Expectations all hinge on the man behind center


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.

Love’s press coverage hinges on Notre Dame’s safeties

Associated Press

It will likely be a dichotomy all year. At least, that is the expectation. Every praise of Notre Dame’s secondary will be followed by a clarification that the applause applies specifically to the Irish cornerbacks. At times that will be an implied criticism of Notre Dame’s safeties, but even more often it will probably be an acknowledgement of an Irish strength. Of the choices ahead for defensive coordinator Clark Lea, settling on a rotation among cornerbacks is the only one created by a plethora of proven contributors.

With a trio of rising juniors in Julian Love, Troy Pride and Donte Vaughn along with rising senior Shaun Crawford and fifth-year Nick Watkins, Lea has five viable options for two starting roles. That excess will allow Notre Dame to rely on its nickel package at length this fall, and never hesitate about slipping a fourth cornerback onto the field in dime situations.

For now, the springtime emphasis is as much on improving the group as it is about settling on a pecking order.

“We’re really working on the competition end of things,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday. “Add [early-enrolled freshman] Houston Griffith to that mix and we have what we feel is really good depth and competition. We want to take our game to a new level, and that new level is we have to be much more efficient on driving on some of the more intermediate and short routes and getting off the field on third down.”

In the past, the Irish focused on keeping everything in front of the secondary, often at the expense of giving up short-to-medium gains while limiting big-play mistakes.

“We’re probably a little bit over the top in terms of staying on our (backpedal) on some quick game things that didn’t allow us to close,” Kelly said. “The emphasis for our corners is to tighten up on some of the quick game.”

An optimistic reading between the lines could see that change in approach as evidence of a step forward from Notre Dame’s safeties. The risk of limiting the quick passing game is it would allow a receiver to get past the coverage with a simple double-move. If a safety can be relied on to provide over-the-top relief, that concern is mitigated.

Such a role may befit rising junior Alohi Gilman well. Gilman is best-known for his 76 tackles as a freshman at Navy, compared to five pass breakups and no interceptions. A dozen of those tackles came against the Irish, furthering his reputation as a physical force ready to provide run support. Kelly has seen a different side of Gilman this spring.

“He’s on the ball and somebody that can play the ball in the air,” Kelly said. “I don’t know if we had an interception from a safety last year. [Gilman is] a guy that will get his hands on the ball.”

Note: Notre Dame’s safeties recorded zero interceptions and a combined total of five pass breakups in 2017.

Julian Love came five yards away from returning a third interception for a touchdown in 2017 when he could not quite elude Wake Forest quarterback John Wolford. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Whoever ends up as the starting safeties, they will rely on the standard set by the cornerbacks to make their lives easier. In particular, third-year starter Love will have more opportunities with a shift toward a pressing defense. He has already shown a knack for jumping routes with great results, after all. Three times in 2017 Love correctly read quick routes and stepped in for an interception, returning two interceptions for touchdowns and coming yards away from a third.

“We’re going to be doing some things that are going to accentuate his ability to play press coverage,” Kelly said. “We want to play some press. It’s something we haven’t done much here, but it’s something he brings to our football team, and when you can press some guys and have the physicality that he has, it elevates his game.”

Imagining Love playing better than he did in 2017 — a season that saw him earn second-team All-American honors from SI.com — will strike fear into opposing quarterbacks, but if the Irish safeties are not up for the task of providing back-end support, a pressing defense could also gift those passers big-play opportunities.

Kelly on Notre Dame’s break in spring practices & linebacker options

Associated Press

Notre Dame restarted spring practice Tuesday, not much worse for the wear from spring break, per Irish head coach Brian Kelly and the conditioning tests tied to the return to campus.

“I’m sure they got a chance to be college students on break, but they also understood how important it was to come back in good physical condition,” Kelly said.

Much like it has frequently in the past, Notre Dame intentionally scheduled a few practices before taking more than a week off for the mid-semester break. In doing so, the Irish do not gain additional practice time, but they do stretch the time spent engaged in football activities during the spring, nonetheless. The NCAA allows only 15 spring practices, all to be held within 28 days, but when school is not in session, that clock pauses.

