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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.

WR Lenzy makes 11th commitment, brings speed to Irish

lenzy
rivals.com
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At what point does an impressive recruiting roll become something more? When does it become a harbinger of things to come, even if not for a few seasons? How many notable commitments in a row establishes a class as special?

If the answer to any of the above is 11 commitments by the end of February, including five within two weeks, then Notre Dame is there following consensus four-star athlete Braden Lenzy’s announcement Thursday evening.

The Tigard High School (Portland, Ore) receiver/cornerback chose the Irish over offers from USC, Oregon and Michigan State, among a litany of others. In all, nine Pac-12 schools chased Lenzy—and a 10th, Washington, had shown interest—per rivals.com.

Lenzy will fit the leading 2018 need voiced by Irish coach Brian Kelly three weeks ago on National Signing Day 2017.

“Elite speed on offense will be a primary goal for us,” Kelly said Feb. 1. “Guys that can change the game on one possession. I think we’ll see that… We want a couple of home run hitters. We don’t care if they’re Darren Sproles’s size. We’re going to come off the board in terms of profile. We want some guys that can change the game on offense with elite speed.”

At 6-foot, 175 pounds, Lenzy is taller than Sproles’s 5-foot-6, but it is still his speed that drew Notre Dame’s interest.

“They made it clear they want me to do kickoff return and use me as a deep threat across the field,” he told Irish Illustrated. “Just being kind of an athlete, similar to what I’ve been doing already in high school, just on a bigger scale with a quarterback that can throw it a lot farther.”

Presuming Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush is that arm in 2018, throwing great distances should not be an issue. Between Lenzy and fellow 2018 commit Micah Jones, covering those distances should be a reasonable request, as well.

Lenzy brings Notre Dame’s class of 2018 to 11, including eight four-stars according to Rivals’ rating system. Current scholarship projections indicate the class will not be a large one, meaning the Irish coaching staff has already garnered the commitments of more than half the class. Once again, though, Kelly’s sentiment regarding recruiting timing should be remembered.

“We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

SWARBRICK’S TAKE ON RECRUITING
Kelly credited Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick with much assistance in securing the country’s No. 13 recruiting class in 2017. A refresher on those comments:

“In a lot of instances, [Swarbrick] had to be there to support our football program and talk to recruits about where this program is and where it’s going,” Kelly said. “There are questions when a family comes on campus. He reminded them about the investment we were making in staff and what we were doing for the present and for the future.”

Swarbrick did not dispute the factual nature of any of that in an interview with the Indianapolis Star, but he did contest the need for praising what he saw as part of his job, one of the preferred parts of his job, at that.

“I can’t say anything about this year felt all that different,” Swarbrick told Star reporter Laken Litman. “Some asked questions about the future of the program and can we compete for a national championship. And I would talk about the elements of the program we were focused on improving.”

Swarbrick and Litman discussed a number of items in the second-half of the interview released by the Star, including Notre Dame’s facilities, a possible early signing period in football and if the Oct. 8, 2016, game against North Carolina State should have been played. Spoiler: No. Then why was it? Go check it out.

Swarbrick also told Litman he likes to write in his free time.

“I tend to think strategically with a pen in my hand.” Swarbrick added he is currently scribbling away on where he thinks college athletics are headed.

This scribe, for one, would be most interested in skimming those legal pads.

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

jones
rivals.com
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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.