Crist

Expectations all hinge on the man behind center

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It’s getting difficult to ignore the trajectory this offseason is taking. Quite simply, Year Two of the Brian Kelly era has expectations. Great expectations. Eric Hansen expectations. Even Mark May expectations.

Because it’s July, it’s that time of year where we spend most of our time analyzing the past in hopes of predicting the future. As many do over holiday weekends, I spent my time watching from the sidelines and monitoring a few highly spirited debates about debut seasons of Notre Dame head coaches. It’s too soon to forget that Kelly’s debut season was worse than Charlie Weis’ 2005 campaign. But it was also less successful than Ty Willingham’s and only one victory better than Bob Davie’s. (Looking back at that 1997 season, it’s almost a microcosm of the Davie era, and should be Exhibit A on why it’s so hard to be a first-time head coach at Notre Dame.)

Still, for those looking back at eras of recent Irish past, it’s pretty easy to sense the separation between Kelly’s first season and those that came before him. In Eric Hansen’s recent article about the evolution of Brian Kelly (a must read), Lou Holtz pointed to the development of his 1986 team, a parallel that’s been drawn by many as they watched the 2010 Irish develop.

“There were so many things about his first year that reminded me of my first year at Notre Dame,” Holtz said of his 5-6 Irish in 1986. “By the end of the season, we could play with anybody in the country. So could Brian’s team.

“I just think that the program has never looked more hopeful than it does at the present time.”

Holtz’s 1986 squad finished with an uninspired 5-6 record, but lost five of those six games by a total of 14 points. Helping the narrative even more, that season planted the seeds to an eight-win 1987 season, and the undefeated national championship campaign in 1988.

Charlie Weis didn’t leave behind the team that Gerry Faust did. It also bears mentioning that Year Two of the Charlie Weis era had the Irish on the cover of major publications as a legit national title contender, and a ten-year contract that wasn’t universally hailed as being stupid yet.

Weis’ failures at Notre Dame can be pointed, quite fairly, to the defensive side of the football. To his detriment, he failed to develop a defensive identity similar to the one that made his offensive football teams impressive. Rick Minter, Corwin Brown, Jon Tenuta — Weis too often thought philosophy and identity could be easily interchanged, and the result was a defensive football team that was mediocre both developmentally and physically, a damning blend for a team that had championship aspirations.

Still, for those that happily kick dirt on the grave of Weis, I’d direct you here for the first and foremost reason Weis failed to put together a defense. Maurice Crum. Terrail Lambert. That’s it. That’s all that Notre Dame got defensively out of the 2004 recruiting class. Add in Darius Walker, and a great Blue-Gold game from Junior Jabbie and that’s really all the Irish got from Ty Willingham’s final recruiting class, putting a sizable hole in a program that left Weis little room for growing pains and a razor-thin margin for error.

But that’s ancient history for an Irish football program at an inflection point. Put together a season like many suspect is in the future and the Irish could make a true leap back into national contention, and potentially stake its claim as the preeminent northern prestige football program, with Ohio State in disarray and Michigan a year behind in its reclamation efforts.

So where could it all go wrong? Keeping the focus off a schedule that opens with four very losable games, the Irish need to find stability at quarterback — a position where Brian Kelly brings four guys into fall camp with a chance to win jobs.

Sure, Kelly met with Urban Meyer to discuss his implementation of the two-quarterback system that featured senior Chris Leak and freshman battering ram Tim Tebow, a combination that powered the Gators to a national championship. But remember, Charlie Weis met with Rich Rodriguez and his West Virginia staff to discuss the spread offense in life after Brady Quinn, a system that Weis employed for half-a-Saturday with quarterback Demetrius Jones before imploding his 2007 blueprint.

There’s twenty years of evidence that Brian Kelly understands his offensive system, and I’ll be the first to admit that I absolutely agree with the strategy Kelly is implementing. More importantly, Kelly has a defense that should be improved from last year’s unit — a group that finished the season embodying its maxim B.I.A (Best In America), not aspiring to it.

We’ll spend the rest of the week looking at the position groupings that’ll have to power the Irish through a tough four-game opening stretch. But if there’s one place where the fate of the 2011 season lies, it’s on the shoulders of the quarterback behind center for the Irish.

The fact that the Irish could be running four different guys out there shouldn’t just be a headache for opposing defensive coordinators as they prepare for the best Notre Dame team in the last five years. It should also be a hair-puller for Irish fans, who’ll likely have to wait until early September to see if Kelly’s plan will work.

Restocking the roster: Wide Receivers

Notre Dame v Florida State
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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.

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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.