Thus, Kelly and his coaching staff spent the two practices preceding break focusing on scheme implementation. Worst-case scenario, Notre Dame gets its 15 practices with a slight bit less fatigue. Best-case scenario, the conversations before break mill around in players’ heads a bit for an additional week. It also helps allay some of the mid-semester academic burdens.

Whether as a result of that strategy or simply due to spending a second season within the same scheme, Kelly saw a more consistent performance from the Irish defense in Tuesday’s practice, the spring’s third and first in pads.

“You don’t see a lot of the miscues that maybe we had at other times, relative to the number of guys that have experience,” he said. “I don’t think you see it in a transformational sense as much as you see it in small areas that look to be really clean.”

That defense may go as far as its linebackers carry it this fall. The defensive line looks to be a strength both in terms of talent and depth. An array of skilled cornerbacks will hold up a secondary likely still plagued by average safety play. The linebackers, however, are not as clear an image yet. Fifth-year rover-turned-linebacker Drue Tranquill and rising senior Te’von Coney will lead the way, leaving a question mark at rover.

Kelly spoke well of rising senior Asmar Bilal at the position, but only against more physical opponents. Against a spread offense, a different option may be needed at the safety/linebacker hybrid position.

“We have some other options there,” Kelly said. “I don’t think it needs to come to, ‘Alright, this has to happen in the spring.’

“I think the nickel position will help us decide the rover positon. We know what we have in Asmar against the tight end there, and then we just keep working some young guys.”

One particular “young guy” in the mix is rising sophomore Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah, who has shown all the physical gifts necessary, but has yet to experience collegiate competition.

“It is strictly about his ability not to [make mistakes], and that’s just going to take time,” Kelly said. “He has traits, there’s no question about that from a physical standpoint. He has to get the traits from the other side of it, understanding the game and what we’re doing.”

In addition to rover, Notre Dame needs to find a backup linebacker to give Tranquill and Coney some rest when needed. At least at rover, situational packages can offer a breather to anyone who takes the majority of reps there.

While rising junior Jonathan Jones is the front-runner for that responsibility, three early-enrolled freshmen are in the mix, as well, although only to various degrees. Kelly indicated Bo Bauer may be the most game-ready of him, Jack Lamb and Ovie Oghoufo.

“[Bauer’s] physicality is really good,” Kelly said. “He’s capable of probably playing right away. Smart and physical.

“Of the three guys, he’s a little bit ahead of them, but each one of them has some interesting and unique traits that are going to allow them to be very successful for us.”

Kelly praised Oghoufo’s athleticism and football intellect, while hoping he will see gains in strength and conditioning this offseason. Lamb, meanwhile, is possibly athletically ready to see action, but may not yet be prepared for the wear-and-tear of playing as an interior linebacker.

The greatest play of Miles Boykin’s career to date may have come on a pass from Ian Book, but his chemistry with quarterback Brandon Wimbush has drawn attention already this spring. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

On Brandon Wimbush and Miles Boykin
Recapping every step forward or backward of every position this spring would become a repetitive and aimless exercise. One day rising sophomore receiver Michael Young will look like a rapidly-developing weapon, and a week later rising junior Javon McKinley may have replaced him as the flavor of the day.

But the competition at quarterback will be the topic paid most attention to, so when a pertinent bit is offered, it should be included. With that in mind, the only mention of either rising senior Brandon Wimbush or rising junior Ian Book on Tuesday was Kelly’s highlighting of the chemistry between Wimbush and classmate Miles Boykin.

“Wimbush and Miles have a great relationship out there,” Kelly said. “You can see that they’re going to connect on some big plays for us.”

Furthering the conversation on Boykin: “He’s playing with a lot of confidence, now with [former Irish receiver Equanimeous St. Brown] moving on, [Boykin] has that opportunity to really shine and he’s had three really good practices. I think that’s a guy now that ascends.”

Monday’s Leftovers: A worst-case scenario for Notre Dame’s spring, with links to read

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Notre Dame will return from spring break today and get back to practice tomorrow, presumably breaking out pads for the first time this spring. Obviously, Irish nightmares of spring practice focus on injuries. Aside from those, though, …

Continuing quarterback confusion throughout the spring would not please anybody, especially if the issue becomes even cloudier than it already is. Of course, there is a not-so-bad version of this: Both rising senior Brandon Wimbush and rising junior Ian Book perform well, making Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long’s decision heading into the fall a difficult one because he actually has multiple worthwhile options.

