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Five things we’ll learn: Kicking off 2011

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As Brian Kelly stepped to the podium this afternoon, it had been 217 days since he led the Notre Dame football team in a contest that mattered. Last we saw Kelly’s Fighting Irish, they were embarrassing a former rival in the Sun Bowl, jumping all over a wayward Miami Hurricane squad that was adrift after firing their head coach Randy Shannon. Thanks to big days by Michael Floyd, Harrison Smith and Tommy Rees, the Irish took a 30-3 lead into the fourth quarter before coasting to a 33-17 victory.

“Clearly, we’re gaining a lot of confidence,” Kelly said after the victory in a snow-dusted El Paso, Texas. “We’ve beaten some good football teams late in the year as we’ve come together and found our identity. It’s going to taste a whole lot better in the offseason talking about a win.”

Irish fans learned quite a bit from Brian Kelly during that first season, an 8-5 effort beset by injuries to key players and major speed-bumps both on and off the field. While an undefeated November and resounding bowl victory had the Irish trending upwards, that first season was what many eight-win seasons are — a bottom line devoid of any resounding conclusions.

Yet the work Kelly did in those 217 days — convincing Michael Floyd to return for his senior season, bringing in a recruiting haul filled with defensive players not seen in recent memory, and his player-first approach to handling Floyd’s March DUI — all seem to have people feeling bullish about the Irish. For a coach many worried would struggle with the off-the-field challenges associated with being the face of college football’s most visible program, Kelly’s biggest challenge in his second year as coach of the Irish is to have his on-the-field work match up with his administrative success.

As Brian Kelly kicked off the Irish’s preseason camp with a media session, here are five things we’ll learn before the Irish’s September 3 date with South Florida.

1. Dayne Crist, Tommy Rees, Andrew Hendrix and Everett Golson will compete for the starting quarterback job.

When 15 spring practices weren’t enough time to decide who would start fall camp as the No. 1 quarterback, Kelly and offensive coordinator Charley Molnar decided to take the competition into fall camp. In Crist and Rees, the Irish staff know what they have. In Hendrix and Golson, they’re unsure of what that’ll be on the field, but they’re fairly certain it’ll be something a bit more versatile.

While last season, Kelly and company went into camp with Dayne Crist as the only option, entering 2011 there’s a comfort in not knowing how the process will shake out just yet.

“You can make the case for any one of them,” Kelly said. “In camp, we have to do a great job of giving them the appropriate reps necessary to make these kinds of decisions.

“We have to be able to maximize the 85 guys on our roster. If we find out there’s a quarterback that can add something to the game, we need to do that.”

Based on their experience last season, Crist and Rees will be the first quarterbacks given the opportunity to win the job. But Kelly was open about finding ways to use quarterbacks as a change of pace or offensive spark, something that clearly wasn’t an option in 2010. The Irish will use the first 19 practice sessions to evaluate the roster before spending two weeks preparing for South Florida. Expect the starter to be announced a week or two before the opener, as Kelly doesn’t feel the Irish need the tactical advantage of keeping the decision “stealth.”

2. Nobody at Notre Dame is sastisfied being in the preseason Top 25.

Any recognition Notre Dame is getting in the preseason polls (they were just ranked 18th in the preseason USA Today Coaches Poll) won’t be going to anybody’s head just yet.

“I don’t walk around with my Top 25 t-shirt on,” Kelly quipped. “I think I’ve said this pretty clearly and our players are in this for the same reason, I want to be in Bob Stoops’ position today, where he’s talking about being No. 1. That’s why we’re here. We want to get to the point where we’re part of the conversation as a chanpionship caliber football team. We’re not there yet. We’re thrown in the mix there, 18 to 25, pick a number out of the hat.”

Of course, some people are much more bullish on the Irish, with a few preseason publications having the Irish inside the top ten. Kelly was wise to brush off any serious questions about August rankings, as great expectations haven’t been a friend of the Irish in recent years.

3. Evaluating the Irish roster is as easy as 1, 2, 3.

When answering questions on a local sports talk radio show earlier this week, Brian Kelly revealed an interesting technique the Irish coaching staff uses to evaluate their own players. The staff evaluates every player on a three point system. If a player receives a three, he’s capable of playing championship football. If a player receives a two, he’s capable of playing winning football. If a player receives a one, he’s not ready to play.

“Last year, we had a hard time identifying threes,” Kelly said to a caller. “This year, we have a boatload of threes. You still have to put it together as a team, but we feel obviously a year into it, we have more players at that level of playing championship style football.”

Taking a quick run through both the offensive and defensive units, it’s pretty easy to see the development on the roster in one calendar year.

