching staff in less than 36 hours with his Wednesday decision. Mabry received the offer over the weekend, but waited a few days before making his decision public, lest emotions be dictating his thought process.

At 6-foot-6 and 255 pounds, Mabry will have time to add muscle to his frame, with four or five offensive tackles greeting him on the Notre Dame roster in the summer of 2018. That ability to mold his style and growth may have played a part in the Irish interest.

“They love my height and athleticism and how I play,” Mabry told rivals.com. “We got to break down film and go through things that they do that pair up with how I play now. They think I’ll be a great fit in their offense.”

Mabry is the ninth Notre Dame commitment in the class of 2018, though the first offensive lineman.

Judging by new Notre Dame director of football performance Matt Balis’s agenda for the Irish roster’s Valentine’s Day morning, Mabry will have much to look forward to in terms of strength and conditioning.

Rivals.com four-star receiver Micah Jones (Warren Township H.S.; Gurnee, Ill.) is scheduled to announce his verbal commitment this Friday at 4 p.m. ET. Along with Notre Dame, Jones is considering Iowa, Michigan State, Nebraska, Ole Miss, Illinois and Northwestern. He would be the first receiver in Notre Dame’s 2018 class. Naturally, whomever Jones commits to, the recruiting fight will last until at least December, and perhaps all the way to February.