Then, there is the worst-case scenario: Both Wimbush and Book flail away this spring, culminating with them turning over the ball multiple times apiece in the Blue-Gold Game on April 21. Such disappointments could lead to incoming freshman Phil Jurkovec arriving this summer an immediate and genuine piece of the starting quarterback competition. That would speak worse of Wimbush’s and Book’s next month than it would inherently speak well of Jurkovec’s 2018 potential.

If rising junior Ian Book does not perform ably this spring, Notre Dame would be one step closer to a summer spent discussing a lack of options at quarterback. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

No receivers emerge, either.
After the Irish receivers appeared to be a strength last spring, the season brought only inconsistency and little production. If that trend continues this spring, it may not matter who is throwing the ball in the fall.

This might not keep Long or Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly up at night, though, with three more incoming freshmen arriving this summer to shore up the receiving corps, a bandage not available to fix if …

No fourth linebacker provides peace of mind.
With both early-enrolled freshmen Jack Lamb and Bo Bauer already practicing, an absence of a strong backup linebacker would have no likely solution this fall. If those two were not around, and both rising junior Jonathan Jones and rising senior Asmar Bilal — not to mention rising sophomores David White and Drew Adams — failed to impress this spring, then the hope could be Lamb or Bauer would arrive in the summer and be an immediate fix.

With them on-campus, a lack of a worthwhile linebacker exiting this spring would foreshadow a lack of rest and injury relief for fifth-year Drue Tranquill and rising senior Te’von Coney.

Lastly, and with the broadest view, 89 stays 89.
When the spring ends, the conversation will return to how the Irish roster will get down to the NCAA maximum-allowed 85 scholarships, four fewer than currently anticipated this fall. This would be extremely unlikely, although within a discussion of a worst-case scenario, but if summer begins and no outgoing transfers surface, then that scholarship crunch could quickly create unnecessary drama and suspense.

Right now, four spots of attrition is entirely reasonable and even usual. If that is still the number to be lost in late May, those adjectives may shift to avoidable and stressful.

— Last week’s “Leftovers” asked who should be Notre Dame’s fourth captain, a position to be filled by player vote at the end of spring practice.  The results tilted heavily toward the defense.

Coney: 37.27 percent
Rising junior cornerback Julian Love: 24.62 percent
Rising senior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery: 15.34 percent

From there, Wimbush, fifth-year right guard Alex Bars and fifth-year tight end Nic Weishar all fell between 5 and 9 percent.

— With spring break over, a quick piece of scheduling housekeeping: Notre Dame will fit in 12 more practices before the spring sessions conclude with the Blue-Gold Game. That will entail practices on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, with a brief break for Easter.

— The biggest free agent of the NFL offseason signed with the Minnesota Vikings over the weekend. Kirk Cousins may elicit poor memories for Irish fans, being the former Michigan State quarterback who authored much of the Spartans’ 34-31 victory in 2010, a game more commonly referred to simply as “Little Giants.”

After just reaching his second Pro Bowl, former Notre Dame tight end Kyle Rudolph should be primed for an even better 2018 thanks to the Vikings’ signing of quarterback Kirk Cousins. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

But Cousins’ payday should bode well for someone else from that game. Tight end Kyle Rudolph reached the Pro Bowl this past season thanks to 57 catches for 532 yards and eight touchdowns. With Cousins throwing passes, Washington’s tight ends have put up stat lines dwarfing that the last few seasons. In looking at those stats, the last two years need to include two tight ends, since Jordan Reed has yet to stay healthy through an entire season.

2017: Reed and Vernon Davis combined for 70 catches for 859 yards and five touchdowns.
2016: Reed and Davis combined for 130 catches for 1,219 yards and eight touchdowns.
2015: Reed’s breakout campaign consisted of 87 catches for 952 yards and 11 touchdowns in only 14 games.

Rudolph could, even should, enjoy a career year catching passes from his former nemesis next season.

— Only one program can claim both a Sweet Sixteen entrant in the men’s basketball tournament and a top-25 football team. Who is it? (Answer at the bottom.)