4. Brian Kelly wants Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray to carry the load at running back.

If there’s a spot where depth is more than a little spotty on the roster, it’s at running back. That said, Cierre Wood is coming off his first season in the lineup and he led the team in yards while averaging more than five yards a carry. But Wood can’t carry the load alone. Kelly may have referenced incoming freshman Cam McDaniel and George Atkinson in his press conference, but there’s no doubt he’s counting on senior Jonas Gray to step up and excel during his senior season.

“Jonas Gray is a very important piece,” Kelly said on air. “We expect him to play like Robert Hughes did for us last year, but faster. If he plays like that, we’re going to be in a very good position with those two running backs. We think that both of those guys can handle the chores we’re going to need at that position.”

5. If the Irish are going to meet their goals, it’s BCS or bust.

Sure the target for Irish fans is the BCS every season. But when the head coach acknowledges the same goal, it’s pretty clear that expectations are ramped up entering into year two of the Kelly era.

“I don’t know at Notre Dame that you can pick out a bowl,” Kelly said. ” We don’t have a lot of options for bowls, it’s BCS for us. If it’s a conference championship at Cincinatti or a MAC Championship at Central Michigan, it was a national championship at Grand Valley, here at the University of Notre Dame it’s a BCS bowl game. We can’t set the goal board any other way. What do you throw out there, Sun Bowl? Champs Bowl? We just don’t have any way other than set the bar at the BCS. I knew that coming in.”

With 29 practices before the Irish take the field against South Florida, both coaches and players will work toward that singular goal.

Quenton Nelson will return for his senior season

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 17: Quenton Nelson #56 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates after a 10-yard touchdown reception by Corey Robinson against the USC Trojans in the fourth quarter of the game at Notre Dame Stadium on October 17, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Brian Kelly’s talked about the rare 6-star recruit: Harrison Smith, Manti Te’o, Michael Floyd, Zack Martin. Well, add Quenton Nelson to the list. Notre Dame’s starting left guard has made it official that he’ll return for his senior season.

The New Jersey native adds another key building block to the Irish offensive line, returning with Mike McGlinchey to anchor Harry Hiestand’s unit. Like McGlinchey, Nelson had an option to be selected high in next year’s NFL Draft, staying in school even after receiving a second-round grade from the NFL’s Advisory Board, per Irish Illustrated.

Nelson took to social media to make the news public, with the NFL’s declaration deadline set for January 16.

“Excited for this team to grow every day this offseason by putting in nothing but hard work and grinding together. When we reach our full potential, look out. I’m right behind you Coach.”

Nelson was named a team captain for 2017 at the year-end Echoes Awards Show. He earned second-team All-American honors from Sports Illustrated and was rated by ESPN’s Mel Kiper as the No. 1 offensive guard in the 2017 draft class, a grade he’ll likely carry into next season.

Clark Lea formally named Linebackers Coach

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UND.com
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Notre Dame formally introduced new linebackers coach Clark Lea on Thursday. The press release for the 35-year-old  included the following quote from the new assistant who has worked at Bowling Green, UCLA and Wake Forest, and rejoins Mike Elko in South Bend.

“I’m humbled to be a part of the Notre Dame football program,” Lea said in a statement. “It’s an honor to represent such a prestigious academic institution, and to be a part of this program’s rich tradition of athletic excellence. I’d like to thank Jack Swarbrick and coach Kelly for this tremendous opportunity. I’m excited to get to work building relationships with our players, and do my part in helping coach Kelly execute his vision for the program.”

That work has already begun, with Lea on the prowl as the recruiting dead period ended and the rebuilt Irish staff hit the road. Yesterday, Lea was with defensive coordinator Mike Elko visiting commit David Adams, a key piece of the Irish puzzle on the defensive side of the ball. That starts a mad rush that’ll keep Lea’s belongs in boxes until after the first Wednesday in February, as Elko and his reshuffled defensive staff open their recruiting board, finding replacements for a handful of de-commitments and pieces that’ll fit Elko’s scheme.

If there’s any reason for optimism after a tough few weeks in recruiting, it’s the young staff that Kelly has assembled. The youth movement includes not just Lea, but the 39-year-old Elko. New offensive coordinator Chip Long is just 33, moving to Notre Dame after one season at Memphis. Running backs coach Autry Denson just turned 40 while special teams coordinator Brian Polian is practically long in the tooth at 42. (All that comes before the expected announcement of 25-year-old Tommy Rees.)

Lea’s pedigree is rock solid, earning kudos in 2012 for his work as Linebackers coach at Bowling Green, Football Scoop’s Linebackers Coach of the Year.

