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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.

Restocking the roster: Wide Receivers

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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)

 

2015-16 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.