Who should Notre Dame’s fourth captain be? And DeShone Kizer heads to the Green Bay Packers
Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s spring questions focus on four non-QB positions
A best-case scenario for Notre Dame’s spring

Bengals re-sign Tyler Eifert
Bob Diaco reportedly heads to Oklahoma as a defensive analyst
Michigan unlikely to have answer on Shea Patterson before practice begins

ANSWER TO THE ABOVE TRIVIA: Clemson, though even if the Tigers had lost Sunday, one program would still have been able to make that claim, considering Clemson beat another Tiger in Auburn.

A best-case scenario for Notre Dame’s spring

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At the end of nearly every fall, one can look back at the praises of spring and see misguided conclusions. Such is the nature of competing against oneself for months at a time. Last year, the greatest misread from Notre Dame’s spring actually may have been the underrating of the Irish defensive line. Its struggles to mount a pass rush spoke more to the offensive line’s dominance than it did the defensive front’s ineptness, but the latter became the view du jour.

Thus, every conclusion drawn this spring should be measured with a great deal of trepidation and a few qualifiers. Nonetheless, certain possibilities this spring would offer the most promise to Notre Dame’s 2018.

Starting with, of course, avoiding any and all injuries in the coming month of practices.

If rising senior Brandon Wimbush were to show perfect accuracy this spring, there would be the slightest chance of avoiding a quarterback controversy this summer. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Beyond that, the greatest development would be settling upon a starting quarterback without any remaining doubt. Such a decision is hard to fathom without one of the two main competitors — rising senior Brandon Wimbush and rising junior Ian Book — failing as much as the other succeeding, and that may seem contrary to the search for an ideal 15 practices. However, if that is what it takes to have no quarterback question moving forward, it would be a net positive.

This would require one of Wimbush or Book to show an “adeptness,” to borrow a word from Irish coach Brian Kelly, in both passing and running.

“What I want to know is that our quarterbacks are equally adept at running it and throwing it, and that wasn’t the case [last] year,” Kelly said before spring practices began.

Proving that beyond the shadow of a doubt would hinge on a nearly flawless month to come, which would also be the longest stretch of stellar play seen from either Wimbush or Book. It remains unlikely, but it would be the first step toward an ideal scenario.

A young emergence along the offensive line
Splitting right tackle duties last year worked in large part because the rest of the offensive front was proven and experienced. With rising sophomore Robert Hainsey likely at a new position and rising junior Tommy Kraemer taking on more duties (if not also at a new position), finding a single fifth starter would allow this new-look line a full summer to develop the chemistry last year’s already had.

That could come in the form of rising sophomore Josh Lugg or rising junior Liam Eichenberg or from another of the handful of candidates. Whomever it is, identifying him before the summer would bode well for whoever is taking the snaps.

Te’von Coney has never suffered from a lack of physical gifts at linebacker. This spring, his mental understanding of the playbook will be the greatest possible defensive development to watch for. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Coney’s command of the defense
Rising senior Te’von Coney will step into the role formerly filled by the likes of Te’o, Schmidt and Morgan. Not only will he be counted on to make the most defensive plays and break 100 tackles again, but his command and understanding of the defense will dictate how a number of other players perform, as well.

Granted, Coney will have fifth-year linebacker Drue Tranquill in the middle with him, and Tranquill showed a solid grasp last year, often directing traffic from the rover position, but Coney will be in the middle and efficient pre-snap adjustments this fall will be best coming from there.

Competent safety play emerges
The odds are slim Notre Dame will find two excellent safeties this offseason. Given there was not even good safety play last year, finding two stellar starters would require both rising junior Alohi Gilman to be better than advertised and some distinct development from an unexpected source.

More realistically, Gilman may be good, certainly better than options seen last year, and one of those options also takes a few strides forward this spring.

Having some viable possibilities at safety may sound like a low bar to clear, but it would be a marked improvement over the last two seasons and may be the final piece to the 2018 Irish defense.

Anything else found this spring would be icing on the cake. Even if that includes early-enrolled freshman running back Jahmir Smith flashing unexpected speed, rising senior Asmar Bilal showing a complete handling of the rover duties and/or rising sophomore receiver Michael Young not dropping a single pass throughout all of March and April. The Notre Dame coaching staff would certainly welcome each of those daydreams, but such micro performances may be a mirage this time of year.

Bigger picture changes — such as at quarterback, offensive line and the up the middle of the defense — would present a strong foundation for 2018.