“Clark is a wonderful addition to our staff,” Kelly said in the release. “Obviously, he brings a substantial amount of knowledge about coach Elko’s defensive system — having worked with Mike at both Bowling Green and Wake Forest. Clark has demonstrated throughout his career an ability to not only identify unique talent in the recruiting process, but also develop that talent into high-production linebackers. As a former student-athlete, he will relate exceptionally well with our kids and provide tremendous mentorship throughout their careers at Notre Dame.”

 

 

 

Reports: Lea, Alexander added to Irish coaching staff

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ASU Sports Information
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Brian Kelly is adding to his rebuilt coaching staff, reportedly finalizing deals with Wake Forest linebackers coach Clark Lea and Arizona State assistant DelVaughn Alexander. Lea will reunite with Mike Elko and coach linebackers and Alexander will coach wide receivers. While both hires are still going through formal university vetting, the Lea hire has long been rumored before being reported by SI’s Pete Thamel. FootballScoop.com broke the news on Alexander, before multiple outlets confirmed the report.

In Lea, Elko brings a piece of his coaching staff with him to South Bend. The 35-year-old spent last season working in Winston-Salem and spent three seasons at Syracuse before that. He worked with Elko and Demon Deacons head coach Dave Clawson at Bowling Green and has spent time as an assistant at UCLA as well. He earned three letters at Vanderbilt, a 2004 graduate.

Alexander is a veteran presence to help replace Mike Denbrock and fill his void coaching receivers. He’s also a coach with first-hand knowledge of new coordinator Chip Long, having worked alongside him in Tempe under Mike Norvell. The move also comes in time for the reopen of the recruiting season’s home stretch, bringing a capable West Coast recruiter to the staff at a time when Notre Dame’s 2017 class is leaking a bit of oil.

Alexander played wide receiver at USC, playing for Larry Smith and John Robinson, before breaking into the coaching ranks there as a graduate assistant. He’s also had stops at UNLV, coached for Jim Harbaugh at San Diego, and spent significant time at Wisconsin and Arizona State where he coached multiple positions, taking over tight ends after Long left for Memphis.

Chip Long in as Offensive Coordinator… and play-caller

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Notre Dame’s formal press release introducing Chip Long as the new offensive coordinator did more than confirm news that we’ve known for a few weeks. It let us in on Brian Kelly’s initial plans for his offense heading into a pivotal offseason.

After some struggles in 2016 with DeShone Kizer and an inexperienced wide receiving corps, most expected Kelly to rip back control of the offense after Mike Denbrock called the plays and Mike Sanford coordinated the offense. But Kelly is going to let Long call the plays next season, adding some intrigue to a press release that usually is vanilla.

“Chip will be given the full responsibility to call plays in 2017,” Kelly said in the release. “His offense at Memphis displayed a unique blend of physicality, athleticism, versatility and explosiveness. Chip’s play-calling created mismatches all over the field and did it in a number of different ways. He likes to use players who can fill numerous roles in an array of formations, whether that be two and three tight ends or multiple running backs.

“Chip has experience coaching at almost every position on the offensive side of the ball. He’s worked for and learned from some of the most respected offensive minds in college football — Bobby Petrino, Mike Norvell and Jeff Brohm — to name a few.”

That Kelly is handing over play-calling to Long, who called plays last year for Mike Norvell at Memphis, is a surprise on the surface. But if you listen to Kelly over the past few seasons, he’s always downplayed that responsibility. Most thought he was simply playing coy, though Kelly seems to value game plan and installation as something at least as important as calling the plays.

But after splitting the baby between Denbrock and Sanford these past two seasons (the three-man collaboration worked much better in 2015 than 2016–possibly explained by the personnel) perhaps Kelly sees a singular voice as a key to improving an Irish offense that’ll have to replace Kizer, but should welcome back the majority of offensive playmakers, as well as Alizé Jones. Giving that assignment to Long will also let Kelly dig in as a head coach, working with first-year starter Brandon Wimbush and staying connected to new defensive coordinator Mike Elko and his installation.

Long’s work on campus will likely take flight as soon as the recruiting dead period is over. Known for his tenacity on the trail, Notre Dame is in desperate need of getting back into living rooms, trying to get back some momentum as a few defections have spoiled the 2017 class, and a handful of spots are available in this upcoming signing class.

Long will also likely work with tight ends, a position he played as a D-II All-American and that he coached at Memphis last season. Scott Booker coached tight ends since 2012.

“It’s an honor and privilege to have the opportunity to serve as the offensive coordinator at the University of Notre Dame,” Long said in the statement. “The challenge to lead at a University with such high standards is incredibly motivating. I’m very grateful to Brian Kelly and Jack Swarbrick for extending this opportunity.

“It’s Notre Dame: the values, the culture, and the leadership. My wife, Kari, and I are excited to move to South Bend and to join the Notre Dame family.”